Portis, Looney headline ‘great’ Suns pre-draft workout

Arkansas forward Bobby Portis was the SEC Player of the Year last season.

Beth Hall/Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX — An interesting concept seized control of the Suns’ pre-draft audition Tuesday morning on the practice court at U.S. Airways Center.

Although the six-player workout limited the competition component to 3-on-3 alignments, some serious basketball erupted.

The prospects in attendance included Arkansas sophomore Bobby Portis and UCLA freshman Kevon Looney, a couple of young men projected to come off the board in the vicinity of pick No. 13 . . . which the Suns currently hold.

Their partners on this day were four seniors — Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton, Rayvonte Rice of Illinois, Gonzaga’s Gary Bell and Ohio State playmaker Shannon Scott.

With Portis and Looney as anticipated first-round attractions, this crew demonstrated that — in addition to the shooting and size being sought in Phoenix — adding a mature basketball player doesn’t always require the acquisition of an NBA veteran.

"I thought it was great workout," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. "Guy 1 through 6 . . . we’re always talking about the effort. Overall, the group showed their skills, their ability to play the game.

"Not just go one-on-one . . . and they all played it the right way. Sometimes you go to these workouts and guys just want to show, ‘hey, what can I do? I want to show the coaches or I want to show the GM what I can do.’ These guys just want to play basketball. They played the right way, moved the ball. They competed against each other, they didn’t care who made what in terms of scoring, they just wanted to win, and that’s the type of players you’re looking for."

Although he’s only one of many soon-to-be-rookies who seems to fit the outsider-mandated profile of what the Suns may be seeking, Portis would seem adaptable to a lot of teams and schemes.

As a sophomore at Arkansas — where Coach Mike Anderson has maintained the up-and-down, "40 Minutes of Hell" philosophy of mentor Nolan Richardson — Portis became enough of an inside-outside presence to be named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.

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It should be noted that individual accolades in that league are somewhat mitigated by the minutes crush among the legion of stars at Kentucky. But Portis acquittal himself well, regardless of any qualifying explanations, averaging 17.5 points and 9 rebounds in 30 minutes per game.

The combine numbers — coupled with 47-percent, 3-point shooting in only 30 attempts — scream stretch four.

At 6-foot-10-1/2 in shoes (7-2 wingspan) and 246 pounds, the 20-year-old from Little Rock is agile and strong if not vertically explosive or lightning fast. He didn’t orbit SEC arenas and throw crazy dunks or slap well-meaning opponent shot attempts into student sections.

What sets Portis apart from most is the competitive fire that heats up everything else he possesses.

"He’s going to be a great player," Hornacek said. "He’s got a lot of skills, he’s a big guy. I think what impressed us today was his ability defensively. He’s able to jump out against smaller players on screens. He wasn’t afraid of that, he didn’t back off. He goes after the ball on the boards. When the shot went up, he’s going to get it.

"Offensively, he’s got nice moves, he’s got good mid-range shooting; we’re going to have to work on his 3s."

OK, so the perimeter stroke is long, slow and unorthodox. After arriving at Arkansas and being told he should consider a higher release point, the adjustment Portis made eventually put the ball way behind his head before firing.

But the ball comes out of his hand nicely, and the off-the-fingertips touch has a strong measure of redemption.

Any concern regarding technique is assuaged by the passion that accompanies Portis to the floor.

"I just try to play as hard as I can," he said.

That’s pretty outstanding in its simplicity. But growing up in Little Rock was anything but a breeze for Portis, who had to overcome poverty and other domestic tribulations that produced a line-crossing, on-court attitude as a budding high school star . . . and future McDonald’s All-American.

But with the help of club-ball coach Corliss Williamson — one of Arkansas’ all-time greats as the "Big Nasty" on its 1994 national championship team — Portis was able to transfer emotion into basketball-related energy.

"I was very impressed with his effort, his knowledge of the game, his passion," Hornacek said. "He made some great passes out there. His all-around game showed he can be a real good player in this league."

And with just playing the right way as Tuesday’s template, Portis defines himself similarly.

"I don’t really have a position, honestly," he said when asked if, in addition to any stretch provision at power forward, his future is accompanied by the possibility of working as a small-ball center. "I just go out there . . . I just play basketball. I’m not a stretch four, five man . . . I just out there and try to be a ballplayer."

For Looney, another elite high school star who had some big moments as a UCLA freshman, a job interview against Portis is pretty serious stuff.            

"Bobby’s a great player, and it’s always great fun playing against other players in the draft, competing for a spot," Looney said. "I hadn’t had great competition like that since the season."

After leaving Milwaukee for L.A., Looney used that season to play his way into first-round chatter, giving UCLA 11.6 points and 9.2 rebounds in 31 minutes per game.

He measured 6-9-1/4 in sneaks with a 7-3-1/2 wingspan at last month’s NBA Draft Combine and checked in at 222 pounds.

Although he’s not a jet horizontally or vertically, Looney’s length, anticipation and competitiveness add up to a professionally marketable skill. 

"I think I’m a great rebounder," he said. "Lots of great college rebounders translate to the NBA."

And despite a long, across-his-body set up and cockeyed sidespin, Looney can shoot it a little bit, converting convert 41 percent of his college 3s.

"I think I can knock shots down at the next level," he said. "I think I can get a lot stronger, a lot more physical, improve on my defense more as the years come and be a good NBA player."

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