Suns see value in four-year college veterans in one-and-done era

Jun 1, 2018, 6:09 PM
At their first pre-draft workout, the Phoenix Suns brought in six former college guards. Among them...
At their first pre-draft workout, the Phoenix Suns brought in six former college guards. Among them, Oakland senior Kendrick Nunn (left) and Kansas senior Devonte’ Graham. (Photo by Nathanael Gabler/Cronkite News)
(Photo by Nathanael Gabler/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Steph Curry. Klay Thompson. Draymond Green. George Hill. Jeff Green.

What do these players have in common? In the age of the modern, one-and-done NBA, all are starters in the NBA Finals after spending three or more years in college. In total, 11 players who could see NBA Finals minutes spent at least three years in the college ranks.

The last eight first overall picks in the draft were one-and-done college players, and barring a surprise of seismic proportions, the Phoenix Suns will select either another one-and-done player, or 19-year-old international prospect Luka Dončić first overall in the June 21 NBA draft.

However, in the one-and-done era, many teams are looking to seasoned college players to contribute real minutes in critical situations. While one-and-done’s dominate the lottery, two of the past five Rookie of the Year winners – Malcolm Brogdon and Damian Lillard – are players that spent four years in college.

For the Suns, holders of the first, 16th, 31st and 59th picks, their first pre-draft workout was dominated by these four-year college veterans.

Big-12 Player of the Year Devonte Graham, AP second team All-American Trevon Bluiett, and First team All-Pac-12 guard Tra Holder were three of six guards the Suns brought in for the team’s first workout. All three spent four years in college.

“I think the advantage is just the body of work,” said Phoenix Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough. “If a guy plays four years at a high level you have a better feel for strengths and weaknesses.”

In any sport, a draft is always more a projection than a science. In 2007, it wasn’t difficult for many scouts to imagine how Greg Oden would be the NBA’s next dominant big man or how Kevin Durant could be a picturesque, modern swingman.

Both were coming out after their freshman years of college. Their ceilings were astronomically high, but both had a lot of questions surrounding them.  

We all know how the 2007 draft played out. Durant is going to make the Hall of Fame, and Oden started only 66 games in the league. One lived up to the high ceiling. The other bottomed out.

It’s a picture-perfect example of the risks and benefits of drafting players after seeing them in 30 or so college games. But when you’re scouting more seasoned college veterans, the mystery surrounding their game diminishes.   

“When you’re evaluating 22- and 23-year-old players, there aren’t a lot of questions about what they can do,” McDonough said. “There might be questions about how it can translate, as with any player that hasn’t played in the NBA.”

Devonte Graham played three years at Kansas beside Frank Mason, who ran primary ball-handling duties for the Jayhawks. He had his best year this past season, as a senior. With Frank Mason in the NBA with the Sacramento Kings, Graham finally got to move into his natural role at the point.

In his final year as a Jayhawk, Graham led Kansas to the national championship game, averaging a career- and team-high 17.3 points and 7.2 assists per game and beating out Trae Young for the Big-12 Player of the Year Award.

The lead-up to the 2017 draft for Mason was very similar to what Graham is going through now. Both played four, distinguished years in college. Both are considered undersized point guards who were significantly better college players than they are pro prospects.

The scouts and GMs and all of them have seen me play for four years and have a lot of tape on me,” Graham said. “So I don’t come out here and try to do something I’m not going to be able to do at the next level.”

While separated by more than 1,500 miles this past year, Graham and Mason remain close. Graham still draws on Mason for advice on the pre-draft process.

“Taking care of your body is the big thing,” Graham said, talking about the guidance he has received from Mason. “Your body is going to get tired with all the travel, just making sure you eat right and hydrate.”

For players like Devonte Graham, last Friday in Phoenix was the third of 14 or 15 team workouts following the May combine, but for local Arizona State prospect Tra Holder, it was the first of a more limited number of appearances.

“I’ve been battle tested, nothing’s going to get to me,” Holder said, talking about the mindset he can draw on from his four seasons at ASU. “I’m ready for anything.”

McDonough echoed Holder’s sentiments regarding the advantages of looking at established college veterans, talking about their game experience and ready-to-play temperament.  

“I think a lot of times that makes them more ready to come on an NBA court and contribute,” McDonough said. “If they’re 23 they’re probably more experienced in terms of basketball… also physically some of them are more developed than 19 or 20-year-old kids.”

These sentiments of experience and maturity were stressed by Trevon Bluiett when talking to media after the Suns workout.

“The maturity level and knowing how to play the game,” Bluiett said about why he should be drafted over younger, less proven players. “I feel like being in college four years I get a lot more knowledge than the guys that are there for one year. I get a better feel and grasp for the game.”

Like Graham and Holder, Bluiett spent four years at Xavier, where he made First-team All-Big East three times. In 2018 he was named as an AP second-team All-American after leading the Musketeers to a 29-6 record and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

“Overall I’m a competitor and a winner. I’ve won at all levels of the game,” Bluiett said. “That’s all I care about is winning, and I’ll do whatever it takes, play whatever position, just do what I gotta do just to win.”

For the Suns, the first overall pick is likely going to a young, talented star, be it Ayton, Dončić, or Marvin Bagley. However, with three other picks in the draft, it is likely that they add at least one of these seasoned, proven college veterans to help round out the team and bring experience to a young roster.

No one expected Draymond Green to be a star on an NBA Finals team when he was coming out of Michigan State. If they did he wouldn’t have gone 35th overall in 2012. For all we know, one of these guys could be the next under-drafted, overlooked players to blow past expectations, and be a surprising starter on a finals team in five years.

Penguin Air

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Suns see value in four-year college veterans in one-and-done era