With Steve Nash playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, years of ignoring the draft caught up to the Phoenix Suns last season. They were one of the worst teams in the NBA, yet their best players were either in their prime or far past it. It was management that was poor enough to make the Charlotte Bobcats blush. A losing team that isn’t developing young players for the future isn’t doing much at all. Phoenix had hit rock bottom, with little choice but to start over.
When Ryan McDonough took over as GM of the Suns in May, there was little reason to expect immediate results. However, in his first two months on the job, he has made a series of shrewd moves, showing both an eye for talent as well as the ability to maximize assets. While it’s far too soon to draw any conclusions about McDonough, the early returns are very good. For the first time in a very long while, there’s reason for optimism in Phoenix.
McDonough is part of a new wave of GM’s hired in the past few years. Instead of ex-players, coaches and other “basketball lifers”, NBA teams have increasingly been hiring young and relatively anonymous front-office types who paid their dues as scouts and video guys. Everyone is looking for the next Sam Presti. McDonough, like Daryl Morey, is a protege of Danny Ainge in Boston. He started on the ground floor with the Celtics, working in the video room.
In his first draft with the Suns, McDonough proved willing to buck the conventional wisdom. Nerlens Noel, widely seen as the top prospect available, was unexpectedly available at No. 5, but McDonough stuck to his guns, drafting Alex Len instead. While Len had a number of fans in NBA front offices, all of the analytic models favored Noel, a younger player with the more impressive statistical profile. However, the stats don’t always tell the story about college players, especially big men.
Len’s college production was underwhelming, but there’s still a lot to like about him. In contrast to Noel, who doesn’t have the frame to bang with some of the NBA’s bigger centers, Len has ideal size for his position, at 7’1 255 with a 7’3 wingspan. He’s also far more skilled than Noel, as he can step out and hit a perimeter jumper as well as play with his back to the basket. Unfortunately, without consistent outside shooting or point guard play around him, Len could not fully showcase his game at Maryland.
Maybe the biggest red flag was his ankle, as he was unable to participate in the pre-draft process after undergoing surgery to stabilize a stress fracture. In that respect, Phoenix could be the ideal situation for Len. Their medical staff, widely considered the best in the NBA, has an almost unparalleled ability to keep players healthy. If any franchise can keep a 20-year old, 7’0 with foot problems upright, it’s the one that just got 55 productive games out of 34-year-old Jermaine O’Neal.
Len would have been the right pick for the Suns, even if they had won the lottery. You want to draft a center as early as possible in a rebuilding process, since you never know when you will have the chance to find one. Now, with Len in the fold, Phoenix will have more flexibility in the next few drafts. Almost any prospect they select in 2014 or 2015 will be able to fit with a two-way center like Len.The last thing you want to do is draft redundant players with Top 5 picks.