By now, you are very aware of the Phoenix Suns relative disdain for young prospects as they try to build a championship team. The last time they used a draft pick on a rookie was Jalen Smith in 2020. That was three drafts ago!
Since that draft pick, the Suns have won more regular season games than any other team and appeared in six playoff series in that time as well, tied with the Milwaukee Bucks for the most playoff series and most playoff games played since the Bubble.
They’ve done it with a fairly young core… but not that young. And certainly not with draft picks mingled in. That Jalen Smith pick? He barely got any playing time.
In the past two years, the only regular rotation player under the age of 24 has been embattled center Deandre Ayton, and even he is now reportedly on the outs with the team due to his relative immaturity and inconsistent work ethic.
Since James Jones has taken over the draft process, only two picks in the last four drafts were used on young players with a lot of development necessary. Both of them, Jalen Smith and Ty Jerome, were buried on the depth chart and eventually traded.
“Jalen [Smith] wasn’t better than [Suns backup center] JaVale [McGee] on a competitive team trying to win a championship,” Jones said to ESPN recently. “You could say, ‘If we give him opportunities he can be productive,’ but what’s the trade-off?”
Again, Jones’ Suns have been highly successful, and historically you don’t win a lot of basketball games with young players up and down your lineup.
This veteran-leaning roster is quite the contrast to what Jones inherited from Ryan McDonough just three years ago. On that 2018-19 team, 22-year old Devin Booker was one of a whopping 11 players aged 23 or younger who took the court at some point. Six of those 11 are basically or literally out of the league now and that 2018-19 team was a disaster, the 9th in a 10-year playoff drought and fourth straight bottom-five finish.
Since then, Jones has gone out of his way to surround a shrinking young core with proven veterans. Since taking over as the full-time GM in May 2019, days after that gross 2018-19 year ended, the only players he has acquired before they had already turned 24 are Cameron Johnson (22), Jalen Smith (20) and Landry Shamet (23). Johnson was a five-year college player and Shamet was already a three-year NBA vet. Smith was the only truly raw young player Jones has acquired.
To Jones, youth = losing.
He’s definitely not going to rely on undeveloped youth for major minutes.
“I respect what OKC does,” Jones said in a recent ESPN article when asked if he has an appreciation for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s more deliberate strategy. “That’s what they’ve chosen to be, I guess. Everything’s a choice. I don’t judge. I respect it. It’s just not for me.”
Jones was lucky enough to inherit a three-headed young core (two of whom were picked with him as Assistant GM). OKC has only one legitimate player in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander amid a truckload of unproven youth, and they just added four more rookies last Thursday night.
Booker (22), Ayton (20) and Bridges (22) were already on the team before Jones got the permanent job. He replaced all the other kids (remember where I said Book was one of 11 players aged 23 or under on that squad?) with vets to stop the cycle of constant losing.
His first overhaul surrounded the core with Ricky Rubio (29), Aron Baynes (29), Kelly Oubre Jr. (23), Dario Saric (26), Frank Kaminsky (26) and Tyler Johnson (25).
His second overhaul swapped Rubio and Oubre out for Chris Paul (36) and Jae Crowder (31). That second overhaul vaulted the Suns to the NBA Finals, as the Suns became only the third team in league history to climb from bottom-two to top-two in the league standings within two years.
He chose the right players in his consolidation. The three youngsters he kept have become a three-time All-Star, a $20-million-per-year Defensive Player of the Year candidate and a potential $30 million per year defensive anchor. The other eight have topped out at ‘important rotation player’, but mostly bottomed out as busts.
“I’m trying to win now and win later,” Jones said to ESPN. “Players know every day in the league brings them one day closer to the end of their careers, and I can’t waste their days.”
Now the young core has hit the 25+ year old club, and without youth coming in behind them the Suns are quickly shifting from one of the league’s youngest teams to one of its oldest.
This past season, the Suns were the 8th oldest team in the league with an average age of 27.5 years old.
Coming into the new league year this Friday, which kicks off free agency and trade season, the Suns would be just over 28 years old if they bring back the whole gang.
Narrowing it down further, of the 16 players who finished this season on the roster (Dario Saric was a roster exception due to injury), only 9 are under contract for next season. That group’s average age will be just under 28.5 years old.
Guess where that would rank the Suns among last year’s teams, in terms of age? 5th oldest, behind only the Bucks, Nets, Jazz and Lakers.
A lot can change in the next few weeks as the Suns swap out the back end of their roster, and it’s possible some of the new additions will make the team a bit younger overall. But then again, if their top ‘perfect world’ targets are to let Ayton (age 24) go so they can bring back Kevin Durant (age 35) or LeBron James (age 37), I would not expect a younger Suns team on the floor next season.
Jones has a pattern, and it’s about surrounding his core with veterans to win a lot of games, both regular season and playoffs. It’s worked so far. His Suns are first in regular season wins and second in postseason wins over the last two years.
Expect more of the same this summer.
To make his point as clearly as possible to Kevin Pelton in that ESPN piece, Jones used the Devin Booker pick as an example of something he would not do as GM. He says he would not have taken an 18-year Booker with the 13th pick in 2015.
“It all depends on what your goal is,” Jones says. “Devin is great, but there are 50 skeletons tied to that swing for the star. It wasn’t until winning was imported — Chris, Jae Crowder, drafting a three-year guy who could help right away like Mikal — that it translated to success. And if you don’t import winning around him, there are even more skeletons. So if you want to find the guy with the highest potential to be the future star, then it makes sense to draft him — if you’re willing to navigate the land mines.”
Jones is staying away from the ‘prospect bust’ landmines at the same time he is also trying to avoid the ‘team bust’ landmines the Lakers, Jazz and Nets hit as well.