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Suns rise up The Athletic’s list of teams with young talent

Even after paring down the sheer number of young players from the roster, the Suns are still highly ranked.

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Denver Nuggets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Even in a year the Phoenix Suns are focusing hard on the “now,” a year where they have sent both their rookies to the G-League because there’s simply no time to play them, the Suns organization still ranks highly in NBA prospect rankings.

Every mid-season, Sam Vecenie of The Athletic ranks the league’s best young talent. The players eligible here are first-round picks on rookie-scale contracts and second-rounders on their first deals. Sure the list is quite limited, and (generally, but not always) skews upside down like a tank rank. Bad teams get high picks, and high picks usually have the highest current and future upside. But since the NBA only operates with five players at a time, a single MVP-worthy player can rocket you up the standings too.

Here’s how Sam explains the rationale:

As usual with these rankings, we’re not ranking where each player is right now, but rather the value he has to the organization both short and long term. Players who have established themselves already certainly get extra credit for being playable in the NBA (or in some cases, being stars in the NBA). But just because a player hasn’t established himself yet doesn’t mean he won’t in the future. Particularly, these rankings account for potential long-term upside based on my scouting insights.

Who is eligible? Any player on a first-round rookie-scale deal, and any player on his first contract after being selected in the second round. Draft-and-stash players who are still prospects also are listed. The rules are fuzzier when it comes to undrafted players. Basically, anyone who is within his first couple of years after draft eligibility but has yet to establish himself in the league is included. To me, this seems to be the best way to account for all of the various stages of prospects across the NBA, from one-and-dones who realize their potential at the end of rookie deals to older players who reach the NBA after traveling overseas.

2019-2020’s ranking

A year ago, the Suns ranked ninth on Vecenie’s organizational ranking.

Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Dario Saric, Cameron Johnson, Ty Jerome and Jevon Carter were the most prominent prospects out of the 11 considered. Saric and Carter have “graduated” off the list because they are now on their second contracts, Jerome is long gone, as are the 7-11 ranked prospects from last year too (Lecque, Okobo, Harper, Owens and Kramer). Quick aside: the fact that Sam wrote 100-plus words on 11th ranked David Kramer shows his dedication to his scouting craft.

Among the 15 West teams, Vecenie ranked the Suns rookie-scale talent behind that of the Kings, Mavericks, Grizzlies and Pelicans last year. The Suns ranking at 9th overall (5th in West) was based on a combination of the potential of Deandre Ayton and the overall depth and breadth of prospects under consideration.

When it came to his rookie-scale player rankings, the only Phoenix Sun placed among Sam’s Top-50 was Deandre Ayton, at No. 14 overall as of November 2019. None of Bridges, Saric (who earned a $9-mil per year extension) or Cameron Johnson made the cut.

Sam’s ranking of Ayton was based solely on Ayton’s rookie campaign and 2019 preseason because of the suspension Ayton got once the season started. When Sam updated his analysis in June 2020, mid-pandemic, he was able to add comments on Ayton’s dramatic defensive improvements, and concluded that...

I would bet on Ayton becoming an All-NBA player at the center position, although the competition is absolutely loaded between Nikola Jokic, Embiid, Adebayo, Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and plenty of other guys . But is an All-NBA center as valuable as an All-Star level creator on the perimeter? I’m not sure that’s the case anymore, which is why Ayton is more of a top 15 guy than top 10 one.

One guy surprisingly missing from Sam’s top-50 list: Mikal Bridges. After the Bubble, Sam realized his mistake and openly apologized to Suns fans for underrating Bridges and promised to make up for it in 2020-21 rankings.

Now the 2021 Ranking

The sheer depth of prospects on the Suns roster is gone this year. Last year’s back-end youth has been replaced by this year’s wily veterans, a bold move by GM James Jones in the wake of the Chris Paul “win now” acquisition. And the Suns are doing just that, with a 20-11 record so far this season.

But that doesn’t mean all (or any of) the best Suns young prospects are gone. In fact, three of their most prominent rotation players qualify for Sam’s list in Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson. Also on the list are rookies Jalen Smith and Ty-Shon Alexander. And the “graduated” Saric and Carter are still here too, though they don’t count any more for Sam’s analysis.

Despite cutting their depth from 11 prospects under consideration last year to 5 this year, the Suns actually rose UP Sam’s ranking to 8th overall. The Suns 8th overall organizational ranking is behind only the Pelicans (6th), Grizzlies (4th) and Mavericks (1st) in the West.

Why? Because of the brilliance of Mikal Bridges and the solid promise of Cameron Johnson, as well as the continued production of Ayton.

It’s a short list but there are four guys I like. Three of those four are featured in the top 50. Ayton is at the top. He profiles as an All-Star center if his tools come together, and they’re starting to. He’s been a legitimate plus on defense during his third NBA season. Offensively, his effort is a bit more hit or miss. When he wants to be assertive, he can dominate inside due to his strength, footwork and touch around the basket. It’s just on him to put that all together. Bridges has been one of the great breakout stars of 2020-21, and I think people are going to be very surprised by where he is on the final top-50 list. Few wings currently on rookie contracts have the potential to affect winning as much as Bridges does on both ends of the floor. He’s a legitimate All-Defense team candidate who also shoots at a high level. Finally, Johnson is a bit of a surprise to me. I thought the Suns took him about 15 spots too high, but they clearly have been proven right so far by his production. He’s an elite catch-and-shoot wing who has made 38 percent of his NBA 3s so far and is a quick trigger weapon in terms of creating shots. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s capable on defense.

