The Suns are less than a month away from a choice that will define the franchise going forward, for better or worse.
General Manager Ryan McDonough is doing his homework, and we’re doing the same.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll lay out the case for some of the top options before making an official recommendation for the pick a few days before the June 21 NBA draft.
Greg Oden had been on the court in Boise, Idaho, almost like some sort of warning. A decade earlier, the Trail Blazers had made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft.
It was hailed as a smart move. The Blazers had Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy on the wing. They had all-rookie first-teamer LaMarcus Aldridge on the block. And Oden looked like the perfect complement, a dominant big man who was being compared to Bill Russell.
Flash forward 11 years and Oden was leisurely collecting missed jumpers for a bunch of college kids as a volunteer assistant coach with Ohio State, getting ready for an NCAA Tournament game against South Dakota State.
Kevin Durant, taken one pick behind Oden, had scored 26 on the Lakers a night earlier, an off night given that he had gone for 40 and 39 the previous two games. Durant had developed into a nine-time All-Star, seven-time All-NBA, four-time scoring champ, league MVP and Finals MVP.
His three-game scoring output of 105 points matched the total number of games Oden played over seven NBA seasons, four of which he missed entirely.
There’s no such thing as a sure thing, and a few hours later the latest can’t-miss low-post prospect, Deandre Ayton, would take the court.
'Ayton plays a lot harder'
Ayton has to be seen to be believed. Statistics (21.1 points, 11.6 rebounds), measurements (7-foot-1, 250 pounds) and accolades (Pac-12 player of the year, first team All-America) don’t begin to show what he’s about.
“As good as Ayton looked in film, when you see him in person, he’s big. Ayton is big, like NBA first-round, Number 1-pick big,” Buffalo coach Nate Oats said. “He’s what you think of as an NBA center.”
Oats exploited college rules to shut down Ayton and pull off an upset over Arizona, further proving the adage that as in life, there are no guarantees in sport.
But the game helped make the case for Ayton as the top pick.
“I still think he’s gonna be a better pro than he was a college player … go back to guys who are as gifted as Ayton, physically,” Oats said. “There’s not many in the last 15 years. It’s almost like Dwight Howard. I think Ayton plays a lot harder, but he’s more skilled on offense.”
Plus, the knock that’s dogged the gregarious Howard, that he’s too friendly and doesn’t demand the ball in crucial moments, doesn’t apply to Ayton.
Against Buffalo, he repeatedly worked to establish post position against multiple defenders, one fronting, one camped between him and the rim.
UA guards were reluctant to throw the entry pass, and the hesitation only made it worse.
At one point, Ayton did something that’s hard to imagine from Howard: He slapped his massive palm on the court and screamed, “Throw the ball!”
He wants it.
But he also wants to get better.
'Literally, before the game'
Teammate Rawle Alkins told a story about Ayton before the Big Dance that shows what former UA assistant and current Pepperdine head coach Lorenzo Romar meant when he said the big man was “born to play basketball.”
Ayton had been getting frustrated trying to score during an early-season tournament in the Bahamas.
Alkins suggested Ayton spin when defenders shoot underneath for steals. Ayton was open to the suggestion, but didn’t have the move in his repertoire.
Alkins pulled the big man aside and showed him the footwork.
“I taught him the spin move, literally, before the game,” Alkins said. “And he did the move in the game and looked over at me and was like, ‘Thanks!’ After that he tried to do a spin move every game, and he’s just been killing people with it.”
Another No. 1 overall pick in Boise that day, Chris Webber, listened as the story was repeated and looked impressed that Ayton could learn so quickly.
Arizona guard Allonzo Trier at the Phoenix Suns pre-draft workout on June 1, 2018 at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Ariz. Arizona Republic
He’d been mulling whether Ayton or Marvin Bagley III would be taken at the top of the draft. (There wasn’t much buzz about Luka Doncic during March Madness.)
These are the sorts of anecdotes that sway opinions.
General managers are looking for players who love the game, want to improve and get along with their teammates.
But no one wants to draft a player who turns out to be injury prone, as Oden did.
It can be one of the hardest variables to predict, but flexibility and coordination are good indicators. Stiff, plodding guys, such as Oden, get hurt a lot.
Ayton is neither.
During warmups, UA players would swing their legs forward in a standard, dynamic hamstring stretch.
Strength-and-conditioning coaches will say it’s good to loosen up by getting the leg perpendicular to the body without bending at the knee. The higher a player’s foot swings toward his head without straining the better.
Ayton effortlessly kicks straight up, like a karate black belt in a tank top and shorts.
He’s limber enough to chase guards around the perimeter on defensive switches, but he’s also coordinated enough to do it without grabbing and holding.
Ayton averaged fewer than three fouls per game during the season, and against Buffalo he wasn't hit with a single whistle in 38 minutes of play.
"He moves his feet pretty well for a guy his size," Oats said.
It was an understatement.
The skills and intangibles Ayton put on display in Boise were enough to leave any observer convinced he should be the No. 1 pick.
Reach Moore at email@example.com or 602-444-2236. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @WritingMoore.