By Stefan Swiat, Suns.com
Posted: May 14, 2009
When it comes to the draft lottery, who knew that the Suns’ best asset in landing the No. 1 pick could be Shaquille O’Neal?
The Suns, who are the team that finished with the best record without making the playoffs, have the least amount of chance at landing the top pick. In fact, they have a .5 percent chance of winning the first selection. But the odds have never bothered O’Neal.
The last time Shaq didn’t make the playoffs was his rookie season in Orlando. Although Orlando tied the Pacers for the eighth and final spot, the Magic remained home during the playoffs after losing the tiebreaker to Indiana.
With only one ping-pong ball of the 66 located inside the lucky cylinder, Orlando was “magically” able to secure the No. 1 pick. The Magic then chose Chris Webber and traded him for Penny Hardaway, creating one of the best inside-outside combinations in league history.
So the question is: Can Shaq channel his inner Kazaam and whistle up some of that same sorcery he used during that identical situation in Orlando? Phoenix can only hope.
As it stands, the Suns are projected to come away with the No. 14 pick when the lottery balls start hopping on May 19 in Secaucus, NJ. But Suns President of Basketball Operations and GM Steve Kerr knows that anything can happen.
“Like everyone else in the lottery, we’re holding out hope that we’re going to get lucky and that we get that first pick,” he said. “I think the Bulls had only around a 2 percent chance at winning the top pick last year; so it can happen. Sacramento, which has a 25 percent chance at winning also has a 75 percent chance that they won’t.”
The Suns’ front office and scouting department have been steadfastly preparing for the upcoming draft since the conclusion of last season’s draft. Although not comprised of a bevy of stars at the top of the draft, they believe that this year’s crop of prospects is deep with talent.
Unlike the NFL, where moving up and down in the draft order is common, NBA teams usually sit tight. And due to the fact that most GMs don’t believe that this draft is laden with superstars, movement should be kept to a minimum on draft day.
The Suns are one of those teams that expect to follow suit. Even if Phoenix ends up with the No. 14 pick, there is little chance that it tries to move up.
Besides the No. 14 selection, the Suns also possess two picks in the second round. They will be drating from the No. 48 and No. 57 spots.
Because of the depth of the draft, Kerr believes that Phoenix might be able to land a couple of decent prospects with those choices. With an aging team, this draft could prove valuable in adding young talent.
“You really kind of scale down your list during the season,” Kerr said. “We have scouts watching games all over the country then we meet, talk about who we like and then narrow our list down.”
The majority of the Suns' scouting duties falls on Kerr, Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin, Director of Player Personnel Todd Quinter and Head Scout John Shumate. Griffin, in particular, is integral in the Suns' decision-making process on draft day.
Usually the scouting season consists of covering college and international games, heading to Orlando for the pre-Draft camp and then holding individual workouts and evaluations. However, the league has condensed the pre-Draft camp into a little more than a physical evaluation.
Instead of scrimmaging, the players will undergo medical examinations as well as physical tests. The players will have their height and weight measured as well as their vertical leap, speed and reach.
Due to the change, scouts are forced to rely more on the players’ seasons and individual workouts. For Kerr, meeting with players one-on-one lends him insight into their personalities, work ethic and goals.
“I put a lot of weight on our interviews,” he said. “It’s pretty easy to see talent you can tell who the best players are. Very few guys slip through the cracks anymore.”
But Kerr is also paying close attention to their answers.
“You have to have your antenna up for sure,” Kerr said. “We do a lot of fact-checking with college coaches to ask about their own players and other players in their conferences.”
The Suns finish drawing up their draft board just after the pull-out date on June 15. It's on that date that players that haven’t signed with an agent and don't feel confident about their draft stock can return to college.
Any player that has signed with an agent must stay in the draft. With the knowledge of where all the teams are selecting and the list of all of the entries into the draft pool finalized, it’s fairly easy for Kerr to zero in on his favorites.
Usually, there is a list of around five players that the front office will covet at each spot. However, if a more top-rated prospect slips to the Suns' draft position, Kerr says that the Suns will most likely nab him.
“What I’ve found is that every year no matter what we think our list looks like, there’s one or two guys that slip down and we think, ‘No way, that guy lasted to us?’” he said.
This year, the Suns aren’t looking to fill a specific position or need as much as they’re looking for the best overall player.
“I don’t think we can necessarily fill holes because I think our team within two or three years is going to look dramatically different because Steve, Shaq and Grant are all going to be moving on,” Kerr said. “I think the biggest thing - from the teams that I’ve been on - is a player’s character. You really know when you’ve got a guy who’s a pro and who wants to be great, who’s a good teammate, who works and those are the guys you want to make up your team.
“That’s one of the reasons that the Suns have been really successful. They’ve made sure to go after high-character guys.”
Drafting a player that wields talent and displays high-character is the most ideal, and considering the state of the team’s personnel, it is the most desired option.
“To draft for a need and bypass somebody who could potentially be a better player doesn’t make sense to me because of where we’re at as a team,” Kerr said. "We’re still a playoff-caliber team but we definitely have to look to the future because there is a transition that’s going on as we speak. To me it’d be tough to pass up anybody we feel has a chance to be special and we may have to take a little chance and say, ‘This guy may not be as accomplished as so-and-so, but he’s got more potential and more upside.’”
So as the Suns continue to prepare for the draft, Phoenix will be sending newly-named Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry to New Jersey for the NBA Draft Lottery as its lucky charm.
"Alvin made the mistake of telling me that when he was with the Clippers that they had the eighth-best shot (of landing the No. 1 pick) and they ended up with the No. 2 pick," Kerr said. "I said, 'Congratulations, you just won a trip to Secaucus.' If he was lucky then, hopefully he'll be lucky for us this time too."
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