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Top pick in NBA Draft brings pressure to Suns of making right decision

(AP photos)

The Phoenix Suns picked a good year to finally win the draft lottery. Not only do they get their choice of everyone on the board Thursday night, but they have what appears to be a pretty loaded class to choose from. The stage is set for them to land a second franchise pillar to pair with Devin Booker and build around the duo.

It’s about time. And they can’t afford to miss.

They can choose to go the conventional route, take the big man that the majority has decided is the best player available and draft Deandre Ayton. That way, they get their centerpiece up front while appeasing the home fans at the same time. And barring some sort of crazy, unforeseen development, that’s exactly what they’re going to do.

But there are plenty of experts who think Luka Doncic should actually be the pick. Or even Marvin Bagley III.

Deciding between those three is a pretty nice problem to have. And really, they can’t go wrong.

Or can they?

A quick glance at recent NBA Draft history is a pretty good reminder that the player with the best NBA career isn’t always the first guy off the board. In fact, ESPN recently ran a story arguing that the most productive guy has only been selected with that No. 1 pick six times in the last 30 years.

That’s with the benefit of hindsight, of course. And it’s probably not fair to definitively pass judgment on the most recent few draft classes just yet.

Plus, the story goes on to note that six of the remaining 24 years can be classified as “maybes” at the moment. Take 2010, for instance, when John Wall came off the board first in a draft that also included Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins. Even if you like George or Cousins more, nobody’s complaining about the Wall pick.

Still, even if we make the jump from six to 12 out of 30, that isn’t exactly the success rate you’d expect. And it’s an annoying reminder that the Suns could bobble this if they’re not careful. Or too careful, depending on your perspective.

Four of those six “yes” picks — LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal — were pretty unanimously regarded as clear-cut, undisputed No. 1 overall selections well before their drafts ever took place. As much as most of us like Ayton, he’s not heading into Thursday night’s festivities with the pedigree of LeBron or Duncan.

So maybe it’s unfair to just assume whoever Phoenix takes at No. 1 will automatically be better than everyone else in the 2018 crop when we look back in five years. Fine. But they at least need to pan out as one of the best two or three players when all is said and done.

For the sanity of Suns fans everywhere, it would be nice if the selection ultimately fared better than whoever goes No. 2. Not like Phoenix has been waiting 50 years for this or anything.

With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at how the Nos. 1 and 2 picks have fared against each other over the same time frame ESPN used. Starting with the Los Angeles Clippers’ selection of Danny Manning in 1988, the top pick has provided a better return than the second player off the board in 16 of the 30 years.

No. 1 over No. 2

2016: Ben Simmons (76ers) over Brandon Ingram (Lakers)
2015: Karl-Anthony Towns (Timberwolves) over D’Angelo Russell (Lakers)
2012: Anthony Davis (Hornets) over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Bobcats)
2011: Kyrie Irving (Cavaliers) over Derrick Williams (Timberwolves)
2010: John Wall (Wizards) over Evan Turner (76ers)
2009: Blake Griffin (Clippers) over Hasheem Thabeet (Grizzlies)
2008: Derrick Rose (Bulls) over Michael Beasley (Heat)
2004: Dwight Howard (Magic) over Emeka Okafor (Bobcats)
2003: LeBron James (Cavaliers) over Darko Milicic (Pistons)
2002: Yao Ming (Rockets) over Jay Williams (Bulls)
2000: Kenyon Martin (Nets) over Stromile Swift (Grizzlies)
1997: Tim Duncan (Spurs) over Keith Van Horn (Nets)
1996: Allen Iverson (76ers) over Marcus Camby (Raptors)
1993: Chris Webber (Warriors) over Shawn Bradley (76ers)
1992: Shaquille O’Neal (Magic) over Alonzo Mourning (Hornets)
1991: Larry Johnson (Hornets) over Kenny Anderson (Nets)

On the other hand, the No. 2 choice has outperformed No. 1 in seven of the past 30 drafts. Eight, if you want to count Lonzo Ball over Markelle Fultz, though it’s way too early to really render a decisive verdict there. Even if LaVar Ball has already declared his son better than anyone on any list any of us could ever come up with.

No. 2 over No. 1

2013: Victor Oladipo (Magic) over Anthony Bennett (Cavaliers)
2007: Kevin Durant (SuperSonics) over Greg Oden (Trail Blazers)
2006: LaMarcus Aldridge (Trail Blazers) over Andrea Bargnani (Raptors)
2001: Tyson Chandler (Bulls) over Kwame Brown (Wizards)
1998: Mike Bibby (Grizzlies) over Michael Olowokandi (Clippers)
1994: Jason Kidd (Mavericks) over Glenn Robinson (Bucks)
1990: Gary Payton (SuperSonics) over Derrick Coleman (Nets)

That leaves seven years where there really hasn’t been an obvious winner. Or, at the very least, a reasonable case can be made for each side.


2017: Markelle Fultz (76ers) vs. Lonzo Ball (Lakers)
2014: Andrew Wiggins (Cavaliers) vs. Jabari Parker (Bucks)
2005: Andrew Bogut (Bucks) vs. Marvin Williams (Hawks)
1999: Elton Brand (Bulls) vs. Steve Francis (Rockets)
1995: Joe Smith (Warriors) vs. Antonio McDyess (Nuggets)
1989: Pervis Ellison (Kings) vs. Danny Ferry (Clippers)
1988: Danny Manning (Clippers) vs. Rik Smits (Pacers)

Granted, there’s some room for debate across the board here. It’s pretty early in the Ben Simmons vs. Brandon Ingram matchup as well, but Simmons really looks the part of a budding young superstar and he seems to be widening the gap right now. Meanwhile, some might say Elton Brand’s longevity and relative consistency makes him a clear choice over the flashier Steve Francis in 1999. And who’s to say Kyrie Irving is really that much better than Derrick Williams? Oh, wait.

Point is, there’s typically a pretty clear winner between the team that picks first and the team that picks second. So we could still be linking Ayton to Doncic or Bagley for awhile. And, as you’d expect, the team that gets to go first generally gets the better weapon — though maybe not as often as you’d anticipate.

There’s a more alarming trend when you look a little closer though. Of all these 30 years, there really haven’t been many cases where the team picking first and the team picking second have both landed great — or even really good — players. Brand and Francis were both solid. And the one-two punch of Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning in 1992 was historic. But honestly, that’s about it.

There’s maybe one or two more, but that’s a significantly small group. It’s not like anyone’s writing a book about that amazing Anthony Bennett–Victor Oladipo duo from 2013.

That means there’s a decent chance either Phoenix or the team picking at No. 2 won’t look back on this year’s draft as fondly as they’d like. Fortunately for the Suns, that second team is Sacramento — the NBA’s recent hotbed for disappointment.

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