NEW YORK — In 1969, the Phoenix Suns lost a coin flip, landed the second overall pick in the NBA draft … and missed out on Lew Alcindor. In 1987, the Suns rose from the No. 7 spot in the draft lottery, but finished landed one pick shy of No. 1 … and wound up missing out on David Robinson.
This year, for the first time in franchise history, the Suns got the chance to pick first. And this time, they made sure they didn’t miss out on a player they hope can be a franchise-shaping big man for years to come.
Given the pick of the litter in the 2018 NBA draft, the Suns stayed in-state, beginning Thursday night’s festivities at Barclays Center in Brooklyn by using the No. 1 overall pick on Arizona center Deandre Ayton. Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough will pair Ayton — a 7-foot, 250-pound center who was a dominant physical force during his lone year of college basketball — with high-scoring guard Devin Booker in hopes of creating a potent inside-out combo that can lift the Suns out of the doldrums of eight consecutive seasons without a playoff berth.
“Having my name called to be the first pick for the Phoenix Suns was mind-blowing,” Ayton told reporters at Barclays Center after his selection. “Having all that confidence and leading up to that point when I saw Adam Silver came out, I was just waiting for my name, and when he called it, my mind went blank. I just did the routine everyone else was supposed to do, and I just got up there and enjoyed the moment, and I saw the reaction on my mom’s face. It was just priceless.”
The Bahamas-born big man, a self-professed “entertainer” with personality to spare, has been talking up that possibility for months, touting an Ayton-Booker pairing as a reboot of the two-man power trip that hung three banners in the rafters in Los Angeles:
Deandre Ayton on @CBSSportsRadio earlier today about which team he would like to play for:
“Honestly, I could see myself in Phoenix. I could see a little Shaq and Kobe 2.0.” cc: @DevinBook
— The Bright Side (@BrightSideSun) March 31, 2018
Asked to elaborate on the comparison during Wednesday’s predraft media session, Ayton doubled down.
“The two-man game is really lethal in the NBA today and the spacing of the floor,” he told reporters. “In transition, having that pick-and-roll early in the game is crazy. I can pick-and-pop and Devin is a threat coming off the pick, so that’d be pretty hard to guard.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that inviting comparisons to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal seems awfully bold for a 19-year-old who’s yet to suit up for an NBA game, and who’s joining a franchise that has had more head coaches (five) than 35-win seasons (three) since 2010. But Ayton’s combination of size, strength, athleticism and offensive polish — a marriage of sheer brute force with skill and fluidity — have led some evaluators to believe a Hall-of-Fame ceiling really might not be out of the question.
They look at Ayton and see a player who, only a few years after arriving in the U.S. and after being bounced around a grassroots basketball system in which his development was often an afterthought to his future earning potential, proved to be a point-scoring, board-crashing monster. They see a prototypical modern big man — 7 feet tall with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, with quick enough feet to guard in space and hold up when switched onto guards — who averaged 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game en route to Pac-12 Player of the Year honors, as well as recognition as a consensus First-Team All-American.
They see a dominating rebounder, one capable of using his bulk to bull his way into advantageous positions and his quickness and second jump to generate more chances for contested caroms, pulling down 13.5 percent of available offensive boards and 28.2 percent of defensive rebounding opportunities during his time on the court at Arizona last season. They see a killer interior finisher, one who shot 82.1 percent on attempts at the rim, and who’s also got the touch to shoot 73.3 percent from the free-throw line and the range to shoot a shade 41.6 percent on jumpers, according to Hoop-Math.com.
There are also concerns. Some skeptics wonder how a player who figured prominently in an Arizona unit that finished 83rd in the nation last year in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, can be expected to serve as a badly needed defensive anchor for a Suns team that has ranked in the bottom third of the league in points allowed per possession in six of the past eight seasons, and finished dead last for last season. (The optimist’s contention: Ayton played largely out of position at power forward last season, rather than at center, and his shot-blocking and defensive impact numbers will play better at his natural position in the pros.)
Others wonder whether Ayton’s got the requisite awareness — of how, where and when to rotate as a help defender, of how best to leverage his mass to serve as a screener to pop his teammates open — to become an elite two-way player at the next level. That Ayton’s lone collegiate season ended in stunning blowout upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament in March didn’t exactly dispel fears over Ayton’s capacity to elevate a team on both ends of the floor, rather than merely getting his own numbers.
But March failings only matter so much come June; after all, the last two No. 1 overall picks didn’t even play in the tournament. To NBA decision-makers, what you can do next matters more than what you’ve done before. When the Suns look at Ayton, they see a player who already has so much in the bag at age 19 — who’s already shown flashes of making plays out of double teams and improving on the defensive end — and they start to salivate at the prospect or what they might see when they look at him in a couple of years’ time, when a core of Ayton, Booker, versatile swingman Josh Jackson and steady-scoring forward T.J. Warren might be ready to make some noise in the Western Conference.
Ayton’s well aware of the criticisms of his game, and the broader notion that banking hopes for a championship future on a 7-footer might be a fool’s errand in an era where the teams vying for titles tend to be going smaller earlier and more often than ever. He is, as you might expect, not overly concerned.
“Smallball? What is smallball? I play basketball,” Ayton told Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Sharp. “I play center, and if you haven’t watched me play, I’m not a regular big man. I can move my feet. Not saying I can stop anyone out there who’s in front of me, but trust me, I can really be a problem on the perimeter guarding somebody. I can switch from the center to the guards.
“The game is evolving. You got dudes like Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, all these 7-footers, doing everything. They’re unstoppable. We can grab the board, take it down the floor and then score just as well. There’s no stopping us.”
We’ll find out soon enough whether Ayton’s able to back up that bold talk. If he can, for the first time since Steve Nash left town, the Suns might just be on the rise once again.
“Let’s start a winning legacy,” Ayton said Wednesday. “That’s about it. Let’s start a winning legacy. If we just win games, that would be great.”
More NBA coverage:
– – – – – – –
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Female reporter sexually assaulted during live World Cup broadcast
• Sources: Charlotte ships Dwight Howard to Brooklyn for Timofey Mozgov
• Report: Top NBA prospects really don’t want to get drafted by the Kings
• Shams Charania: Kawhi Leonard meets with Coach Pop in Calif.