The Phoenix Suns struck hard and fast in free agency, locking down 6 players in 90 minutes. This included bringing back Damion Lee and Josh Okogie. It also included bringing in SF Keita Bates-Diop, SF Yuta Watanabe, PF/C Chimezie Metu, and C Drew Eubanks. All of them signed for veteran minimum contracts, given that is all the Suns could offer being over the second apron.
Based on John Hollinger’s BORD$ metric, all of these players were worth more than the minimum, meaning that the Suns got the “super-team championship run” discount. This is particularly true for Okogie and Bates-Diop, who both likely could have signed elsewhere for more.
These players are all long (even Okogie, who has an insane 7-foot wingspan despite being only 6’4”), and three of them address the Suns’ need for guys who can play small forward. Rather than chasing older players hunting for a ring (e.g. Kevin Love) the Suns went for players who are 24-28 years old and entering their prime years.
Also, hat-tip to John Gambadoro for correctly anticipating the Suns moving in this direction.
Here’s a short run down of how each player fits in, and what grade I would give them in terms of value for their contract. This goes from “A+” (insane value for the money, like Steve Nash) to “F” (Jim McIlvaine territory). Also, read all the way to the end for my overall team grade.
First up: the returning guys.
Damion Lee Grade: B
Suns fans should already know what they’re getting here. He’s a 6’5” 205 lb shooting guard with a sweet stroke, a knack for hitting 4th quarter threes, and not much else. He’s a mediocre ball handler, makes bad decisions when driving to the basket, doesn’t really rebound and his defense is… well it’s better than Terrence Ross’. This is part of why he’s back, and also the nicest possible thing that can be said about it.
On the plus side, he’s well known as one of the best locker-room guys in the league, and he’s one of the best three-point shooters in the league. He probably could have taken more money elsewhere. According to the shot chart, he’s average to amazing everywhere above the arc, including an unbelievable 60.4% from the left corner on 32-of-53 shooting. Given how many open looks he’ll see while playing with any two of the big three, he can contribute as a 4th guard as long as he sticks to his role as a spot up shooter.
On the downside, it’s questionable how much time he can see in the playoffs, given he’s likely to be treated as the “pigeon” by opposing offenses.
Josh Okogie Grade: B
Josh Okogie’s return is something of a surprise. He’s likely worth near the full mid-level exception on the open market, but chose to return to the Suns for the vet minimum. Some of this may be loyalty to the club after they gave him a real shot after picking him up on a minimum contract as an unrestricted free agent from Minnesota.
Okogie is something of Damion Lee’s bizarro-world twin: he’s one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA and one of the best rebounders and shot blockers for his position. He generates a ton of steals and deflections and can do all of this at three positions. However, he can’t shoot. He’s a terrible finisher around the rim despite frequently generating free throws on his drives. His horrific 14.3% shooting from three-point range in the playoffs meant that opposing teams could double off him all the time and led to his benching. If he was even an average 3-point shooter (35.3%), he likely would have commanded more than the full MLE in free agency. Perhaps there’s hope for improvement, given he shot 41% from three during January and February.
Okogie is only 24 and could still bring his shooting up from last year’s 33.5%. His value during a championship run depends on this. If he somehow manages to bring his 3-point percentage into the upper 30s, this becomes an A+.
Now for the new guys.
Drew Eubanks Grade: B
The Suns signed the 6’10” 245 lb PF/C Eubanks to a vet minimum contract shortly after revoking the qualifying offer to Jock Landale. Eubanks could best be described as “solid”. Solid but unspectacular rebounder, defender, and post game. He grades out as a high basketball-IQ guy who knows how to play defense despite average size and athleticism. Per Bball-Index:
These defensive grades scream “Vogel” guy. Offensively, he rarely shoots outside the restricted area (where he’s very efficient), but hits a reasonable 3-point percentage on those rare occasions when left completely alone.
Per Hollinger, he grades out a little better than Landale, and is worth the minimum (but not nearly the MLE). Solid value for the Suns for a solid back-up center as an upgrade over both Landale and Biyombo.
Chimezie Metu Grade: C+
This was a bit of a head scratcher. He wasn’t really on my radar, or any of the other writers or insiders. Metu is another PF/C, except he’s more in the rangy athlete mold instead of a banger. Metu’s per-40-minutes stats look remarkably similar to Eubanks, though they have little similarity as players. Metu is a high-flying athlete whose offensive game consists almost entirely of rim-running dunks, hooks, and alley-oops. You can safely leave him alone on the perimeter.
