Lottery sleepers Anunoby, Ntilikina could fill Suns’ perimeter defense need
It’s been a very long time since the Phoenix Suns had a high-caliber player that did his best work defensively.
Shawn Marion never earned himself an All-Defense nod, but the four-time All-Star had extreme versatility as a defender and averaged 1.9 steals and 1.4 blocks per game in his nine seasons in the Valley.
To give an idea as to how barren the Suns have been over their 49-year history when it comes to signature defenders, only 15 times in franchise history has a player averaged at least a block and a steal per game and played in at least 70 games. Marion had seven of those seasons.
In the past two regular seasons in the NBA, it’s been done 13 times, and eight times this regular season.
And while P.J. Tucker’s toughness and motor made him a great defender at times for the Suns, he was never the type of player to consistently shut down and limit opposing star players.
Looking ahead, there are a number of players in the 2017 NBA Draft class with a chance to do just that, including Kansas’ Josh Jackson and Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, who could be selected in the range of the Suns’ No. 4 overall pick.
Like with some of the best shooters in the draft, however, the Suns might need to look more toward the end of the lottery instead of the beginning if they want to address their core needs of perimeter defense and shooting. Whether they do that at all via trade-back or an acquisition of another pick — Detroit is shopping No. 12, by the way — remains to be seen.
But two draftees with some of the highest ceilings as perimeter defenders are Indiana’s O.G. Anunoby and France’s Frank Ntilikina.
Anunoby had the most standout moment of any lottery prospect to potentially be picked in the top-10. In last year’s NCAA Tournament against Kentucky, Anunoby was brilliant, covering promising draft picks like 6-foot-11 Skal Labissiere, who is now with the Sacramento Kings, and the Suns’ own 5-foot-9 Tyler Ulis.
This led to massive hype entering his sophomore season at Indiana. He even began receiving comparisons to Kawhi Leonard, but he wouldn’t meet those expectations. He averaged 11.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 1.3 steals in 16 games before tearing his ACL in January.
Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania reported in mid-May that Anunoby has been tireless with his rehab, and had begun taking set shots and jumping. His goal is to play next season.
The 19-year-old has the quickness, strength and frame to cover at least four positions at the next level. This theory held up at the NBA Combine, where Anunoby measured at nearly 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan while weighing a freakish 232 pounds.
Take a look below at Anunoby tracking Kansas’ star point guard Frank Mason, who is 7 inches shorter and weighs nearly 50 pounds less, with the game on the line. Even though he slips, the Hoosier still manages to keep up with the agile guard and leave him absolutely zero options because of his length.
A guy moving that fast with that footwork can not only guard point guards but has the vertical leap and strength to hang around as a weakside shot-blocker. Anunoby simply floats in the air on this rejection.
The worry, of course, is that Anunoby will lose some of the athleticism because of the knee injury. Even by losing one or two notches on the athletic scale would have Anunoby standing out, but it limits his long-term potential regardless.
On offense, Anunoby has a decent-looking jumper, but his percentages are worrisome; he shot 31.1 percent from three-point range and 56.3 percent at the free throw line last season.
His knee injury, jumper and lack of offensive skill have him firmly placed on the outside looking in of the top-10.
Anunoby’s fit in Phoenix is simple. He has a higher defensive upside than Jackson and even Isaac if the recovery from his knee injury is 100 percent.
He could be a zero on offense, but Anunoby could do well in a rotation around T.J. Warren and Devin Booker on the wing regardless of how he develops. Unfortunately, No. 4 is far too high to take Anunoby, but if the Suns were able to acquire a pick in the late lottery, he’s near the top of the list when it comes to targets.
Like Anunoby, Ntilikina’s ceiling is a player archetype that nearly doesn’t exist in the NBA. In all competitions in France, the 18-year-old averaged 5.6 points, two rebounds and 1.6 assists in 18.4 minutes per game.
At 6-foot-5 with long arms (there are no measurements recorded anywhere for his wingspan), Ntilikina’s hyper-aggressive motor projects him on defense the ability to cover both guard positions.
Ntilikina has spent time between shooting guard and point guard for his club team, but his performance at the U-18 European Championships running the point for France was sensational. Those performances put him definitively in the lottery.
While Ntilikina likely spends time between the guard positions and will not be relied upon as a primary initiator, the potential he’s shown to create at lower levels is worth noting and doesn’t completely kill off the notion he could be a lead guard in the NBA.
He lacks an explosive first step, an advanced handle or elite skill as a passer but with some development, he could be useful with the ball in his hands.
Where the Frenchman shows the most promise offensively is in his jumper. He’s shown the ability to be a catch-and-shoot threat. On 93 total attempts in all competitions, he’s shooting 39.8 percent from deep.
The NBA range is there.
The way Ntilikina plays with a high activity level is encouraging for his role player potential.
Ntilikina’s weaknesses have him comfortably outside the top-7 of the draft and out of the conversation with other top-rated guards like De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith Jr. or Malik Monk. He’s not a top-tier athlete like Anunoby, meaning there are matchups where he will be slower defending other guards, and this limits his upside offensively as well, which right now is just upside outside of his shot.
With that in mind, there aren’t many sound comparisons for Ntilikina’s ceiling. Avery Bradley, George Hill and Patrick Beverley are similar starting point guards, but Ntilikina is bigger.
Specifically, on the Suns, Ntilikina is the most natural fit for a guard selection in the lottery outside Markelle Fultz. Ntilikina could spend time playing both guard positions and developing on the bench. The team could ride out the rest of Eric Bledsoe’s prime while Ntilikina grows.
When he’s ready, Ntilikina is nearly the perfect player to put next to Booker. He can cover a shooting guard over a point guard if the team needs it and he will be a reliable shooter off the ball. His ball skills will need to get better in order to give Booker some relief but there are reasons to be optimistic.
There’s the chance that Ntilikina impresses enough teams in workouts that he moves into the discussion, but he’s not likely to be a target with the No. 4 pick. Even so, it’s hard to find a better roster fit for the Suns both short-term and long-term, and that makes him a name to keep a close eye on as we get closer to June 22.