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James Jones' quiet 2022 NBA Draft sets stage for Suns' pressure cooker free agency

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
June 24, 2022

Draft day is typically full of rumors, conjecture and smokescreens, followed by significantly fewer or less significant moves than anticipated. The 2022 NBA Draft was no different, but even though it was a relatively mundane night from a trade perspective, that dull feeling was especially applicable to the Phoenix Suns and general manager James Jones.

Entering the night, it was reasonable to expect an uneventful evening for the Suns. They owed their first-round pick (No. 30) to the Oklahoma City Thunder as part of the Chris Paul trade two years ago, and their second-round pick (No. 58) went to the Indiana Pacers at this year’s trade deadline to bring Torrey Craig back.

Both were well worth losing those picks over, considering the immense value CP3 brought to Phoenix and the simple fact that Craig will be more valuable — even in a short stint — than whoever the Suns might have selected with the draft’s final pick.

Even so, for a team reeling from an inexplicable, worst-ever playoff loss in franchise history, the lack of activity on draft night was underwhelming…though Jones claimed it wasn’t for a lack of effort.

“There were a few guys, a number of guys that we targeted, just the deals that we had, they didn’t come together,” Jones said. “But I thought that the draft had some quality depth at some good positions. Ultimately we weren’t able to execute some of those trades, and now we’ll just look forward to free agency.”

Perhaps the Suns’ top prospects were gone by the time they wanted to trade into the second round, but several teams easily maneuvered their way into the 50s, 40s and even 30s, as the Los Angeles Lakers did earlier in the day at No. 35.

Teams like the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics show this season just how important home-grown talents are, especially to sustain success beyond a one- or two-year window. Hitting late in the first round and even the second round is key to supplementing established, expensive rosters with team-controlled, cost-effective production from rookie contracts.

However, that doesn’t seem to be Jones’ approach. As an in-depth ESPN article laid out on Wednesday, the Suns have a comparatively scant scouting department, don’t find much value in developing project players and typically whittle their draft board down to six or seven prospects. Phoenix didn’t move into the draft, but Jones pushed back on the idea that they only evaluate a handful of players.

“Nah, man, we have every player that’s in the draft processed on our board,” he said. “When you get down to it, if you look at the combination of fit, skill-set, talent, need, you typically get down somewhere about 10 guys who you know are really high-level fits. After that, you’re talking about degrees of fit, and how much time, how much energy, how many opportunities guys will need to assimilate and kind of get acclimated to how you play. So you just prioritize and you put them in tiers.”

Casey Jacobsen, a former Sun who was drafted by the team in 2002 and now serves as a college basketball analyst for FS1 and the Pac-12 Network, still follows the team. And surprisingly, the draft guru has no qualms with the way Phoenix operates on that front.

“If I’m a fan, I want my team to always be thinking about now,” Jacobsen told PHNX Sports. “Okay, yes, a little bit in the future, but I don’t want to hear about a five-, six, seven-year plan. I don’t want to hear about that. I’m not about the ‘Trust the Process’ thing. I can only trust the process for so long, man. You gotta give me some payoff.”

The Suns didn’t reach the ultimate payoff, but the days of “The Timeline” were rapidly — and successfully — replaced by additions like Ricky Rubio and Kelly Oubre Jr., the CP3 trade, the Jae Crowder signing, an NBA Finals run and a 64-win season. The foundations of success lie in that perfect harmony between drafting well (Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson) and win-now maneuvers for established talent (Paul, Crowder, JaVale McGee).

The problem is, it’s more difficult to evaluate draft prospects now that they’re younger and not even fully formed players yet. It’s not a complete crapshoot, but even an expert like Jacobsen acknowledges a thorough draft process won’t always yield positive results.

“When you go to the college level, you’re finally playing against some well-coached guys that are older or just as good as you,” he explained. “It’s the first time we actually see these players get tested and go through adversity on the floor. And is 30 games really enough to evaluate what a guy can do at the NBA level? I would argue that it’s not, and so we’re often rolling the dice.”

None of the players or deals that Jones targeted came to fruition, which the Suns GM said is typical of any draft where 30 teams are simultaneously scrambling to hold negotiations to improve their team. Jones also mentioned that more teams reached out to Phoenix this year due to their lack of picks, and that these conversations — even if they go nowhere — help GMs get the lay of the land before free agency.

