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Empire of the Suns NBA Draft Big Board, Pt. 1: Wildcats sniffing lottery

Arizona's Nico Mannion, left, and Josh Green speak during the Pac-12 NCAA college basketball media day in San Francisco, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

It’s that time of year again! Well, at least we assume it is.

The 2020 NBA Draft is coming at some point. Probably mid-October. We’ll see.

The Phoenix Suns are currently slotted 10th in the reverse standings, which will hold if neither they nor the Eastern Conference’s Washington Wizards make the playoffs after an eight-game regular season.

Let’s take our time waiting to find out their draft slot by getting familiar with the top prospects.

With a third guard and starting power forward at the top of Phoenix’s shopping list this offseason, it’s actually quite a good class for James Jones and company to comb through.

As always, we start the board off with tiers and will eventually work our way to analyzing how each guy would fit in Phoenix and a Suns-centric board. For now, here’s my first version of a top-20.

All statistics via Hoop-Math and Sports-Reference

Tier 5

20. Isaac Okoro, wing, Auburn, 19 years old

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Okoro knows how to play within the flow of the offense in a “0.5” style by making quick decisions and being unafraid while also capable of creating off the dribble. That’s also the extent of his offense, and where a little-discussed red flag for him popped (at least for me) when watching him.

The basketball gods tweaking his skillset must have forgot to give him burst off the dribble and around the rim, an unfortunate twist given what he can do defensively. Even though he’s been a great finisher in college, Okoro is small through contact, often times taking the hit and then scoring on his way down toward the ground. In the same way you strangely see Deandre Ayton seemingly weighed down when he launches off one foot without momentum and at odd angles, that’s the same case for Okoro.

See a couple of examples in a row here.

I went long on that detail because it’s his main source of offensive value at this time, because his three-point jumper was at 28.6% accuracy and he made just two of his 14 pull-up two-pointers. So, unless he gets quicker by defenders, he’s going to have to get by on craft more than anything and then really figure out his shot. And a free throw percentage of 67.4% doesn’t exactly encourage optimism.

He still could, though! The feel for the game is great, and that is why I’m conflicted on where to slot Okoro. He’s arguably the best defender in this class and has the bulk and length to cover a large portion of the league. This is very low for him compared to where others slot him, but I’m just not willing to rank a wing any higher with the state his offense is in.

19. Theo Maledon, PG, France, 18 years old

Maledon is a fascinating test case for if players of his makeup can survive in today’s NBA. He is not the next evolution of athlete like Ja Morant, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or De’Aaron Fox. Neither his athleticism or length jump off the page in an astronomical way like so many recent point guards.

He’s rather prototypical with his size. Maledon is 6-foot-4 with nearly a 6-foot-9 wingspan, and despite not being 19 yet, has some stockiness to his build.

You would be optimistic about the versatility of his body if he didn’t, to steal a football term, fail to get the edge so many times when either trying to get by his man or defending.

Maledon doesn’t have a good handle on how to move his body the right way defensively, and along with the lack of gusto in his first step, it’s not great on the ball. Real Madrid’s quick guards were an issue for him.

A good indicator of judging burst is looking at closeouts and recovering out of them. It’s ugly for Maledon.

What he does possess is a great feel for when he puts defenses in a compromising situation and the right pass to make out of that. Some ball-handlers have a certain read or type of pass — pocket, lob, swing, etc. — down, and that’s fine, but it’s far better when it comes naturally.

Maledon has that, so he’s pretty nifty in pick-and-roll. His tempo is awesome. He knows how to change speeds, a critical thing to understand because of his lack of explosiveness. Defenses have to respect his jumper, which is smooth and he shoots at a good 36% clip from deep.

He got some great reps in the Euroleague this year, and while he looked overwhelmed at times while only playing 17 minutes per game, no one in this class got better opposition consistently than him.

