clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Luka Doncic ended the 2018 NBA Draft debate

The debate is over. The Phoenix Suns should’ve taken Luka Doncic with the first pick in the NBA Draft.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Back in 2018, there was a heated debate over who the Phoenix Suns should take with the first overall pick. The team was desperate for a point guard to pair with rising star Devin Booker, but the physical presence of a well-known University of Arizona center was enticing.

One camp sided with a foreign player in Luka Doncic who, although he was young, was a EuroLeague MVP. He was a point guard who possessed size and court vision. He even had a relationship with then head coach Igor Kokoškov.

The idea of having a primary ball handler to relieve Devin Booker of the stress and strain seemed attractive. To many, however, they didn’t know what to make of the European superstar. After all, how many people watch the EuroLeague? And while he had experience playing with professional players overseas, no one knew if a ball dominant player would be a good fit next Devin Booker.

In the other camp were people who supported the age-old advantage of height and physicality on the interior in the NBA. Deandre Ayton, who went to college down the road in Tucson, had also played high school locally in Phoenix.

While many people couldn’t say Doncic’s surname, everyone knew who Deandre was. Robert Sarver, owner of the Phoenix Suns, was a University of Arizona alum as well. From a marketability standpoint, especially for a team they had not sniffed the postseason in eight seasons, bringing Ayton to the Phoenix Suns was an opportunity to strengthen the interior as well as sell some tickets. Raise your hand if you are a season-ticket holder and a U of A alum.

The debate raged for an entire summer, with the Phoenix Suns ultimately choosing to go with Deandre Ayton. The pick made sense. A potential dominating interior presence to match with the scoring ability of Devin Booker. Shaq and Kobe 2.0?

As time has progressed many have recognized the talent that Luka Doncic is. He’s a two-time All-NBA player, a three-time All-Star, and was the 2019 Rookie of the Year. He’s a triple double machine. But up until his fourth season in the NBA, he had not had any postseason success.

Conversely, Deandre Ayton had. While he wasn’t a stat-staffing center, he was an ideal fit for what the Phoenix Suns and James Jones envisioned with their roster. They wanted a guard-centric team that, from a defensive standpoint, possessed switchability and length on the interior. Ayton met that criteria. He wasn’t Rudy Gobert. But he wasn’t Joel Embiid either.

And he wasn’t asked to be.

Is it fair to compare the two? Probably not. Yet due to the decision the Phoenix Suns were out in the situation to make, they will forever be. Especially in Phoenix.

Luka had a usage rate of 36.8% this season while Ayton was at 21.7%. One is the dominant player of their offense, the other is a tertiary option. Arguments can be made – and have – that the Suns have never truly unleashed Ayton. In the same breath, however, DA has never expressed a desire to be the guy who carries the offense.

Entering the 2022 season, Luka Doncic had received a maximum contract extension, but the Suns did not provide one to Ayton. This too has sparked a debate among the Suns faithful. Ayton has never played with the ferocity or the grit that many have wanted from him. He has never statistically dominated either, as stated above, due to his role within the confines of the Phoenix offense.

Ayton never put himself in a position in which a max contract would be a no-brainer. And throughout the regular seasons in his career, his play has been consistently inconsistent. The one thing working in his favor? A fantastic 2021 playoff run. That is where he displayed his value. Not on a Tuesday in OKC, but in the second round against Jokic and the Nuggets.

In the 2022 Western Conference Semifinals, the Dallas Mavericks and the Phoenix Suns had the first opportunity to play each other in the postseason with their 2018 draft picks squaring off against each other. This was a chance for the James Jones to be vindicated that he made the right pick. I know, I know...it’s was a Ryan McD pick. But Jones was the VP of basketball operations. He had a vote.

What we learned in the battle between Luka and Deandre on Sunday is that Luka is the type of competitor that you want on your team. And Deandre isn’t.

Some players rise to the occasion in big moments while others fizzle and fade into the mist. Game 7 proved that the Phoenix made the wrong selection back in ‘18. Yes, the entire team played like a shit. Chris Paul and Devin Booker going AWOL is the primary reason the Suns lost Game 7.

But Ayton? He should’ve dominated not just the game, but the series against the Mavericks. They have no one of the interior to match his size, length, and quickness. Dwight Powell? Maxi Kleber? DA had an opportunity to dominate the series. Instead, he made no effort to demand the ball. He hid on offense. He displayed the lackadaisical attitude that has created countless hours of content for the Suns JAM Session Podcast.

On the other side of the ball was Luka Doncic. He was sinking contested three-pointers, sparring with the crowd, and rising to the occasion. Everything the NBA ever wanted from Doncic they received on Sunday evening. He showed that he is a true competitor, someone who welcomes the moment, and has the ability to eviscerate the competition.

As we leave that series, Luka is being celebrated for his performance while Ayton is not doing interviews with the press following a verbal disagreement with head coach Monty Williams. We don’t even know if he’ll be in a Suns uniform next year. That alone tells you that Phoenix made the wrong selection in 2018.

We can finally put this debate to bed.