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NBA PM: Pivotal Moment for the Phoenix Suns

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The Phoenix Suns lost 12 of their last 14 games to end the 2016-17 season. Losing so many games wasn’t simply the result of weak talent or poor play — the Suns lost these games to improve their draft status. When the Los Angeles Lakers suddenly won five of their last six games to end the season, the Suns may have felt their losing efforts had been vindicated with their increased chances of staying in the top three and possibly getting the number one pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.

Of course, the NBA Draft Lottery doesn’t always play out the way we expect. Had the lottery gone the way of the percentages, they would have obtained the number two pick. However, things didn’t go according to plan as both the Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers, despite having better records, jumped past the Suns in the Lottery, leaving Phoenix with the fourth overall pick.

Since 1988, the Suns have only had two top-five picks. In 2013, with the fifth pick in the draft, the Suns selected center Alex Len. Len has proven to be a solid rotation player but he has been unable to keep the starting center position. In 2016, with the fourth pick in the draft, the Suns selected power forward/center Dragan Bender — an international prospect drafted at the young age of 18. Bender has shown glimpses of his potential but not much else as he averaged just 3.4 points in his rookie season. These picks have been acceptable so far but have not really changed the course of the franchise.

With another top-five pick, the Suns now have another shot at selecting a franchise changing player. This draft is loaded with talented point guards and several other highly regarded prospects. With the recently confirmed trade of Boston’s number one pick, the 76ers are set to select University of Washington guard Markelle Fultz.

The Los Angeles Lakers are likely to select UCLA guard Lonzo Ball with the number two pick. That leaves the Celtics with the third draft slot and so far, indications are that Boston will select either Kansas forward Josh Jackson or perhaps Duke forward Jayson Tatum. Assuming above goes down, that leaves the Suns to choose next.

The highest rated prospect at that point will be Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox. Should the Suns select Fox, they will be adding a talented point guard prospect with plenty of upside. His speed and quickness allow him to put pressure on opposing defenses, both as a scorer and facilitator. These same traits could allow him to be a plus defender, which is critical in the NBA where there is no shortage of extremely talented point guards. However, Fox has a slender frame that he will need to grow into in order to matchup physically with the stronger point guards in the league.

Adding Fox makes sense despite the fact that the Suns already have a very capable point guard in Eric Bledsoe. The 27-year-old guard has started all but four games in four years with the Suns at point guard. However, despite his consierable talent, Bledsoe has struggled with injuries throughout his career and is under contract for just two more seasons ($14.5 million next season and $15 million in 2018-19). With an affordable annual salary, the Suns could potentially move Bledsoe in a deal to bring in more assets or players before potentially losing him as an unrestricted free agent. Turning the keys over to a young player like Fox isn’t exactly a move that will make the Suns competitive in the short term, but this is a young team that is building and developing together. Fox fits the Suns’ core players’ age range better than Bledsoe and could be a more affordable and better long term option at point guard.

However, if the Celtics pass on Jackson and perhaps take Tatum, that would allow the Suns to select Jackson. Jackson gives much of what the Suns need — an elite prospect who can excel without the ball, plays tenacious defense and possesses elite athleticism. Jackson would excel in an up-tempo attack led by Bledsoe with prolific scorer Devin Booker shooting from the outside and Jackson cutting and attacking the rim. Jackson’s defense could help strengthen a Suns’ defense that ranked 28th out of 30 teams in defensive rating as well. Drafting Jackson would be a coup for the Suns as he offers an intriguing wing and possible small ball four (if he bulks up) for the franchise to utilize.

But what if something even more unexpected occurs? The Lakers have shown at least some hesitation regarding Ball (who has not worked out for any other team) and have brought in other top prospects in for workouts. If the Lakers select another player at the second spot and Ball falls past the Celtics, who have shown a strong continuing commitment to Thomas as their point guard, that would allow the Suns to select Ball.

Although a less likely scenario, this an intriguing possibility for the Suns. They would again have to deal with already having Bledsoe on the roster, but at the very least there should be a strong market for his services. Regardless, the Suns would receive many of the same benefits that Lakers fans are clamoring for with the number two pick. Ball has already developed the hype of a star athlete. The hope for any team that drafts him is that his skills on the court match that notoriety and profile. Adding Ball in the backcourt with Booker would potentially make the Suns among the must-watch teams in the league, something the franchise has struggled to achieve and maintain since the mid-2000’s.

Ball offers great handles, excellent passing and prodigious court vision. His play makes the players around him better and, unlike many prospects at his age, he has a great feel for the game already. Among similar prospects, Ball lacks the elite athleticism of Jackson or Fox and has an unorthodox jump shot that could hurt him on the next level. Additionally, he is inconsistent on defense and either has an unwillingness or inability, so far, to get to the rim the way most people would expect. Regardless of the above, the Suns would be hard pressed to pass on Ball should he somehow drop to them at No. 4.

With three days left before the draft, speculation is rising that the Suns also have strong interest in 19-year-old prospect Florida State forward Jonathan Isaac. Isaac represents the biggest gamble of all the above players. Like Ball, Isaac has the potential to be a star. What sets Isaac apart are his physical attributes, athleticism and upside. Isaac is a 6-foot-10 combo forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. His quickness, reflexes and lateral movement allow him to stay in front of guards on defense and his length, size and athleticism allow him to defend down low. Like Jackson, Isaac would be a welcome addition for a team in need of some serious help on defense. The downside is that Isaac only showed glimpses of his full potential and has a long way to go to develop his offensive abilities. A team like the Suns might dream of Isaac becoming a Kevin Durant type of player based on size, athleticism and potential. However, that dream is a huge risk, to say the least.

Who the Suns take again comes down to the three teams ahead of them. The 76ers, in place of the Celtics, have made their pick. Once the Celtics and Lakers choose, the Suns will be in position take control of their future. Who they take could have a lasting impact and could set a new course for a team that has struggled to find its way over the last few years.

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About James Blancarte

James Blancarte

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.