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Suns may be late to party, but they’re structuring positionless team

Jaren Jackson Jr. had his first NBA pre-draft workout Sunday, joining Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and Mo Bamba as players who worked out with Phoenix for the No. 1 pick. (Photo by Jordan Kaye/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — Some people like to live by the “beat ‘em at their own game” mentality. If they see somebody doing something that works, they’ll do it better. In some cases, though, that’s an evolution.

Plenty of NBA teams have tried to beat the Golden State Warriors, victors of three of the last four NBA Championships, by stockpiling shooters and trying to outduel them beyond the perimeter. It hasn’t worked.

Teams with the mindset that they can outshoot Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson may as well dig their own graves. No team can beat the Warriors at their own game, and Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough understands that.

“I think (Miami heat coach) Erik Spoelstra had a quote a few weeks ago that the way to beat Golden State is to not out-Golden State them and try to to what they do,” McDonough said.

“Right now, Golden State has kind of set the trend but, you know, we’ll see if a team with a dominant big man can change that trend over time.”

If McDonough and Co. truly believe that, then the first No. 1 overall pick in franchise history could not have come at a better time (well 1969, probably, but that’s another story.) Phoenix has worked out four players — Arizona’s Deandre Ayton, Duke’s Marvin Bagley, Texas’ Mohamed Bamba and Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. — for that No. 1 pick (they are trying to schedule a meeting with Real Madrid guard Luka Doncic before the draft, too).

All four are either forwards, centers, or both and none are shorter than 6-foot-11. For comparison, of the last 10 No. 1 picks, only Timberwolves’ big man Karl-Anthony Towns (7-foot) fits that description, according to basketball-reference.com.

The quartet each had their turn behind the podium of the Al McCoy Media Center in Talking Stick Resort Arena this week. Able to discuss their redeeming qualities and, like they were politicians running for public office, each gave the case for why they should be drafted No. 1.

But the main point each brought up seemed to revolve around being able to do multiple things well. Jackson Jr., who worked out for the Suns on Sunday, said his versatility is what sets him apart from the other three bigs. They, though, said the same thing.

On Tuesday, the Suns worked out 7-foot Dusan Ristic of Arizona and 7-1 Tryggvi Hlinason of Iceland.

Some think the center position is going extinct because there’s no Shaquille O’Neal terrorizing anything and everything in the paint. Instead, the position has evolved. Centers like Towns and Anthony Davis are making moves off the dribble and hitting threes while maintaining physicality down low.

“The term ‘unicorn’ is being tossed out there a lot but no one really knows what it means,” Bamba said Saturday. “It’s not necessarily the highlights and 7-footers doing crossovers. It’s just guys who make plays that people (think), ‘Huh, I’ve never seen that before.’ It’s guys who can block a shot and take two dribbles and lead the break and find a guard.”

When asked if they thought they would fit better playing the four or five position in the NBA, both Ayton and Bagley scoffed. They took it as an insult that someone would define them by a position. Bagley said he is positionless and marking him with one is “limiting.”

But the tone the two former Hillcrest Prep teammates share is one that’s engulfed the NBA. As the Associated Press addressed, teams like the Boston Celtics are looking for players with a “Swiss Army knife-like skill set.”

Boston, and its coach Brad Stevens, was perhaps one of the first teams to draft for versatility. Players including Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum can defend and switch onto multiple positions, allowing the Celtics more flexibility in their lineup game to game.

Sure, the Warriors do that extremely well, but their team still revolves around its outside shooting.

On one night, the Celtics can play small ball. On the next, say, against the Warriors, they’re able to throw out a bigger lineup. The versatility allows teams to manipulate their game plan without getting bogged down trying to emulate one team, as McDonough said.

Failing to do that, though, landed the Suns with the worst record in the league and the No. 1 pick in the draft. Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender have not shown that they can play forward at a high level in the NBA, let alone multiple positions. But with the addition of Josh Jackson in last year’s draft and sliding Devin Booker over to point guard at the end of last year, Phoenix is catching up.

The first pick, too, is quite the boost.

It seems that Ayton is going to hear his name first at the June 21 NBA Draft, and aside from calling the possible Ayton-Booker tandem “Shaq and Kobe 2.0,” the 7-1, 250-pound Bahamas native understands that in the positionless NBA he may have to defend guards and score from multiple positions.

“There will be a lot of mismatches because if I guard them, they’re going to have to guard me at the end of the day,” Ayton said Wednesday. “I can score. I can pick-and-pop. I can pick-and-roll. I can put the ball on the ground, rebound push the ball. It’s an open floor now, nobody’s really double-teaming or triple-teaming.”

Ayton added that he’ll be acclimated quick because his coach at Arizona, Sean Miller, had him out on the perimeter plenty, often tasking him with “guarding team’s best guards at the four,” he said.

McDonough will grab his “unicorn” in just a few weeks and get that much closer to having a roster of guys who can play everywhere. But unlike Golden State, that plan should have a dominant presence down low solidified.

“We’ve been looking for a center to kind of anchor our team offensively and defensively,” McDonough said. “We think Deandre has that potential, we also think (Bagley, Bamba and Jackson Jr.) have that potential as well.”

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