EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

22 for 22: Isaiah Collier and a Suns’ argument for going best-player-available

Jun 19, 2024, 5:00 PM

Isaiah Collier #1 of the USC Trojans handles the ball against the Washington Huskies in the first h...

Isaiah Collier #1 of the USC Trojans handles the ball against the Washington Huskies in the first half of a first round game in the Pac-12 Conference basketball tournament at T-Mobile Arena on March 13, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

(Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

There is a principle of approaching the NBA Draft where just taking “the best player available” can apply. Some organizations are in a situation where addressing a need or prioritizing fit become less important than simply focusing on maximizing the selection.

Considering the clear holes on the Phoenix Suns’ depth chart, they do not look like a candidate. But when also considering the lack of assets to acquire premium talent over the next couple of years, they do look like a candidate.

If the Suns really do want to grab the best prospect and not the best player available, the shortlist of players who could be on the board at No. 22 is topped by USC guard Isaiah Collier.

Collier was ranked by ESPN as the No. 1 player in the 2023 recruiting class. His high-end abilities at that level in terms of playmaking, size and strength for a point guard were marveled at out of high school. Collier was on his way to becoming a top-five pick if all went well with the Trojans.

It did not. USC was the wrong call, a program unfit to utilize Collier’s strengths with a roster led by fifth-year senior guard Boogie Ellis, a ball-dominant scorer. The Trojans were by all accounts a disaster, holding a 6-5 record by the time Pac-12 play began and ended the year 15-18. Andy Enfield, remembered best as the head coach of tourney darling Florida Gulf Coast, ended his 11-year tenure with a 5-5 record in the NCAA Tournament and failing to ever win a regular-season conference championship.

There are bunches of precedent for a highly touted prospect panning out after a one-and-done season went south. The team that selects Collier will talk themselves into that case.

Collier’s pick-and-roll package is up there with anyone in this part of the draft. The quality of passes he is able to make gets all of the praise but scoring in the paint is the star of the show. He converted on 62% of his shots there despite a lack of vertical explosiveness to finish at the summit and it made up for 51% of his total attempts, per Hoop-Math. As a No. 2 option, Collier attempted 5.8 free throws a night, a number that could have threatened for double digits in a more optimized situation.

Speaking further to that, the swing point on his evaluation will be if USC’s poor season was dictating the errors in his decision-making or if his more out of control play is the core weakness of his game. His experience level really showed in some of the turnovers.

But then you see him maneuver to set up angles properly, and it’s a thing of beauty.

That’s where the speed and frame really pop. He uses his strength well to maintain separation and arrive at those open passing avenues.

Here’s the always fun sizzle reel of misses. Lots of NBA passes to shooters, where he differentiates himself a bit from someone like Tyler Kolek who was more based around a two-man game.

That is a great foundation for an NBA point guard one day.

What’s missing is a jumper, as he was at 33.8% from 3, 67.3% at the line and 37.8% on two-point jumpers.

The big concern beyond the free-throw shooting is how Collier’s structure on his shot never seemed to get pinpointed. He looks fluid but there will be a long-term process required to really locate some stability.

The defense was not good. A brief dip into the tape reveals enough, that USC’s floundering campaign didn’t make him put his best foot forward. You want to see the kid overcome that and show what they can do anyway.

It’s more common than you think. Then the optimist says: “well, when they were fully engaged.”

Collier should be a lock for the lottery in this draft class. Instead, he’s somewhere in the high teens to low 20s depending on the board you look at, presenting an opportunity for a playoff team to land a point guard prospect who has serious upside.

If Collier slips just a bit down to No. 22, where a few mock drafts have him, the Suns should seriously think about it. Odds are they don’t, and it’s fair. What holds Collier back as a well-rounded guard with his shooting and what he has left to prove on defense don’t add up to an instant contributor.

But what Collier does do is get in the lane, play physically and spray the ball out. USC did not allow NBA teams to see what that could look like with proper spacing and shooting.

That dynamic of not only rim pressure but sparking the ball movement is really where Phoenix’s Big 3 let it down last year. But if the mission statement for the Suns’ offseason includes a new point guard spending time on the ball, Collier is the best possibility because he could develop into something that changes its long-term trajectory as well.

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22 for 22: Isaiah Collier and a Suns’ argument for going best-player-available