Deandre Ayton rose marginally from 14th a year ago to 12th this year. He comes in just ahead of guys like De’Andre Hunter, OG Anunoby and... drumroll please... Mikal Bridges.

Sam’s analysis on Ayton is spot-on throughout (behind the Athletic paywall), and his conclusion almost perfectly mirrors my own.

I don’t think Ayton has the upside of some shot-creating center like Joel Embiid or Jokic because he doesn’t have the handle to create shots. But he could get 20 points per night just rolling hard, occasionally popping out to the midrange and taking advantage of mismatches in the post even in the modern, perimeter-based NBA. And if he’s a 20-point-per-game center who also continues on his trajectory defensively, that’s a clear All-Star-caliber player. But Ayton has to show he wants it first. Play angrier, Deandre!

Sam only ranks 11 young players on their rookie contracts ahead of Ayton in terms of short and long term potential (Jaren Jackson Jr., De’Aaron Fox, Ja Morant, LaMelo Ball, Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo, Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic).

He then takes a mea culpa on Bridges while ranking The Warden 15th overall after leaving him off the top-50 last summer.

Just egregiously bad on my part not ranking Bridges last year. There’s zero excuse for it. He was a great perimeter defender who had ironed out the kinks in his shot by the mid-point of last season. And despite my understanding of how important the wing position is in today’s NBA from a lineup versatility perspective, I just didn’t put him on the list and ranked him No. 51. He rises higher than anyone else here largely because of my own stupidity. But he also spikes up the list because there are few young players who figure to impact winning basketball games at this high of a level. Already, Bridges is an enormous part of a really good Suns team led by Devin Booker and Chris Paul. And I couldn’t be more excited to see how his future turns out given the infrastructure already around him.

That’s some great praise for Bridges, who Sam says should someday very soon be an 18-point scorer who makes annual appearances on the NBA All-Defense teams.

The Suns do have a 3rd guy ranked in Sam’s Top-50 NBA Prospects list and that guy is someone Sam was VERY down on at draft time in 2020. This year he’s got Cameron Johnson ranked 44th on the list, just ahead of (oh no!) Marvin Bagley III and Cam Reddish, and a little behind guys like Jarrett Allen and Devonte’ Graham.

Johnson shoots his way onto the list as one of the premier young marksmen from distance in the NBA. Every shot Johnson takes looks like it’s going to go in. The mechanics are about as clean and crisp as you’ll see, especially if his feet are set. I know he might only be shooting 37 percent from 3, but that number is going to move up. The Suns use Johnson as a corner floor-spacer more than as a movement shooter who creates opportunities and volume, largely because they have Devin Booker and Chris Paul dominating the ball and constantly on the lookout for kickouts after the help collapses onto them and Deandre Ayton. Only five players have taken more corner 3s per game than Johnson this season, as he’s become a lethal entity in those scenarios.

Sam’s conclusion is a little more of the same argument we’ve always heard against Cam Johnson (he’s OLD!) and a worry that he will be targeted defensively in the playoffs. I expect a bit of playoff juice will alleviate Sam’s worries on that end.

The reasons Johnson comes in just a touch lower here than I thought he would initially are two-fold. First, he turns 25 in about a month, and I’m not sure we can expect to see a ton of on-ball growth here. He doesn’t need it to be an effective NBA starter — especially for this Suns team — but it does downgrade his value a touch. Second, I’m very interested to see what he looks like defensively in a playoff series. He’s very smart and rotationally sound in the run of general play. He’s about an average defender in the regular season because his instincts as a team defender are strong. But will he hold up on-ball when the best defenses in the league potentially try to hunt him because he and Booker would be the weak links of Suns’ lineups featuring standout defenders Paul, Ayton and Bridges? I think there is a real chance he does because his feet are solid, but he does at times get blown through due to his strength, which raises some questions for me. Still, this is a pretty monstrous rise for a player I had ranked outside the top 25 on my 2020 NBA Draft board. James Jones nailed this pick, and the Suns have to be thrilled with his development.

That’s it for now. The Suns jettisoned all but these three guys from their regular rotation, and swept out the unplayable youth from the back end of the roster except for rookies Jalen Smith and Ty-Shon Alexander, who are currently playing in the G-League bubble (er, Gubble?).

So far, Jalen Smith has played in six games for the Clippers, posting 8.3 points and 4.7 rebounds in 16.3 minutes per game. Ty-Shon Alexander has played in nine games for the Canton Charge, posting 9.6 points (38% 3P), 3.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 25 minutes per game.

What’s the conclusion here? Why do we care about prospect rankings when we want a championship now now now?

Chris Paul isn’t going to be around forever, folks. At least not the one playing at this level. But don’t panic. GM James Jones has proven two years in a row he can acquire a starting caliber point guard out of thin air in the offseason.

But he can’t bring in all the other pieces at the same time too. If we are going to rely on Jones to shore up the one major position annually, it’s nice to know the rest of the team is still on the rise and ready to succeed around them.

Devin Booker is a two-time All Star and still only 24. All of the big time rotation players around CP3 are age 26 or under. When guys like Ayton and Bridges get their big raises, it’s important that the front office knows how to supplement the team with high-performing lower salaries on rookie-scale contracts and vet minimums.

That’s the mark of a good organization.

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