PHOENIX — On day two of the Phoenix Suns’ draft workouts in late May, assistant general manager Pat Connelly was asked about Kansas State wing Wesley Iwundu, a projected second-round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Iwundu is an athletic 6-foot-7 small forward who ran a lot of point guard for the Wildcats while also defending both guard positions.
Connelly spoke to the skillfulness of the player but also presented an idea that has been growing in the NBA the past few seasons.
“Frontcourt versatility and backcourt versatility are something that you can kind of play positionless basketball in terms of traditional positions,” Connelly said.
Instances of this are becoming more common across the league.
The Philadelphia 76ers are going to have 6-foot-10, 240-pound power forward Ben Simmons be their playmaking point guard, even though Simmons is technically a big who will most likely guard one.
Milwaukee Bucks 6-foot-11 franchise cornerstone Giannis Antetokounmpo spends time running their offense as the point guard but also had some of the best rim protection numbers in the NBA last season.
Phoenix also has some of these players, albeit to a far lesser extent. Derrick Jones Jr. will defensively pick up point guards despite being a small forward, Devin Booker looks more than capable of spending time as a floor general and both first-round picks last year, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, have inside-outside versatility on both ends.
The direction the league is headed is seeing fewer position labels and more tags such as “primary initiator.” James Harden in Houston should probably be marked as a point guard even though his position is down one peg and he plays with another point guard Patrick Beverley.
Let’s be clear, however, and state there is world-class skill that has to be there for someone like Harden, Simmons or Antetokounmpo to be what they are. That said, the “small-ball” trend is more than about just playing smaller players. It’s also about the utility a player provides defensively.
The addition of Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors was what set them over the top in the NBA Finals and a significant portion of that was because of Durant’s defense, even though he’s one of the best offensive players of this generation.
This is where we arrive at options for the Suns in the 2017 NBA Draft and the obvious name in the middle of the lottery is forward Jonathan Isaac.
As the case has been stated several times, Isaac’s appeal is his use on defense, where he can switch multiple times and still not be in a disadvantageous position. On a play like this, Isaac switches from a guard to another guard to a big and still contains him for the block with his length.
In a broad sense, the idea of Isaac, Bender and Chriss doing this together on the floor could be what sets Phoenix apart from other teams.
It’s what the Bucks are going for by consistently drafting long players like Antetokounmpo and prospects with upside to cover at least two positions effectively like Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon this past draft.
Finding these players is a challenge, though, and it will be a fascinating development if teams decide to begin valuing versatility over more traditional prospects.
That development will be on full display in this year’s draft.
There is an overflow of center prospects in the mid-to-late first round such as Texas’ Jarrett Allen, UCLA’s Ike Anigbogu, Creighton’s Justin Patton and Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo. It’s difficult to envision those players playing more than one position and doing anything more than what a normal center does, which seems to limit their upside in the way the NBA is trending.
There are certain players such as Isaac that might not have as much pure overall potential as a player at their position, but their growth and adaptability in a handful of situational variations on the floor is what makes them so appealing.
Isaac and, to a greater length, fringe first-round players like Iwundu certainly have flaws, but will teams start to gamble on them more than a standard center because of the flexibility they could provide?
This is where we arrive back at Iwundu. The 22-year-old’s main calling card is how many different things he can do on the floor with his athleticism and 7-foot-1 wingspan.
“He played some point at Kansas State, handled the ball, he can defend 1-2-3, he’s a big guy, he’s athletic,” Connelly said. “He’s got to add some weight but having a guy you can throw out there who can give your coach a million different options … They’re kind of like a jack-of-all trades where it gives you a bunch of ways that you can give your coach options to employ them and get creative with lineups.
“He’s impressive, the appeal for him is different positions, offensively, defensively he can play.”
To flip the script to the other side of the ball in imagination land, the Suns having Eric Bledsoe, Booker and a fully developed Iwundu together is giving the opponent three players they consistently have to worry about as primary ball-handlers. Iwundu could also take the heaviest load on defense because of his interchangeability there.
Also working out in Phoenix the same day as Iwundu was 22-year-old Semi Ojeleye out of SMU. Ojeleye has more tweener concerns because of his defense but still resides in a space where, as Connelly noted, he looks like he could be a tight end in the NFL but has a smooth touch from three-point range where he shot 42.4 percent on 4.9 attempts a game in his senior season.
“The way the league is going … seems like positional versatility is something that’s very valued because a traditional four is a little bit different now,” Connelly said. “It’s kinda more who you can guard. His strength and mobility, because he’s a really big and strong kid, to kinda play the three and then drop down to play the four and have the strength and athleticism to match-up is impressive.”
An alternative thought on this theme is the idea of a player stuck at one position still providing optimal value because of how much they can do at that singular spot.
Oregon’s Jordan Bell is limited to center in most lineup situations because of his lack of perimeter skills and being 6-foot-9. That might keep him out of the first round, but being able to comfortably switch and slide with perimeter players while also providing terrific shot-blocking and secondary passing around the painted area makes him an ultimate swiss army knife.
Bell worked out for the Suns on June 9 and said he feels comfortable with the way his game translates to some of what we saw in the NBA Finals.
“I think me coming in right now is the perfect time for me,” Bell said in response to how he feels his game matches up with that style of play.
“[I’m] like a Draymond Green type of guy. He doesn’t really have a position. Just throw him on the floor and whoever is around him he works with it.”
There are more of these players throughout the class that offer a unique package of skills at their one position, such as two of the best perimeter defenders in the lottery OG Anunoby and Frank Ntilikina, skilled two-guards Luke Kennard and Derrick White and mobile big Anzejs Pasecniks.
There are decisions the Suns could make both in the draft and free agency that could further extend this idea of “positionless basketball.”
At center, the team could have three players in 34-year-old Tyson Chandler and restricted free agents Alex Len and Alan Williams. If the team commits eight digits to either Len or Williams or brings back both, that won’t support it.
Leaving space, however, for either Chriss, Bender or a selection in this year’s draft that meets those qualifications of utility to play substantial minutes at center increases the upside of a positionless basketball brand surrounding the Suns.
Of course, this is being naive to the precision a project like this presents when it comes to fitting with the rest of the Phoenix roster. Isaac, Bender and Chriss all playing together at once would leave questions in shooting, creation and rebounding. Similar hypothetical duos or trios are never perfect and often have core deficiencies.
It’s not like the accustomed standards are dying either. We all had questions when the San Antonio Spurs added slow, limited bigs David Lee and Pau Gasol to go with LaMarcus Aldridge and they responded by winning 61 games and posting the league’s best defensive rating.
Betting on a complex concept for the Suns’ future is a perilous wager, but the team has already gone down this road of positionless basketball when it selected Chriss and Bender in the same draft.
The Suns saw the creaky-looking bridge with wood planks missing and proceeded anyway in the middle of a playoff drought. They are only a few steps on their way with no signs of the ropes snapping yet.
So do they continue, or elect to take the more conventional way around to their destination? We will have a better idea by the end of July.