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There’s no debate: The Deandre Ayton vs. Luka Doncic debate is real

Owning the first pick in the 2018 NBA Draft puts responsibility on the Phoenix Suns and general manager Ryan McDonough.

By and large, it’s understood that he can’t do too badly by taking either of the players considered in the running for the top pick: center Deandre Ayton or point-wing Luka Doncic.

But discussing that is apparently a touchy subject.

Upon watching my Empire of the Suns’ colleague and draft guru Kellan Olson list Doncic atop his post-lottery mock draft, the comments and replies on Twitter came rolling in. The overwhelming majority, in respectful to not-respectful ways, dispelled any thought of Doncic going ahead of Ayton, a hulking gazelle of a big man.

I’m not here to tell you that’s wrong. ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla, one of the most knowledgeable basketball experts when it comes to the college and overseas games, agrees with those pro-Ayton people.

“I am taking Deandre Ayton,” Fraschilla told 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Doug & Wolf on Wednesday. “I think he’s a generational talent. Not saying they’re not going to take a hard look at Luka Doncic.”

One thing I’ll add to that: Doncic, the guy playing 5,500 miles away, is less of a mystery than the one who played 110 miles away for the Arizona Wildcats.

Perhaps influenced by that, Doncic is 1A on my personal board over Ayton until somebody or something convinces me otherwise.

And here’s why.

When was the last time a generational center was not an elite rim-protector? Ayton recorded 66 blocks over 1,172 minutes in his lone season at Arizona. Per 40 minutes, that came to 2.3 blocks per 40 minutes compared to very good shot-blocker Mohamed Bamba’s 4.9 blocks per 40 at Texas this year.

For a season, Ayton recorded only half the amount he’d need to simply jump into the top-65 of best seasons since 1985-86 when it comes to block totals.

There are arguments — fair ones — that Ayton will improve. He played power forward and wanted to stay out of foul trouble. Head coach Sean Miller utilized him like combo forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon in his defensive scheme. It was flat out misuse of Ayton and in favor of playing senior center Dusan Ristic alongside him.

But is it necessarily good that Ayton played better when isolated against perimeter players than he did in helping his teammates defend the rim? I can’t say.

Offensively, Arizona didn’t let Ayton’s skillset show too often. They ran a motion offense instead of using Ayton in pick-and-rolls, and poor guard play in the instances Ayton did screen and roll — or pop — didn’t help his cause.

Is he more than a bruising big man? He shot a solid 44 percent on two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math, yet only took 35 threes (he hit 34 percent). How well can he stretch his shooting range?

Flaws aside, there’s a lot to like. It’s hard to imagine Ayton won’t average a double-double for his career.

It’s ignorant for the pro-Doncic folks to point to Ayton’s effort as an issue — even when his college tape is littered with confounding flashes like this.

I would not be critical with the Suns taking Ayton. I do, however, already have huge problems with how this is perceived by many.

“When’s the last time it went well for the Suns and/or another NBA team that drafted a European player this high in the draft?” critics will say.

That’s a tired, ignorant argument.

Doncic has 1,468 minutes of game film from his European season this year alone.

His run with the Slovenian national team showed that he plays with the maturity of a pro.

“Twenty-five percent of players Doncic are playing against right now … are former first- and second-round NBA picks. He’s playing against men. Potentially, he’s a combination of Gordon Hayward and Manu Ginobili,” said Fraschilla, an analyst who would still take Ayton first.

In other words, we know what Doncic can be and what he can’t.

For sure, he has flaws. Doncic’s lack of a first step could limit him. Even with his elite handles, can he separate against NBA small forwards?

Phoenix would need a unique plan to fit him next to, presumably, a point guard who can defend point guards, plus wings Devin Booker, Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren. Or do they?

The Suns could let the best players rise to the challenge and then move on from the others if there are not enough minutes to go around. Look at the wing depth deployed by the Boston Celtics in these playoffs and consider first-year Suns coach Igor Kokoskov is the best-equipped to find answers after coaching Doncic and point guard Goran Dragic to a EuroBasket title last year, and the concerns diminish.

“(Kokoskov) also knows, ’cause he coached him last summer, how he had to hide (Doncic),” Fraschilla said. “I honestly think that when it’s all said and done, they’re going to take a hard look at this kid. But in my mind, barring anything unforeseen between now and June 21, I think you got to go with the big guy who we saw this year at times dominate college basketball even in a situation that was somewhat dysfunctional at times.”

The point of this isn’t to convince you that Ayton shouldn’t be the No. 1 pick.

It’s to say that there are two very good options and that this isn’t a cut-and-dry decision, even if the personality insights and medical reports come back clean on both players. The Suns will have this very real conversation over the next month.

So should you.