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Ranking the Phoenix Suns’ core four for the future

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LISTEN: Empire of the Suns

There’s nothing that quite stirs a debate like ranking players in sports.

With the Phoenix Suns’ offseason nearly finished and the team all-in on prioritizing winning in the future as opposed to the present, it’s a good time to rank the core four of the team based on how good they will be when that real winning starts.

Before we get to our reasoning, here are our lists.

Kevin’s core four rankings:

  1. Devin Booker
  2. Josh Jackson
  3. Dragan Bender
  4. Marquese Chriss

Kellan’s core four rankings:

  1. Devin Booker
  2. Dragan Bender
  3. Josh Jackson
  4. Marquese Chriss

Kevin Zimmerman: The first thing that stands out about both of our lists is that the Second Team All-Rookie team guy who gained the most NBA experience is at the bottom of this list.

But let’s start on top. It’s clear Devin Booker projects as a dangerous offensive weapon, but I’m still a little bullish that his value is still dependent on whether he brings more to the table, be it passing, defense or what have you. With that, I’m guessing I have my second player, Josh Jackson, a lot closer to Booker than you do with your No. 2 in Bender. If Jackson develops a reasonable jumper, I still like the comparison to Andre Iguodala, a guy who was never an elite shooter but was the best player on a 57-win Nuggets team in 2012-13 despite averaging 13 points per.

I see Jackson being able to become that type of elite role player, and there’s still a smidge of chance that type of a player is better and brings more value toward wins even compared to Booker if he tops out as a one-trick pony, 25-point per game scorer.

Do you think Bender has a smidge of a chance of being better than Booker? And why is he ahead of Jackson?

Kellan Olson: I’ll hit the hardest on Booker to answer your question because I feel there’s a decent-sized gap between No. 1 and Nos. 2-4 on my list, like you said.

First of all, if the answer at No. 1 is not him, I am worried about you. Yes, he’s a very bad defensive player right now. Yes, he was not very efficient last year. He also is one of six players to average at least 20 points a game and take at least two threes a game before their 21st birthday, per basketball reference. As far as the nine seasons (some players did it twice) that go into meeting those qualifications, Booker’s true shooting percentage of 53.1 percent is fifth, ahead of both of Carmelo Anthony’s seasons and ahead of Kevin Durant and LeBron James’ rookie years. His efficiency is not a concern at this moment.

While his defensive ability is a big question mark, there’s still other parts of his offensive game that can grow. He showed great ball-handling and playmaking for others towards the end of his rookie year but transitioned more into a ball-dominant scorer in year two. We should see more of that as he matures and he could become a player who averages 5-8 assists a game depending on how much it develops. There’s also his shooting, which any draft expert would have guessed to be around 38-40 percent from deep. There are countless examples of shooters needing time to adjust, such as Durant (29 percent in his rookie year after shooting 40 percent on 5.8 attempts a game at Texas) who, similarly, had a gargantuan chunk of responsibility for the team’s scoring.

The short answer on Booker is as he gets more comfortable, older and doesn’t have the two conflicting when he’s carrying a team’s offense before he can legally drink, he’s going to be even better than he already is and much more balanced.

With the three spots below him, I feel the argument is whose flaws you are the most concerned about.

For Bender, it’s the development needed in his offensive game, and we already saw that at Summer League just a few weeks ago. Yes, “it’s just Summer League,” but for a second-year player who was a top-10 pick, you want to see that progression (more on that later). I also believe he will be right on the border of the NBA average as a three-point shooter around 36 percent. My faith in his defense has been well-documented.

For Jackson, I’m very concerned about the jumper, which is flat-out broken. The 57 percent number at the free-throw line last season is a giant, flashing red flag for me. I’ve also expressed my worries on draft night if he will truly be that top-level perimeter defender. With that said, I still think he’s going to be a pretty good NBA player.

What kept you from putting Bender at No. 2?

KZ: Here’s a very bad, cliche answer: Jackson has the “it” factor that I’ve yet to see from Bender despite the latter probably being No. 1 among the four players we’re talking about when it comes to hoops IQ.

I see Bender and Jackson very similarly in terms of having very high floors because they can both defend like hell. I just see Jackson ahead right now because of his attitude and confidence that makes his goofy jumper more reliable than Bender’s pretty one. Obviously, he’s older and Bender might catch up if he gets some more run.

Also maybe I’m favoring Jackson because I can actually make a comparison. With Bender, I have no idea what his ceiling is, and until he gets his jumper falling, I’m going to worry about how effective he can be on the offensive end (Aside: I realize it makes little sense that I’m concerned about Bender’s jumper, but sue me).

Anyway, in reality, I have Bender pretty close to Jackson.

Any more thoughts on those two? Let’s explain to the kind reader why Chriss is where he is.

KO: For Chriss, I thought the raw, unaware and, quite frankly, immature nature of his game was a thing of the past after how much he grew over the course of the season, but that player out of Washington was back and better (aka worse) than ever at Summer League.

His body language and constant complaining to officials, teammates and the coaching staff was off-putting. Most of all, his defensive awareness in the pick-and-roll looked to be right back where it was in the Pacific northwest. Taking the same point from what I said on Bender, he can’t be doing that (and playing poorly in general) when he’s expected to be the best player on the floor. There’s also the noticeable added weight and muscle, which had him moving a step or too slow and lacking his over the top explosion.

Chriss is special as a prospect because of that explosion first and his skill second. That’s troubling if the bigger physique hampers that, but there’s a strong chance he has adjusted by training camp.

Beyond that, we still have no idea what he really is going to be on either end.

Maybe that was just a phase for that week in Vegas, but it’s enough for me to not have him top-3. Even with that ranking in mind, I’m still placing him close to the second and third spots because of the development he had over his rookie season.

Are you in that same thought, or is he definitively the worst prospect of the four for you?

KZ: Chriss is fourth because he’s got the most holes to plug and is the only one of the four without an identity. Booker is already a 20-point per game scorer at minimum. Bender and Jackson will, worst case, bottom out as back-end rotation players.

I know we should take Summer League with a grain of salt, but it’s jarring that Chriss’ Summer League went arguably worse as a sophomore than it did as a rookie. He shot 1.5 percent better for 34.5 percent overall, averaged three fewer rebounds and four fewer minutes per game — yes I get the injury didn’t help — and he turned the ball over at an incredible rate. That his coach said he wanted him to average 10 rebound per game and he only regressed was an uh-oh sign in itself because that’s not even about awareness.

Don’t take this as me calling him a bust or thinking it will necessarily play into the regular season. It’s just that, at this moment, Yoda could see Chriss’ future is about as well as what Yoda could see at the bottom of that pond in his slimy mud-hole of a home on Dagobah.

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