PHOENIX — The Suns hit the percentages exactly in the NBA draft lottery on Tuesday. Although they entered the lottery slotted at No. 2, they came away with the fourth pick in first round, exactly what the numbers suggested. It is a probability thing.
The Suns are fine with that.
They should be.
Picking fourth suits their needs, and it also keeps them from having to do more major finagling to put the 2017-18 roster together.
The Suns’ strength is in their backcourt. As is the top of the NBA draft.
UCLA freshman point Lonzo Ball will be an NBA franchise maker in the Magic Johnson mold. When the team-first Johnson came into the league out of Michigan State, remember, critics said that his shot would not play, either. Forget LaVar.
Washington freshman combo guard Markelle Fultz is athletically gifted, although it is harder to have as much faith in a player who would rather take trick shots from the first row of the T-Mobile Arena during the Pac-12 Tournament than actually participate in a game.
Now the Suns will not feel the pressure to take one of them, a move that would be almost impossible to resist but one that would cause them to make another in their series of backcourt remakes. That has not worked out well in recent years (see Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas).
The Suns have their guards. Shooting guard Devin Booker is on his way to stardom. Combo guard Eric Bledsoe had the best season of his career before being shut down after the all-star break to save wear and tear. Rookie point Tyler Ulis navigated the league perhaps better than anyone expected of a second-round pick when he was given a long look following the decisions to shut down Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, who has become an afterthought.
Suns GM Ryan McDonough addressed the guard spot when I asked on Tuesday.
“I know there has been a lot of speculation about our backcourt and specifically about Eric Bledsoe,” McDonough said. “This may bring some clarity to that debate or that dilemma. That’s not saying we definitely won’t draft a guard. We may. We’re very happy with Eric and what he has done. After we made the move to rest him at the end of the year, we didn’t win a lot of games. He’s a big part of what we are doing. Hopefully that ends some of the speculation about him and lets him come out with a clear mind. He is really committed to what we are doing.”
Bledsoe averaged career highs in points (22.1) and assists (6.3) to go with 4.8 rebounds in 66 games. If the Suns had chosen to rest him a few games earlier, he would have been one of five players in the league who averaged 20/6/5 this season. Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, James Harden and Giannis Antetokoonmpo did that.
With that guard group returning, the Suns can address more pressing needs on the wing or in the paint and feel good about it.
The June 22 draft is considered among the deepest in recent memory, and there is plenty of projectable talent available after Ball and Fultz go No. 1-2 to Boston and the Lakers, presumably. But there is some talk that the Celtics will try use their No. 1 pick (obtained from Brooklyn) in a package trade for Indiana forward Paul George, a player who better fits the needs of a Celtics team that has producers Thomas and Avery Bradley in the backcourt.
Either Kansas forward Josh Jackson or Duke forward Jayson Tatum, or both, two other freshmen who chose to enter the draft, will be available with the fourth pick. Jackson is considered more athletic and a more well-rounded offensive player, but either of those would address a need at small forward. Florida State freshman Jonathan Isaac is more of a project, but he shows promise. Arizona freshman Lauri Markkanen has shown a good perimeter game.
Suns veteran forward T.J. Warren increased his scoring and rebounding production as the 2017 season wore on, but he is best-suited as a kind of instant-offense player off the bench.
The Suns’ top two picks last June, Dragan Bender (fourth overall) and Marquese Chriss (eighth, after a trade with Sacramento) were seen as the forwards of the future, with Chriss as the power forward and Bender more of a perimeter-oriented player, like Markkanen. Another body there would only help the Suns, especially inasmuch as Bender was unable to show much last season because of injuries.
It did not help that his development was hindered by a lack of playing time in the European League the year before.
A player who might fit their needs as well as anyone, however, is Gonzaga 7-foot freshman Zach Collins. Collins did not start for Gonzaga, but it had nothing to do with his talent or his potential. Collins was arguably the most impressive player in the Final Four. When he was in the game, the Bulldogs flourished. When he was not, not so much. He is agile, athletic and is a willing defender, so much so that he was hurt by foul trouble.
Contact will not be as much of an issue in the NBA. As one NBA talent evaluator noted, he is “long and keeps getting better.” Most mock drafts have Collins in the 9-12 range.
Tyson Chandler gives the Suns a presence both on the floor and in the locker room, which they value, but he is not getting any younger. Alex Len has not blossomed after being the fifth player taken in the 2015 draft, although the Suns will likely extend him for one more year this summer.
Collins would fit there.