The Phoenix Suns are a contender now, but won’t be developing the next generation any time soon
When James Jones took over the Phoenix Suns as interim General Manager in 2018, he inherited a team almost a decade and at least two iterations into an uber-tanking rebuild. His roster in the 2018-19 included a whopping 11 players aged 23 or younger, including six rotation players aged 21 or younger.
They won only 23% of their games that season, finishing with the 2nd worst record in the whole league. That was their fourth straight season winning less than 27% of their games.
At the season’s mid-point, Jones was kind enough to give an exclusive interview with Suns fans on Bright Side Night, our annual event where we send thousands of underprivileged kids to their first Suns game. In that interview, he declared an end to the endless rebuild. He declined to fill out a proper college scouting team, and promised not to draft yet another teenager.
Jones’ best player that season, 22-year old Devin Booker toiling in his 4th playoff-less NBA season after being the youngest player in the league three years prior, was now only the 7th youngest player on his own team!
“It wasn’t until winning was imported — Chris (Paul), Jae Crowder, drafting a three-year guy who could help right away like Mikal — that [drafting 18 year old Devin Booker] translated to success,” Jones said to ESPN ($$) recently. “And if you don’t import winning around him, there are even more skeletons. So if you want to find the guy with the highest potential to be the future star, then it makes sense to draft him — if you’re willing to navigate the landmines.”
Jones openly admits to ESPN that, had he been in charge of the front office in 2015 (digression: he wasn’t because he was still an active NBA player fresh off his 5th of 7 straight Finals appearances), he probably would not have drafted an 18-year old at 13th overall.
“It all depends on what your goal is,” said Jones to ESPN. “Devin is great, but there are 50 skeletons tied to that swing for the star.”
Jones’ predecessor, Ryan McDonough, was the opposite of Jones. He was all into acquiring assets every year in the Draft, hoping for just the right mix of young talent to win games before they were old enough to drink. Over a six year period, McD’s first round picks included Alex Len (19 years old), Archie Goodwin (19), T.J. Warren (20), Bogdan Bogdanovic (20), Tyler Ennis (20), Devin Booker (18), Dragan Bender (18), Marquese Chriss (19), Josh Jackson (20), Deandre Ayton (20). Mikal Bridges was the only 21+ player drafted by McD in the first round, at the ripe old age of 22.
Of the 10 players aged 20-and-under on Draft night, only four — Warren, Bogdanovic, Booker and Ayton — would develop into starters on playoff teams.
You could say that’s the Suns fault, not picking well at the top of the draft. But the draft has always been a crap shoot. Across all 30 NBA teams, draft lottery talents have always been a 40% proposition on becoming long-term starters at all, even fewer of them starters on a playoff team.
And if you’re not trying to acquire players who can start on a playoff team, what are you even doing?
“You’re either trying to win, or you’re not trying to win,” Jones says. “If you’re not trying to win, you can say what you want, but you’re trying to lose. You can say, ‘Well, let’s go slow and win later,’ but there are too many things between now and later. I’m trying to win now and win later. Players know every day in the league brings them one day closer to the end of their careers, and I can’t waste their days.”
“I respect what OKC does,” Jones says when asked if he has an appreciation for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s more deliberate strategy. “That’s what they’ve chosen to be, I guess. Everything’s a choice. I don’t judge. I respect it. It’s just not for me.”
Jones’ track record in three NBA drafts to date, since taking over the Suns front office:
- 2019: traded down and took 23 year old Cameron Johnson at #11, who finished 4th in Sixth Man of the Year voting in 2022, while also getting Dario Saric
- 2020: took 20-year old Jalen Smith at #10, but declined his 4th year option when he couldn’t crack the rotation by year two
- 2021: traded the #29 pick and Jevon Carter for 23-year old Landry Shamet
- 2022: traded the #30 pick two years prior for Chris Paul
With those four draft picks, Jones acquired four rotation players who helped the Suns win more games than any other NBA team over two seasons, appear in six playoff series over two seasons, and make the 2021 NBA Finals.
Two of those players, Johnson and Shamet, are still on the upswing of their careers but none is younger than 24. Quite a stark contrast to the Ryan McDonough regime.
McDonough is now full-time media, talking about the league rather than working in it. Jones, on the other hand, was voted Executive of the Year by his front office peers in 2021.
Now, the 2022 Draft is a day away and the Suns have no picks on the docket. Which is okay for Jones, considering he and his scouting department don’t really focus on young, non-NBA players anyway.
The scouting team is small, and spends more time embedded with the Suns than on the road to watch players in action.
The Suns don’t have a formal reporting system for Gomez or Mastin to feed after each game they see, or conversation they have with a college coach. Jones prefers that his scouts stay as close to the team in Phoenix as possible. Consequently, Gomez — the Suns’ lead international scout — will spend far more time over the course of the basketball season in Phoenix than his counterparts in Europe will at their motherships, if they return at all. Whereas most NBA teams do exhaustive work to draw up their “draft board” ranking dozens of prospects, the Suns have sworn off the practice the past three years.
“Our draft board would be a mockery to other teams,” says Zach Amundson, the Suns’ senior analyst of personnel and team evaluation. “By the time we were done, we had only five to seven guys on our draft board.”
Five to seven players on a draft board?
That doesn’t mean the Suns only saw 5-7 players all year. That means the Suns only value a handful of players as fits for this current team for the upcoming year. Jones doesn’t draft for three years down the road. He drafts for right now.
Check out the whole article if you can, though it’s behind a pay wall. The basic takeaway is that nothing has changed since we first started hearing in spring of 2019 that James Jones didn’t have a full scouting department and didn’t send scouts all over the nation to watch every player in every game.
The limitations of watching the Dantes and Roddys of the world play some live basketball, then projecting a 15-year career, is just one reason why the scouting operation Gomez and Mastin are part of in Phoenix operates with more skepticism about the draft than most NBA teams. While it’s still marginally useful to perceive a player’s body language in a live game and immerse oneself in the temperature and tone of a game, Gomez and Mastin will leave the arena with a few notes, but no inclination to write up an elaborate report as scouts from many NBA teams would.
Again, the draft is a crapshoot. In the lottery alone, there’s a less than 40% chance you find a starter for a playoff level team. Outside the lottery, where the Suns will live as long as James Jones can help it, the chances of even finding rotation talent drops into the 20% range.
The 2022 NBA Draft occurs on Thursday night. Don’t expect the Suns — who already traded away both their first (Chris Paul) and second (Torrey Craig) round picks — to trade back into the draft to take a prospect unlikely to make a playoff rotation in the next year. They ran out of patience with Jalen Smith within 18 months!
If the Suns move back into the draft, it will be for a player that Jones is convinced can help this iteration of the Suns right now.