“The conversations we have on draft night, most of them don’t involve whether or not we can acquire players or picks,” he explained. “They’re usually opportunities for teams to figure out what the future landscape looks like, and try to find where teams are going with their teams. Because all of these deals are intertwined. If you’re talking to one team, you’re probably talking to 10, you’re trying to find out who has the best deal, and then they’re trying to communicate with you in a timely fashion why they aren’t going with your offer. And then you just try to adjust.”

The Suns already have an established core, and Jones’ team-building process comes in “waves” between the draft, trades and free agency. Sometimes it’ll be heavier on the draft, and sometimes that brunt of the work lies in free agency. This year certainly fits that bill, and an uneventful draft night puts the pressure on Jones and company to nail what’s coming next.

During exit interviews, Jones emphasized continuity and internal growth — tentpoles he referenced again during Thursday’s post-draft availability.

“Contracts, they come, they end, and you look to add to your team,” Jones said. “For us, we’ll continue to grow internally, we’ll continue to build. We’ll get Dario Saric back, and we’ll get all of our players who are young, improving players to get another crack at it. So we’ll continue to strengthen our team in different ways, because as some guys get better, the things that you ask them to do, you need to create space for other guys to support them.”

Those words sound ominous, especially in light of Ayton’s murky future. Over the last few weeks, there’s been ample rumors and speculation about his desire to leave, the Suns’ desire to see him gone, and feuds between DA and Booker. There have been reports the Suns are unlikely to match a max offer for their restricted free agent (which would be foolish) and that they’re expected to pursue sign-and-trade scenarios instead.

Jones acknowledged Ayton is the big storyline everyone wants to talk about, but reiterated what he said during exit interviews: The Suns value what DA brings to the team on both ends of the floor.

“Nothing’s changed on our end,” Jones said. “We haven’t said anything different. DA remains a huge part of what we do, and he’s a free agent. And so we’ll talk about free agency when that time comes, but that hasn’t changed. I think you hear his teammates, they echo the same sentiment that we have. This team’s a really good team, and we want to keep it together.”

As Jones referenced, Ayton’s teammates backed “their guy” at McGee’s charity softball game on Wednesday. Bridges called Ayton his best friend and said he obviously wants him back. And while the veterans like Paul and McGee said Ayton should do what’s best for himself and his family, Cam Johnson said Ayton is the kind of guy he’ll always want on his team.

Opinions elsewhere seem to be split. Former Suns center Steven Hunter, who participated in McGee’s event the night before the draft, said Ayton leaving Phoenix would be a loss but doesn’t envision him getting the payday he wants from the team.

“Unless you’re a superstar in the league, it’s hard to give a big max contract these days because of how the NBA is played,” Hunter told PHNX Sports. “So with the money they gave Chris Paul, with the money they gave Devin and gonna continue to give him, and a lot of our role players to keep our core intact, I just think it’s a little too much spending for Robert Sarver at this point.”

ESPN analyst Corey Williams has an obvious affinity for Ayton as a former Arizona alumnus himself, but he raised a valid question in regards to DA: If he’s not in the Suns’ plans, who is?

“You gotta pay the man, plain and simple,” Williams said. “The way I look at it is, what’s your other option? I mean, he’s one of the best young big men in the NBA, the fans love him, he’s produced. Yeah, he got outplayed by Giannis in the Finals, but who doesn’t? The upside with him is tremendous, so my question is, if you don’t pay Ayton, what are you doing? What are you choosing?”

Similarly, Jacobsen still remembers watching Ayton think too much on defense during his time in college, which speaks to his growth during his short time in the league. With DA showing rapid signs of improvement and only being 24 years old, the sun is still shining on the big fella in Jacobsen’s book.

“Here’s what I know: I love Deandre Ayton as a player, and he has been exactly what I hoped he would be,” he said. “He is still super rare, so if you take a step back and try and list on a piece of paper how many big men — truly 6’11”, 7-footers — who can play both ends of the floor like he can…he’s not the only one, but man, that list is small.”

Between Ayton’s situation, a super-max for Booker, a potential rookie-scale extension for Johnson and hopefully finding another ball-handler with the mid-level exception, Jones has a busy summer ahead. The offseason technically kicked off in earnest with Thursday’s draft, but thanks to a quiet evening, all the pressure to get this pivotal summer right has ramped up heading into next week.

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