Suns Draft Isn't One Day, But Years in the Making

Ryan Wolf/Suns.com
Suns.com Columnist

Sports is all about immediacy in the 21st century. Instant reaction, fast insight and a constant stream of information. The moment is the thing people focus on and they tend to be enveloped by it like a pack of hungry jackals swarming fresh meat or, if you prefer a less gruesome but equally disturbing visual, a pack of teen girls swarming One Direction. Fans, and many media members, are engulfed by the moment and lose themselves in it. And you can’t blame them. It’s a byproduct of an age where we are constantly plugged in.

Thus is the case with the NBA Draft and the workouts leading up to them. With about a month to go before the commissioner steps to the podium in Brooklyn to announce that the Cleveland Cavaliers are on the clock, fans attention shifted to which college prospect worked out for which team, how they performed and what the general manager and head coach had to say about it. It all culminates in speculation about how players are moving up and down draft boards based on a few hours’ worth of pick-up ball and exercise.

The problem? While many look at this as some sort of start to the process that ends with a player walking across the stage and shaking hands with the commish, it really is more like the final job interview after a very grueling 12-month search. A journey that includes traveling tens of thousands of miles, through numerous countries, by dozens of individuals, who are filling hundreds of reports and creating numerous statistical prediction models.

“It’s not just going to games. It’s not just looking at analytics. It’s not just watching or interviewing the guys. It’s a massive collaborative effort.”

— Pat Connelly

One of those people, traveling, filing and reading reports is Suns assistant general manager Patrick Connelly. His name is one that most have never heard of but he, along with fellow assistant general manager Trevor Buckstein and the entire basketball operations staff, will have a large hand in shaping the future of the team.

“It’s not just going to games,” Connelly said of the draft and scouting process. “It’s not just looking at analytics. It’s not just watching or interviewing the guys. It’s a massive collaborative effort.

“We have our scouting staff, which is unbelievable. We have Zaheer Benjamin (VP, business planning & basketball analytics) and our analytics staff which does a great job in season for our coaches and looking at guys around our league and using the draft model to project how certain guys might do well in the league. And we also have our medical staff who go in there and get their hands on these guys too. It’s a marriage of multiple groups coming together to be as informed as possible, so when you make the pick you can’t feel like you missed something.”

That pick, or in this year’s case those four picks, start out as a list that probably looks closer to a call sheet for a sales staff than it does how you’d imagine a draft board. Names, upon names, upon names of guys who need to be watched, examined statistically and vetted personally while either moved up or being crossed off the list before late June.

“We probably start off with a raw list of hundreds,” Connelly shared. “We’ll sit down and anybody that you think, if he has this type of year, there’s even a two percent chance he’d be an NBA player. Over the course of the year you’re going out and a lot of it is a process of elimination. You’re whittling it down, whittling it down, whittling it down, until you get to a working list towards the end.”

The byproduct of watching hundreds and hundreds of prospects for 12 months or more? Reports that would put the ones you handed in back in college to shame. They amount to perspective and analysis to eat up the memory on an executive’s tablet.

“There is a ton of information,” Connelly said. “I don’t even want to guess how many pages of notes we’ve shared with each other this year. For the [player reports] and the last month and a half doing the heavy background research that takes a lot of work.”

If you think it’s just college talent who are the subject of this intense research, you’d be mistaken. In order to fairly assess the prospects in the draft, the franchise philosophy requires the basketball operations staff to know talent from across the globe.

“Ryan [McDonough’s] big model when he got here was ‘I don’t just want guys who know college guys,’” Connelly explained of the process. “If you know a college guy you can compare him to a D-League player and you can compare him to a guy playing in Spain in their second division and you can kind of compare and contrast. You have a great comparison point. You can get lost just watching college.”

“Ryan [McDonough’s] big model when he got here was ‘I don’t just want guys who know college guys.' If you know a college guy you can compare him to a D-League player and you can compare him to a guy playing in Spain in their second division and you can kind of compare and contrast.”

— Pat Connelly

In order to make sure the staff doesn’t lose its way, there is a running dialogue throughout the process, a healthy debate to determine who the best fit is in Phoenix. After the players are watched and analyzed and the reports are filed, the staff convenes to discuss what they’ve seen and rank the prospects.

“It’s a fluid process throughout the year,” Connelly explained. “We might do rankings four or five times a year.

“Obviously everyone gets a voice. We don’t want the group think. We don’t share our rankings, which is a beautiful thing. Guys don’t get influenced by how other guys are thinking. We want guys to come in with different viewpoints.”

One of those unique viewpoints comes in the form of head coach Jeff Hornacek. His years of playing experience combined with his time behind the bench adds valued insight into the process.

“Jeff talks to our guys and says this is the type of players he’d like in certain situations,” Connelly shared. “Not exact players but a guy that can do x, y and z in this type of position. You don’t want to pick a guy if it’s nowhere near our culture or system.”

And, much the way a set of LEGOs goes from individual pieces to a combined and cohesive structure, all these viewpoints are combined to give the Suns their official draft board. Tho becomes their guiding force to determine who they’ll select at picks No. 14, No. 18, No. 27 and No. 50.

So on draft night, when the words “With the No. 14 pick in the NBA Draft the Phoenix Suns select …” are spoken, don’t just get lost in the moment. Remember it wasn’t a decision that came lightly in the last month. It was one that was a year or more in the making.

“It is the culmination of a massive amount of man hours and massive amount of work put towards this one night,” Connelly said. “It is an exciting fast moving thing.”

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