Prospects Find No Rest From 'Grueling Process' in Phoenix

Ryan Wolf/
by Matt Petersen

After several hours’ worth of drills, scrimmages and tests, the last thing draft prospects look forward to is more running.

The Suns’ collective response: too bad.

It’s a demanding approach, one Phoenix’s staff feels can reveal long-term toughness of body and mind.

“I think if you asked them, it’s probably open of the faster workouts they’ve been to,” said Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough. “We try to keep the pace going as much as we can. It’s physically demanding. There aren’t a whole lot of breaks.”

Fewer breaks means less recovery time, which in turn exposes players’ true reactions when fatigue sets in. If an athlete is mentally and physically strong at the end of a taxing drill, chances are he can be counted on at the end of a close game.

“You learn how the guys push themselves. This is a tough process for the players,” McDonough said. “This is a grueling process…you want to ­­see who fights through it even when they’re tired, even when they’re banged up. You also obviously want to see what kind of condition they’re in. More than anything it’s a test of physical and mental toughness just to see how the guys push when they, frankly, don’t want to do it at the end of a tough workout.”

Basketball skills matter as much as mental fortitude in such conditions. Are they still good shooters when they’re running on fumes? Do the little things – cuts, screens, defensive alertness – suffer when the body has been run through a game-like gamut of tests?

As a former player and current head coach, Jeff Hornacek has his own checklist of what he’s looking for.

“As the passer, do you see the opening right when it happens or are do you wait and maybe you’re a step too late throwing the pass?” he said. “On the screens, if you’re setting the screen, are you rolling hard? Is it the first step? If you’re a guard coming off that, do you see when the roller’s open or are you just thinking of how you’re going to score?”

It’s vital the players be provided game-like situations in which such things can be evaluated. For all its worth, film is shot a fair distance from the court. The Suns want to see up close how players respond, but they are restricted in how far they can go. A maximum of six prospects are allowed on the court at any one time.

Then there’s the matter of making the time. Most prospects visit (at least) half a dozen cities before the draft. Calendars are crowded. Mixing and matching available players who can somewhat match up in 3-on-3 scrimmages and drills takes a lot of work.

“We tried to do that initially to do that, at least initially, to have at least two point guards, to wing players and two big men,” McDonough said. “You can only have six players in a workout at a time, so we feel like doing it this way simulates game action the best. You can have some pick-and-roll situations. You can play some 3-on-3 full-court. You have individual matchups that are pretty good. You get to see how guys guard different positions if they’re cross-matched.”

All of the drills are performed at break-neck paces, and that’s just the baseline. Hornacek looks for guards who are willing to play full-court defense. Meanwhile McDonough judges whether an athlete has maintained, improved or lost his in-season conditioning.

When it’s finally over, many players jokingly topple to the floor in exhaustion. The less jocular types simply try to get their breath back.

McDonough’s view is simple: if you’re drafted by the Suns, get used to it.

“If you’re going to play the way we play and try to lead the league in fast-break points, you’re going to have to get up and down,” he said.