EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

EOTS’ 5 at No. 16: Gilgeous-Alexander could plug Suns’ PG hole

May 29, 2018, 11:03 AM | Updated: Jun 4, 2018, 8:48 am
Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (22) tries to block a pass by Davidson guard KiShawn Pritche...
Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (22) tries to block a pass by Davidson guard KiShawn Pritchett during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Thursday, March 15, 2018, in Boise, Idaho. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)
(AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)

Empire of the Suns is diving deep on the Phoenix Suns’ other picks besides the first overall selection, Nos. 16 and 31. We will be examining five players we feel are the best fits for the Suns in the mid-first round, then will break down the five positional groups on the Suns’ roster and who they could target in the late-first to early-second round.

It shouldn’t take a refresher course to summarize the Phoenix Suns’ point guard production in 2017-18.

Eric Bledsoe played in three games before his subtweet about either a hair salon or the Suns. All Phoenix needed after that was for Elfrid Payton, Tyler Ulis, Mike James, Isaiah Canaan, Shaq Harrison and Josh Gray to fill in the rest of the year. The relative high points for each of those players in 79 games came when they got buckets or played defense as Phoenix, by design and necessity, put the ball into Devin Booker’s and Josh Jackson’s hands.

Point being: The Suns need a point guard or a few.

Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who entered the draft after his freshman year, projects to be a mid-first round selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. In the NBA, he could bring a unique set of tools to the defensive end and with improvement of a jump shot could become a promising offensive player as well.

Strengths

Gilgeous-Alexander’s 8-foot-8 standing reach (best among PGs) and 6-foot-11.5 wingspan (second-best among PGs to SMU’s Shake Milton) sit in the upper-end of wing territory.

At 6-foot-6 in shoes and weighing in at just 180 pounds, he is one of the lightest players in the draft, though his 3.0 percent body fat percentage led the combine.

It would take an expert on body mass development to predict the ceiling of what the Hamilton, Ontario, native will become as a defender. If he’s able to put on 10 pounds, he can become an elite defender at either guard spot, a key for Phoenix if he were to play alongside Booker. More weight than that, and we’re talking an elite switchable player across the board.

Look at those 180 pounds pushing 245-pounder Gorjok Gak (OK, so Gak isn’t exactly an elite player) well outside of the paint and that wingspan ripping the big man.

Even if Gilgeous-Alexander remains on the lean side, the upside is promising considering how much he competes.

He averaged 1.6 steals per game and his length helped him recover and contest even if beaten off the dribble.

Offensively, Gilgeous-Alexander thrived as a slasher.

He averaged 14.4 points and 5.1 assists in 33.7 minutes per game, shooting 49 percent overall and 40 percent from three-point range (1.5 attempts per game). He took 44 percent of his shots at the rim, shooting a mediocre 60.6 percent there.

Despite his frame and lack of explosion, he is shifty enough with crossovers, smooth footwork, spin moves and a left hand to get to the rim to score in a variety of ways. And by drawing a decent number of fouls (4.7 attempts per game), he showed promise that there’s something there with his shot by hitting 82 percent from the free throw line.

In the NBA, Gilgeous-Alexander projects as a secondary scorer who can shake defenders off the bounce. He’s a good enough shooter to keep defenses honest, but he will likely be most relied upon as a traditional floor general.

Despite his youth, he looked more than comfortable setting up offenses and verbally directing his teammates. His maturity and leadership qualities are there.

Wildcats coach John Calipari told the Courier-Journal last week just how much he valued the freshman as a leader.

“You’ve got to judge guys on can they make plays when the game is on the line? When he played bad this year for us, we lost,” Calipari said. “I didn’t realize it until like, ‘Holy s***, if he don’t play well, we’re going to lose.’ So, thank goodness he played well most of the year.”

While Gilgeous-Alexander will likely be better in pick-and-roll situations than in isolation because of his lack of blow-by ability, he piled up assists by running offense and making the smart, easy reads to post a solid 1.89 assist-to-turnover ratio at Kentucky.

Weaknesses

Gilgeous-Alexander proved efficient as a slashing point guard thanks to his smooth feel, footwork and change of pace, but his ceiling will be limited as a primary scorer due to his shooting ability and lack of pop.

He doesn’t get much lift on his jumper in either his legs or his release point — and his release has a hitch.

Still, Gilgeous-Alexander carried much of the offensive load for Kentucky.

While Gilgeous-Alexander did show confidence and a willingness to keep teams honest, just getting off a shot could be problematic in the NBA.

Gilgeous-Alexander, in the same lens as top overall prospect Luka Doncic, struggled as a non-explosive point guard when pressured by more athletic players.

He scored in single digits because he struggled to get off shots — and didn’t make many in the ones he did — against Kansas, West Virginia, Alabama and UCLA, all of whom have guards expected to be picked in the 2018 draft. It was promising that he began getting to the foul stripe at an incredible rate late in the season. In the NBA, his lack of leaping ability could force him into more floaters than finishes at the cup — however, his length and height help his cause there.

Defensively, the lack of lateral athleticism and possibility he can’t build a bigger frame threaten his upside, but his intensity, instincts and length should lead to few concerns about that end of the floor.

Fit on the Suns

There’s no doubt Gilgeous-Alexander would fill a need as a defensive point guard who can make good decisions, play off Booker but also be capable of taking some of the load off the team’s top scorers. Ideally, he could take on the best offensive player between the opponent’s starting guards. He and Jackson would bracket Booker’s lack of perimeter defense that will, even with improvement, be hampered by Booker’s exertion on the offensive end.

Depending on how his body develops, Gilgeous-Alexander could push to be an immediate backup point guard.

However, the Suns say they want to win now, so it seems that he would be a project. But at No. 16, there are few better options at point guard that could slip to that slot.

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