Suns’ de­ci­sion not as clear-cut as it ap­pears

Edmonton Journal - - SPORTS - RYAN WOL­STAT Toronto rwol­stat@post­media.com

After years in the post-Steve Nash wilder­ness, some­thing good hap­pened this week to a Phoenix Suns fran­chise that des­per­ately needed a bit of luck.

The Suns won the NBA’s draft lot­tery on Tues­day night in Chicago, giv­ing the league’s worst team in 2017-18 (an ugly 6-35 fin­ish got them there) the op­por­tu­nity to se­lect a fran­chisechang­ing piece to add to Devin Booker and a lot of young ques­tion marks.

The ques­tion now is who do they take next month?

Some­times it’s a no-brainer (think An­thony Davis, Karl An­thony Towns, or Ben Sim­mons in re­cent years), oc­ca­sion­ally no­body stands out and you roll the dice, but this year, there is real drama.

Dean­dre Ay­ton is a 7-foot-plus, ath­letic freak of na­ture who played just down the road in Tuc­son. He can score in a va­ri­ety of ways and should de­velop as a de­fender, given his size, length and leap­ing abil­ity. In the old NBA, where gi­ants roamed and the in­te­rior game still mat­tered most, Ay­ton would have been the easy pick. But Phoenix re­cently hired Igor Kokoskov away from the Utah Jazz to be its new head coach. As fate would have it, Kokoskov helmed the Slove­nian na­tional team last sum­mer, a team that fea­tured point for­ward prodigy Luka Don­cic and won the Euro Bas­ket tour­na­ment. Few teenagers have looked spec­tac­u­lar in the Span­ish ACB and Euro League, but the 6-foot-8 Don­cic has dropped jaws all sea­son long against com­pe­ti­tion sec­ond only to that of the NBA.

Kokoskov is one voice in the Phoenix war room, but he will know Don­cic’s strengths and weak­nesses in­side and out and loves the kid.

“I can’t com­pare those two guys be­cause I lived with Luka. I coached Luka,” Kokoskov told re­porters prior to the lot­tery, via az­cen­tral.com.

“I’ve watched high­lights of the other kid (Ay­ton). I don’t ever run away from my opin­ion, but other guys have seen him play a lot more than me.”

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters is the fact that Phoenix drafted Josh Jack­son, an­other 6-foot-8 for­ward with some play­mak­ing skills, fourth over­all last June. It’s pos­si­ble that Jack­son could be a full-time small ball power for­ward along­side Don­cic once he adds some weight, but the Suns could use a le­git­i­mate cen­tre like Ay­ton, with Tyson Chandler near­ing the end of the road and fel­low high picks Dra­gan Ben­der and Mar­quese Chriss still look­ing a long way from be­ing use­ful NBAers on a good team.

Mean­while, Sacra­mento’s in a great spot. The lot­tery’s other big win­ners jumped from sev­en­thbest odds head­ing in to the sec­ond pick and can sim­ply take the guy the Suns pass on. Re­plac­ing De­Mar­cus Cousins with Ay­ton would be great for the fran­chise. Or they could con­sider Duke’s pol­ished pro­ducer Marvin Ba­gley III if Ay­ton is gone and they don’t want to gam­ble on Don­cic tran­si­tion­ing well to the NBA. Re­build­ing Sacra­mento will lose its pick next year be­cause of a hor­ren­dous deal made a few years ago (un­less the Kings win the lot­tery) with Phil­a­del­phia (the Celtics now own the pick), so it needs to hit a home run here. The odds of do­ing that now are far better than when the club looked like it would be se­lect­ing from the sev­enth spot.

In the win­ners and losers cat­e­gory, At­lanta moved up from fourth to third, Mem­phis dropped from two to four, Dal­las fell from three to five — prompt­ing an “of course,” tweet from Dirk Now­itzki — while Or­lando (five to six) and Chicago (six to seven) each moved down one spot.

While Ay­ton and Don­cic are seen as the po­ten­tial fran­chise chang­ers, the other high-lot­tery teams should have a num­ber of tal­ented big men (Ba­gley, Jaren Jack­son Jr., Mo Bamba and Wen­dell Carter) to choose from, along with in­trigu­ing scorer Michael Porter Jr. (in­jured for nearly the en­tire sea­son, but a po­ten­tial Top 2 pick en­ter­ing the year), scor­ing and as­sist machine Trae Young, a di­vi­sive prospect to be sure, or oth­ers.

Cana­dian R.J. Bar­rett is ex­pected to be the clear No. 1 choice in 2019 after he spends a year at Duke.

EAST­ERN CON­FER­ENCE IN­TRIGUE

The Bos­ton Celtics con­tinue to defy the odds de­spite the ab­sences of Kyrie Irv­ing and Gor­don Hayward. Bos­ton won both games at home over Cleve­land, de­spite a 42-point, triple-dou­ble from LeBron James in Game 2 on Tues­day night.

The Celtics play with a phys­i­cal­ity that the Toronto Rap­tors lacked against LeBron and Co. and it is mak­ing a big dif­fer­ence. Mov­ing for­ward, Toronto must add more big, tough com­peti­tors. It isn’t all about tal­ent, length or ath­leti­cism. Hav­ing Al Hor­ford helps quite a bit, too. The Rap­tors des­per­ately wanted Hor­ford (and his for­mer team­mate Paul Mill­sap when both played for At­lanta), but in­stead landed Serge Ibaka, who is nowhere close to be­ing as im­pact­ful at this point. At­lanta fool­ishly lost both big men for noth­ing in­stead of mak­ing a deal. After sign­ing as a free agent, Hor­ford emerged as the first face of a new con­tender and has sta­bi­lized things for the Celtics in the ab­sence of the team’s vet­eran stars. Hor­ford is an ideal de­fen­sive leader, while Mar­cus Mor­ris has done a nice job on James, de­spite the four­time MVP’s in­di­vid­ual stat-line.

“We’re do­ing what­ever it takes,” Mor­ris told re­porters after Cavs coach Ty Lue said the team was “goon­ing the game up.”

“We go out there, we com­pete,” Hor­ford said.

Un­like against the Rap­tors, the Cleve­land sup­port­ing cast has been dread­ful vs. Bos­ton. Kevin Love and Kyle Korver have each only hit 30 per cent of their three-point at­tempts (com­pared to 35 and 56 per cent against Toronto), J.R. Smith has missed all seven of his out­side shots after hit­ting a blis­ter­ing and thor­oughly ridicu­lous 10-of-13 against the Rap­tors.

KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IM­AGES

Ari­zona cen­tre Dean­dre Ay­ton, at more that seven feet tall, is ar­guably the best choice as the player the Phoenix Suns should build around.

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