Suns’ latest NBA Draft choices add on more decisions for crucial offseason

Jun 23, 2018, 1:22 PM | Updated: 1:52 pm
From left to right, Phoenix Suns' George King, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Elie Okobo pose for...
From left to right, Phoenix Suns' George King, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Elie Okobo pose for a photo as the team introduces their new players after the NBA basketball draft Friday, June 22, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Phoenix Suns went about as win-now as they could have in the 2018 NBA Draft.

They drafted Deandre Ayton No. 1 overall, who is a heavy favorite to be the most productive rookie in the NBA next season.

They traded up for Mikal Bridges at 10th, who has shooting and defense that are ready for NBA rotation minutes right away.

They drafted Elie Okobo at No. 31, a 20-year-old point guard who needs time to develop as a floor general but has scoring and shooting that can also contribute next season.

Yes, all three of these players are rookies, so by default, a “win-now” definition is inherently flawed.

Still, at least Ayton and Bridges will have big roles immediately while Okobo’s offense could be called upon depending on how smooth his transition into the NBA goes.

That sure didn’t seem like the plan for the Suns, who were looking at this draft with having two rookies on the roster, let alone three that all might play in the rotation.

Ayton’s spot is simple as the 1B to Devin Booker’a 1A, serving as the present and future of the center position.

But, there’s still blow-back, and that’s the case all over the roster once the class was finalized on Thursday.

Tyson Chandler’s role on an expiring deal now is being a mentor to Ayton as a backup center. So now, with serious aspirations left in free agency and on the trade market, do the Suns want to pay Alan Williams his $5.5 million non-guaranteed deal as a third-string center? Big Sauce, unfortunately, seems like a casualty of Ayton’s selection, or at least that contract does if they can come to an agreement of bringing him back on a smaller deal.

Where it gets tricky in the inclusion of Bridges.

I wrote about how great of an addition Bridges is on draft night. This team really needed and still needs defense and shooting, where the overwhelming majority of Bridges’ stock as a draft prospect lies.

Giving up a very valuable 2021 unprotected Miami Heat first-round pick to get him implies he will simply not be the team’s fourth wing behind Booker, Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren.

Per general manager Ryan McDonough the night of the draft, that’s true. He referred to Bridges as more of a combo forward, playing some three and four.

Bridges is a great defender and has a 7-foot-2 wingspan, but he also was listed at only 210 pounds as a junior for Villanova. Jackson was at 200 pounds last year and Warren was at 215 pounds.

While small-ball is the way of the future, there are still plenty of power forwards that could bully those three in various situations.

Looking even at lesser names across the league, Julius Randle weighs 250 pounds, Markieff Morris is 245 pounds and Lauri Markkanen checks in at 230 pounds.

It’s a lot to ask of those three Suns forwards to command a majority of the minutes at forward, even if they put on more muscle, which Jackson and Bridges at least should.

The more obvious answer here is the three of them, along with Booker, will rotate in and out while focusing on versatility on both ends. Bridges and Jackson can guard multiple positions and also do a job as secondary shot-blockers, while on the other end Bridges is your floor spacer and Jackson is your relentless slasher and cutter. Booker, of course, will have his woes defensively, but offensively he has immense value as a three-level scorer, great shooter and underrated provider.

We haven’t gone over Warren yet, and well, that’s because it’s tough to see where he helps in that department.

Warren is a very efficient scorer. This season, he was one of 13 players in the NBA to average at least 18 points a game while shooting 48 percent or better from the field, according to Basketball Reference.

That is great and all, but that does not make him versatile. Warren’s deficiencies as a shooter, passer and defender are a questionable fit in that aforementioned system.

Warren is one of seven forwards in the last 10 NBA seasons to average at least 15 field goal attempts and under 1.5 assists a game, per Basketball Reference.

In the last 10 NBA seasons, Warren is also one of 12 forwards to take at 75 three-pointers or more in a season and shoot under 25 percent.

If Warren were to shoot slightly above his 28.3 three-point shooting percentage and serve better defensively as more of a small-ball four, is that a good enough outcome for Phoenix? Possibly, but they are also paying him just under $12 million a year the next four seasons to be a player that doesn’t fit their current stylistic direction.

Even if the Suns wanted to trade Warren, a contract of that size might not even be movable in this market, depending on how free agency prices turn out.

How the Suns use those three forwards or what they do with Warren automatically becomes another big question with the selection of Bridges.

Okobo’s immediate addition to the roster also adds a few, albeit those of a smaller extent.

McDonough said Friday the team plans to target a point guard this offseason, and that’s with Brandon Knight, Okobo, Tyler Ulis and Shaquille Harrison on the roster.

Ulis’ contract for next season has a guarantee date on Sunday and Harrison’s non-guaranteed deal could be in jeopardy as well. Both could be gone.

That’s what happens when you have a crowded roster, draft three rookies who will be on the roster, and still have moves left to make in the offseason. Players like Ulis, Harrison and Williams, who the Suns surely still believe have potential, could very well be players the team has to let go.

And what about their two former top-10 picks from only two years ago?

Look, it’s not like Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss deserve any more chances at real playing time after the way they played in their first two seasons, but should the Suns really bail on two guys who they knew were going to take some time to really develop? If a team asks for one of them in a trade for an established NBA point guard or power forward, should Phoenix be ready to give up on them? With the team’s big four young pieces now, it’s not like the Suns need Bender and Chriss to become great players. One of them being an average to above average NBA big is really all they need and their stocks have never been lower with the team.

Also, it’s important to note Chriss is over 11 months younger than Bridges, Bender is nearly 15 months younger than Bridges and the two power forwards project as multi-faceted players on both sides of the floor if they can carve out some type of useful NBA role. To extend on that point, however, the two will need more playing time to figure that out, and there isn’t much that looks to be available, especially if the Suns add another power forward.

When McDonough said Saturday he wanted to acquire a power forward who can shoot and be a plus-defender, he knows he already has a 7-footer on his roster who can do that, right? Yes, Bender looks petrified to shoot sometimes, but he also just shot 36.6 percent from 3-point range at 7-foot-1 and was at least adequate on defense last year.

The desire to add another power forward when those five forwards should be more than enough is precisely where the problem with high expectations and the desire to win 40-45 games within one of the next two seasons exists. When you draft three rookies to be pieces that are ready to play, they are still rookies.

This team is young. Four of those five forwards are either 20 or 21 years old! The oldest serious contributor on the team could be Knight, who is only 26 years old still and has just 382 games of NBA experience! After Warren at 24, Booker’s next up and he turns 22 in October!

Even when we get past the new names coming in over the next couple of weeks, the core four of Ayton, Booker, Bridges and Jackson all being 21 years old or under isn’t going to change.

That is terrific for the team’s long-term outlook, but in the short-term, there are growing pains in the way.

That shouldn’t be an issue.

It is, though, for McDonough when his contract expires in two years and the bar has been set for that win total by the team it runs out because of an eight-year playoff drought.

That is going to be the unavoidable shadow that casts over this team, no matter how many double-doubles Ayton has and no matter how many 40-point performances Booker has.

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