Suns Engaged in Present vs. Potential Draft Debate

Zac Walberer/
by Matt Petersen

In a way, the Suns are evaluating two prospects for every one they bring in leading up to the draft.

There’s the “today” player. The scouting report on him is, usually, accurate. It’s also confirmed by Jeff Hornacek during the ongoing string of pre-draft workouts. As a head coach, he envisions how the current version of a given prospect could contribute today, this minute, with his team.

General Manager Ryan McDonough allows Hornacek to handle the bulk of hands-on duties in the pre-draft workouts. By the time they’re done – usually concluding with the dreaded three-minute run drill – the duo usually find a similarity of opinions on the prospect as he stands today.

“I think we’re pretty much on the same page,” Hornacek said. “When we talk about players who we think are pretty good, we’re in agreement. Guys that might be a little lacking in this area and that area, it seems pretty similar. There’s some differences at what level. Are they a nine or an eight? Are they a nine or a 10? It’s very slight.”

Of course, the draft isn’t just about today. McDonough labeled the draft the “lifeblood” of a franchise, indicating there’s a long-term course, a lasting foundation.

And while Hornacek is lauded as a developer of talent, he in turn praises McDonough’s ability to ascertain that there is talent to be tapped in the first place.

“As coaches, we naturally try to think, ‘can they play immediately?’” Hornacek said. “Ryan has done this now for 11 or 12 years…I think he probably has a better view on how they can be four or five years down the line as players.”

“I’ll ask Ryan, ‘do you think that kid can get better in four of five years?’ Hornacek added. “He’ll say yes or he’ll say ‘it looks like he’s probably maxed out at what he’s going to do.’”

It’s hardly an exact science, though McDonough comes close by combining analytics with fundamental basketball know-how. His success at doing so is vital for a Suns franchise that has three first-round draft picks this summer and potentially three more in 2015 – their own pick, the Timberwolves’ (top-12 protected) and the Lakers (top-five protected).

It’s also a process that leaves no stone unturned. Phoenix need only look at current star Goran Dragic and its head coach to know the value of doing one’s homework late in the game – or, in this case, late into the draft board.

The Slovenian wasn’t taken until the 45th overall pick in the 2008 Draft. Phoenix couldn’t move fast enough to trade for him on draft night. Six years later, he was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player and was deemed by many as a “snub” from the All-Star Game.

In 1986, the Suns took a flyer on Hornacek at pick No. 46. Six years later (1992), he received All-Star honors.

Other current roster players exhibit similar value well outside the first handful of picks in the draft. Eric Bledsoe and Gerald Green were taken 18th. Miles Plumlee went 26th. Ish Smith went undrafted.

Potential, however, is both attractive and deceiving when it comes to the draft process. How much should  a possible future counter the present?

“That’s always the challenge for guys in our position,” McDonough acknowledged. “What do you do? Do you take the guy with some upside who might have a higher ceiling but it might take him longer to get there, if he ever gets there? Or do you take a more ready-made player? Usually the guys who come in and have an impact, especially on good teams, are guys who just finished their junior or senior year. You can slot them in and they can play right away. Physically they’re ready to play.”

The debate is executed in a group setting. The front office and coaching staffs usually meet the day after a workout or – if it’s a particularly busy week – at the end of the week to compare notes. Discrepancies aren’t frowned upon. They’re encouraged.

“That’s what makes it great to all the guys, all our scouts,” Hornacek said. “We still want to have those different opinions. If everybody’s the same thought, you’d probably think something’s wrong. Everybody sees this guy the same way?...It makes good talk, good discussion. That’s where you’re trying to figure out who that one guy that fits on your team is.”