The breaking point for me is there are a few too many possessions where you can tell that Maledon isn’t playing with an all-out killer instinct, trying to punish defenses with his playmaking. It also doesn’t help that he’s not a great slasher, shooting under 50% on his twos and lacking aggression at the rim because of his athletic shortcomings.

There’s a time for composure and there’s a time to shove it down the defense’s throat.

Here, he doesn’t go at the rim, which is fine. The hard part is done, though, and Adreian Payne (!) is open. I’ll also emphasize a game flow point here too that Payne had just hit three shots from deep in this half.

This is technically a “good pass” but not having recognition for his trailer, especially when he’s hot, is something that sticks in your head when you see it enough. And he’s touted as a floor general.

If you’re a Suns fan reading this and got the heebie-jeebies at points, that’s because Maledon shares a lot of similarities with Tyler Ennis. The level he played at, however, and the jumper having a good starting point are differentiators to be higher on him.

18. Josh Green, wing, Arizona, 19 years old

The reason we talk so much about how Mikal Bridges consistently impacts the game — whether or not the box score supports it — is because of players like Green.

That’s meant to have some sting on it because of the nights you don’t notice Green, but he is capable of those types of defensive sequences. He’s fast and strong with a prototypical shooting guard build of 6-foot-6 and a 6-foot-10 wingspan.

See him on the right night and you’ll be convinced my opening statement is true.

It just didn’t happen enough in his one season. Green scored in single digits for 12 of his 30 games. To be fair, he did reach 15-plus points in 10 others, so the highs were there too. But there was floating when he’d disappear for a few minutes on far too many occasions.

I stress this because he’s behind in the skill department. His handle and feel are not good, so the shot creation isn’t there, obviously. Nearly 62% of his field goals were assisted, including even 50% of his two-point jumpers.

The three-point shot was fine at 36.1% on 2.8 attempts per game but that’s not enough volume to bet your lottery pick on. Well, maybe it is among this group. The athletic tools and defense at least make it a discussion.

Tier 4

17. Nico Mannion, PG, Arizona, 19 years old

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Mannion is one of the most divisive prospects in this class. Some are bailing.

It’s not difficult to understand why. Mannion is 6-foot-2 and the combination of being a limited athlete with a negative wingspan adds some pause to projecting him in the NBA.

Even with his wits about him defensively, a part of his game he takes seriously, he’s only going to be able to do so much on that end.

But more importantly, there’s a direct correlation between those concerns and his offensive upside.

Mannion only took 20.1% of his shots at the rim, which is right alongside Cole Anthony’s 20.0% as one of the worst marks for a point guard that’s a potential first-round pick in the last five years.

He wasn’t able to get by his man enough.

All together, Mannion’s inability to consistently create separation added up to an uneven season in Tucson. At least to me, it’s clear that he watches a lot of Steph Curry and Steve Nash, trying to emulate both. When he tried to be more Curry than Nash, that was problematic.

Not to say Mannion is as skilled as those two guys. That said, he is the most skilled point guard in this class. He consistently made high-level passes, advanced reads and can shoot off the dribble anywhere.

The full arsenal was incredible to watch when it all came together, particularly his floater, which was very inconsistent all year.

Mannion shot 39% from the field and 33% from deep. He only recorded 15-plus points in 14 of his games and over five assists in 13. Given the skillset you saw above, he should have been more productive, and Wildcat fans know from an eye test perspective he was underwhelming as a whole.

You could tell Mannion wasn’t able to get in the right flow over the course of a couple of games in a row. He was rather disjointed picking his spots, and he had moments like this one where it felt like he was rushing things.

Falling in love with his jumper and not scoring in the key enough are the two worries because Mannion’s best attribute is the way he sees the floor and can pass out of it. Fortunately, he did attempt over four free throws a game, so he’s willing to get in there and draw contact like most of this class.

Mannion deserves to be around this range because of his skill, particularly in this class. Compared to the two other top college names we will go over in part two, he’s got the best floor general chops, and it’s not close. But it will go south for him at the next level quickly if he can’t hit shots.


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