EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Draft days for GM James Jones have shown Suns’ direction
The Phoenix Suns do not own a pick as of a week before the 2022 NBA Draft.
Whether they will purchase one with cash or make a deal to clear cap space to acquire one is possible with several teams stashing multiple picks from the late-first round down through the second.
And because the Suns face Deandre Ayton’s restricted free agency where a higher pick could be a return piece — or just because they could opt to make more aggressive moves to remain in title contention — we should be prepared to potentially see draft-day moves from Phoenix.
With all that said, here’s a peek back at the draft-day history of Suns general manager James Jones.
A win-now move
July 29, 2021
Phoenix received: Landry Shamet
Brooklyn received: Jevon Carter, No. 29 overall pick (North Carolina C Day’Ron Sharpe)
Hours before the first pick of the 2021 NBA Draft, the Suns and Brooklyn Nets agreed on a deal that shipped the 29th overall pick — more on that in a bit — and guard Jevon Carter out of Phoenix in exchange for Landry Shamet.
At the moment, it made sense. Coming off an NBA Finals appearance a month prior, the Suns went into win-now mode, solidifying the roster behind Chris Paul and Devin Booker with a lethal shooter, underrated defender and sometimes playmaker.
Shamet, 25, inked a four-year extension before suiting up for the Suns, and his relationship with head coach Monty Williams signaled he fit the culture of the team. That remains true, and Shamet proved valuable as a capable defender and even eeked his way into the backup point guard slot amid the team’s Western Conference playoff series loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
Still, he averaged 8.3 points per game in the regular season and just 4.3 points in 16 minutes of time in the playoffs. During the regular season, Shamet shot a career-worst 39.4% from the field and 36.8% from three while not adding much in terms of on-ball playmaking.
He has the guarantee of his contract that could see him make a leap in 2022-23, but it’s apparent there are talent limitations leading to reasons the hard worker and solid teammate was traded three times before his rookie contract even ended.
Meanwhile, Carter, a year older and on a much friendlier contract, appeared in 66 games between the Nets and Milwaukee Bucks. He saw 11 games of playoff action for the Bucks and shot 47.1% overall and 42.9% from three.
While the Suns’ first-rounder was used by Brooklyn on center Day’Ron Sharpe, who appeared in 32 games for the Nets, notable players who were available with the No. 29 pick and made playoff rotations included Herbert Jones (Pelicans, 35th overall) and Ayo Dosunmu (Bulls, 38th overall).
For sure, there is more time to determine if this was a good move on Phoenix’s part. As it stands, though, the Suns missed out on an opportunity to add a more inexpensive and potentially more dynamic contributor this past year and down the road.
(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Nov. 19, 2020
Phoenix drafted: Maryland F Jalen Smith (No. 10)
The selection of Smith at the time looked curious. He was a stretch big man but projected as a center rather than the ball-moving power forward the team foresaw eventually playing alongside Ayton.
Either way, Smith was raw. He appeared in only 27 games as a rookie lottery pick and the team did not pick up the third year of his contract after that teensy bit of evidence from a player who needed development. Then the Suns traded him in February to the Indiana Pacers, reacquiring Torrey Craig to provide wing depth.
Smith averaged 13.4 points and 7.6 rebounds in 24.7 minutes per game for Indiana while shooting 53.1% overall and a decent 37.3% from three. He shouldn’t yet be labeled a bust even with the Suns’ reach, but the decision on draft night, potential loss of Ayton this offseason coupled with the non-commitment to Smith’s future even before this past year all reads as not just one but a series of poor decisions from the front office.
Trade-down to fill in the pieces
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
June 20, 2019
Phoenix received: PF Dario Saric, No. 11 overall pick (North Carolina F Cam Johnson)
Minnesota received: No. 6 overall pick (Texas Tech F Jarrett Culver)
This trade was only one piece of a busy night but in a vacuum can be viewed to explain Jones’ strengths and weaknesses so far.
The Suns have been adept at identifying the type of player that fits in. Saric and Johnson were smart, immediate rotation additions whose roles developed as Phoenix’s confidence grew around Monty Williams over his first three seasons on the job.
Saric to begin 2019-20 became the starting power forward, but as the team upgraded around him, he shifted into a more fitting role as a backup, changeup stretch center who in 2020-21 led a wildly successful bench unit.
Jones sold the sixth pick where Culver, a project who’s yet to pan out, was selected in favor of a mature Johnson. Taking Johnson, an elite shooter with little else to his prospect profile, was viewed as a crazy reach on draft night. But Jones’ move that was panned then paid off.
Johnson developed his body to become a hybrid forward and above-average defender. He’s followed through as one of the league’s best shooters and has even added some secondary offense to his game. Three years in, he’s up for a contract extension from his rookie deal this summer.
Playing the what-if game doesn’t paint this decision-making in a poor light at all.
Tyler Herro is the best player taken in the lottery after the top-five stars in Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and Darius Garland, but Herro was not selected until 13th, two picks after Phoenix took Johnson. It’d be curious to learn if the Suns would have kept the No. 6 pick if Garland, who had a successful five-game college career before getting hurt, had fallen to that sixth pick. But that’s a double “what-if” scenario.
Deal the future for the present
Phoenix received: C Aron Baynes, No. 24 pick (Virginia PG Ty Jerome)
Boston received: Milwaukee 2020 first-round pick
This ended up as a mixed bag. Baynes was the floor-spacing, ball-moving center who thrived behind Deandre Ayton in Williams’ system.
He averaged 11.5 points per game, the only of his nine NBA seasons above averaging 6.6 points per game. Baynes though, allowed the Suns to see what a five-out court could look like, and that aspect of the offense remains in the conversation as the Suns look to revamp the center spot with or without Ayton this summer.
Phoenix allowed Baynes to walk the next season with Saric — because of Baynes coming down with COVID-19– snaring the backup center spot when the Suns made their 8-0 bubble run at Disney World in the COVID-19 restart.
The Jerome pick appears to be a flop. He was a throw-in on the Chris Paul acquisition and with the Thunder in 81 games had a strong 2020-21 where his shooting percentages and passing made up for a lack of ball-handling. But this past year, the 24-year-old saw his shooting numbers tank to 37.8% and 29% from three.
Among the NBA rotation players selected after Jerome: Jordan Poole (Warriors, 28th), Keldon Johnson (Spurs, 29th) and Kevin Porter Jr. (Cavaliers, 30th).
Selling sunk costs
(Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)
Phoenix received: Cash considerations
Indiana received: T.J. Warren, No. 32 pick (K.Z. Okpala was rerouted on draft night to Miami for future second-round picks)
With no need to take on three top-32 picks, the Suns were willing to throw in a pick to ditch the contract of T.J. Warren, who despite proving himself as a lethal scorer hadn’t jived with the team and struggled with injuries after Phoenix drafted him in 2014.
He blew up to become the NBA pandemic bubble’s star the next season but struggled with injuries to appear in just four games last year.
All-in-all, Jones has managed the draft three very different ways. He’s flipped the roster upside down in 2019 with a trio of deals, stood pat in 2020 to select Jalen Smith with the 10th pick and last year traded out of the late-first round to acquire a proven NBA player before he knew who was on the board.
The success has been hit-or-miss but one thing is certain: Draft day can tell us a lot about any new direction the Suns will be going in this offseason.