Suns Won't Let Age Define Talent 'Ceiling' of Draft Prospects

The Suns went young in the 2013 NBA Draft, but that doesn't mean age will determine who Phoenix selects in 2014.
Barry Gossage/NBAE
by Matt Petersen

There’s no lack of extremes when it comes to the NBA Draft. Age is one of them.

Given a choice between a 23-year-old college star and a 19-year-old prospect with minimal experience, many experts and onlookers elect the latter. Why?

In a word: potential.

Too often, the elder college star is deemed the MySpace of 2007. The youngster is Facebook. The former’s ceiling is “maxed out.” The latter’s is “limitless.”

It’s a popular vein of thought and judgment, one to which the Suns will not cling.

“We try to take the best guys regardless of age,” said Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough.

The logic for doing so is linear. It is tempting to think a younger player at Point A of his career will surpass an older prospect at Point C. The untapped and unknown has a way of seducing fans and experts alike, essentially saying “for all you know, I could be great.”

Phoenix is not afraid to take a youngster if they see enough evidence of such potential. They did so last summer when they drafted a 19-year-old at No. 5 (Alex Len) and an 18-year-old at No. 29 (Archie Goodwin).

Yet taking younger inexperience over still-young, battle-tested prospects carries as much risk as attraction. The dilemma was voiced in McDonough’s recent breakdown of one big man prospect during pre-draft workouts.

“With a guy that young, it is projecting,” McDonough said. “Now, can he get bigger and stronger and play some more in the post? You hope so. That’s the calculation we have to make and other teams have to make.”

Physique is just part of it, but it’s a big one. Suns Head Coach Jeff Hornacek jokingly asked recent workout participant Jerami Grant if his frame would end up like his father (former Blazers small forward Harvey Grant) or his uncle (former Bulls and Magic power forward Horace Grant).

“I guess [older players] are probably closer to their ceiling, is the best way to put it...You have to factor that in, but at the same time you don’t dismiss guys because of that.”

— Ryan McDonough

Those questions are easier to answer as a player gets further into his twenties. The doubts are removed and, in many cases, allow a team to feel that much more confident about drafting older players.

“Usually, physically, those guys are closer to what they will be at 23,” McDonough said.

It’s worth noting that the clock of Phoenix’s rebuilding phase has moved forward. The Suns, for all of their feel-good success, finished one game outside the playoffs this season.  They are aiming for further improvement, something an NBA-ready rookie could provide.

The Suns “draft the best guy” strategy, however, also swings the other way. They won’t hesitate to pull the trigger on a potential star, even if he isn’t ready to start on day one.

“Just because we were close to the playoffs, we’re not going to draft a guy just because he’s able to play right away,” McDonough said. “I think that’s where a lot of mistakes get made.”

It’s just as big of a mistake to use age as a measure of a player’s potntial or “ceiling.” Some prospects do indeed have brighter futures than others.

Many times, however, an extra two years are inaccurately used as a handicap. McDonough prefers to see them for what they really are: proof that the player in question is simply further along his basketball path.

“I guess [older players] are probably closer to their ceiling, is the best way to put it,” McDonough said. “They’re not 19 or 20 years old. A guy like that, he’s probably the same age as half of our team. You have to factor that in, but at the same time you don’t dismiss guys because of that.”