Despite a preference to drive off the three-point line, Metu generates relatively few free throw attempts. He also demonstrates “questionable” decision making when the lanes to the basket close up while in mid-drive. Defensively, he’s a high energy player who has improved his game every year for the past three years, to the point of becoming a “plus” defender. If you asked me to compare him with another former Suns player, I’d say Richaun Holmes, back when the Suns were an awful team.
In the final analysis, Metu seems to fit the new Suns meta of “young-ish, long, defensively versatile players.” Currently he slots as the Suns’ third center, behind Ayton and Eubanks. He’s worth a little more than vet minimum, and is a slightly-better than average third string center. But, he also doesn’t seem to fit what the team needs in a back-up power forward, and the Suns could have done better with some of the other free agents left on the board, hence the C+.
Keita Bates-Diop Grade: A
The Suns hit a home run here. They got a 3-and-D, starting caliber small forward for the veteran minimum on a super team. Bates-Diop shot a career high 39.5% from three last year, and an outstanding 48.1% from the right corner. It’s unknown if he can keep this up next season, but he’s going to get plenty of wide open looks this year alongside the Big 3. He also shot 50.8% from the floor overall on a very bad San Antonio team, suggesting that he’s both efficient, and can’t be goaded into taking a lot of bad shots (as opponents of the Suns are likely to try).
Defensively, he’s not Josh Okogie, but he’s still a plus defender according to both RAPTOR, Real Plus Minus, and Bball-Index. At 6’8” and 229 lbs, Diop has the size to play both forward positions, and fits with the new theme of rangy versatile players. This could allow some interesting line ups where he plays alongside Watanabe in the front court.
Bates-Diop is exactly what the Suns needed to fill the small forward position, and I expect him to be the Suns starter on opening day. The fact that they got a young player who probably should have commanded the full MLE on a vet min contract to be their starter on a super team makes this an easy A.
Some sports writers and insiders saw landing Diop as something of a “stretch goal” for the Suns, and they pulled it off. If he shoots 40% from three this year, it goes from an A to an A+.
Yuta Watanabe Grade: A
As much as we’d like to believe Yuta is the second coming of Cameron Johnson, he’s not. But he’s still a 3-point sniper of the highest order. He shot 48.5% from the right corner, and 53.8% from the left on similar volume last year, meaning that he’s flexible enough to complement whoever the other corner shooter is. He’s also comfortable around the basket, hitting an above-league-average 64% from around the restricted area. His size and drives to the basket off of close-outs from the three-point line are reminiscent of Cam Johnson as well. They both register similar per-40-minute rates in rebounds, assists, and turnovers. The big difference is in usage, where Johnson is a far more aggressive scorer.
Yuta is active on the defensive end, if not effective. In college he was on the Atlantic 10 all-defensive team twice, and defensive player of the year in 2018. In the NBA he’s improved over time, and now rates out as “slightly above average” according to RAPTOR. If nothing else, his defense can be described as willing and energetic, and it is likely Head Coach Frank Vogel can work with that.
Watanabe fits profile of long, versatile player as well. He can play a little power forward in the right situations, although he’s much more of a natural small forward. His role, like Keita Bates-Diop, is 3-and-D small forward. There’s no denying his shooting, and he’s been improving his game every year in the league (which is a very James Jones thing). This is an “A” signing for getting something like 90% of Cameron Johnson’s production at 1/10th the price. If Watanabe is aggressive in getting his threes up, hits them, and fits well in Vogel’s defensive schemes, this bumps up to an A+.
Overall Team Grade: A-
The Suns managed to fill most of the rest of their roster slots with rotation or starter level players in 90 minutes using nothing but veteran’s minimum contracts. The only reason why this isn’t an A is Chimezie Metu not really filling a need, and being worse than some of the other players still available at positions the Suns still need. So, the minus just means it could have gone a little better, but not by much.
There are lingering questions at back up PG, and PF that need to be answered, and Metu doesn’t help all that much with acquiring a 3-and-D power forward (he’s got the D but not the three). If Okogie discovers how to shoot the 3 at a reasonable rate, and Watanabe takes his defense up a notch or two, this becomes an easy A or A+ because it would mean that the team has a solid 8 or 9 man playoff rotation of guys who fit together, and don’t cripple you at either end of the court. If Keita Bates-Diop regresses to the mean with his three-point shooting and everyone else performs as expected, it’s still a B+.
But, with a little luck, and a little player development, the pieces are almost all here to make a deep run at a championship.
How would you grade the Suns’ performance navigating free agency?
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