After reflecting on the 2016-17 season, Empire of the Suns’ Kevin Zimmerman and Kellan Olson look beyond the 2016-17 season for Phoenix and into the summer, where key decisions await regarding Eric Bledsoe, Alex Len and the 2017 NBA Draft.
Rank draft prospects Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson and Lonzo Ball for the Suns.
Kellan Olson: I severely question anyone who has Fultz not at No. 1 for any team. Outside of that, I’d still have Jackson at No. 2 for the fit with the Suns. By default of Bledsoe staying as the point guard of the foreseeable future, taking Jackson is the best pick for the Suns in terms of how good it makes their team. He also gives them a perimeter defensive option unlike anyone they’ve had in franchise history, further expanding the defensive ceiling of the team with Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss.
Kevin Zimmerman: Jared Dudley said he’d take Ball first overall, and I’ll take that thought seriously enough to say even the smallest red flag on Josh Jackson that pops up between now and the draft will have me putting the UCLA point guard ahead of him. Ball has a higher ceiling and lower floor with so many flaws alongside his more-than-elite skills, in my opinion, while Jackson has elite role player potential. But Fultz himself has terrific court vision and arguably is as good as Ball passing in halfcourt situations. Plus, he can create for himself and is a better athlete. I’ve got Fultz, Jackson and then Ball.
After one season, is Dragan Bender or Marquese Chriss the better prospect?
KO: Bender’s play did nothing to change my high opinion of him, while my qualms with Chriss as a prospect were softened by his play throughout the season. Chriss has a presence and toughness about him that’s undeniable and his weakside shot-blocking is a legitimate tool going forward. He’s picking up things fast, making his passing, defensive rotations and eventually, his scoring much better. With that, I still prefer Bender. He’s showed time after time why his defensive potential is so high and he has the more steady shooting stroke. It’s much closer than before, though, a credit to head coach Earl Watson and Chriss himself.
KZ: This is a lot closer than people think, but I still give Chriss an edge for his steps forward as a shot-blocker. He also flashed advancements in how he scores beyond the dunk. Bender still worries me that he doesn’t have enough of an identity on offense beyond his passing to make that much of an impact on that end of the floor. Bender is a great defender and ahead of Chriss mentally, but I still see Chriss’ floor as perhaps higher until Bender shows a little more.
Should the Suns trade Eric Bledsoe this offseason?
KZ: Bledsoe took so many steps forward as a clutch performer this year, but I still don’t see it as enough to convince me he’s not already reached his peak. Even then, his age doesn’t match up so well with the Suns’ young core — if you tell me why not, ask me how his knees are feeling in two years — and with two or more unique point guard prospects potentially on the draft board (plus two others close behind) I think it’s time to sell.
KO: Absolutely. I wrote about the reasons for and against the move, but at the end of the day, all Bledsoe did was strengthen his value this season, which was already at its peak. Picking in the top-2 makes this decision much easier. If the Suns take Fultz or Ball, their young core of that point guard, Devin Booker, Bender, Chriss, T.J. Warren, Tyler Ulis, Derrick Jones Jr. and whoever is at center becomes the deepest and certainly one of the best in the NBA. I know everyone is sick of hearing about how good this year’s draft class is, but next year’s at the top is looking even better, so being really bad for one more year might not be a terrible idea either. Booker’s off the charts swagger in the Oklahoma City game and the 70-point bomb in Boston show he’s ready to be the face of the franchise, even if he sort of already is in a way. It’s time to pull the trigger.
What’s the right move to make with Alex Len?
KZ: Let’s put it this way: If the Suns and Tyson Chandler decide to part ways, giving Len a longer look as a starter even on a Chandler-sized contract wouldn’t hurt financially. He’s still young, and general manager Ryan McDonough mentioned scaling back his role — his jumper isn’t a weapon, but Len still has potential if he can focus on rim protecting and seeking out double-doubles regularly. But if Chandler remains, it seems Len is still in position to get a solid, $12 million per year offer from another team. If it’s for beyond two or three years, Phoenix probably should pass.
KO: The Suns hold all the cards here because he’s a restricted free agent, but there’s a ton of factors that play into the decision. How many years Len’s deal is for is the big one. As Kevin mentioned, keeping Chandler and Len together long-term and spending nearly a quarter of your team salary on two centers is not wise. The re-signing of Alan Williams should also be heavily considered, as he’s almost definitely going to be cheaper and was the better player this season. Bailing on a top-five pick before he’s 24 is brutal, but it might have to be done.