Suns get talent but won’t get immediate payoff

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns got some nice upgrades Thursday night for a roster that has been painfully light on young talent.

“I feel great about how the night went,” general manager Ryan McDonough said in regard to presiding over his first NBA draft.

Picking fifth in the NBA Draft, McDonough and the rebuilding Suns managed to land the player they had ranked first on their board. With their next move — and the shot clock on the first round winding down — the Suns moved up to No. 29 from No. 30 to select one of the most athletic guards in the draft.

Although Phoenix now has two reconstruction bricks with impressive potential, its 2013 draft yield still doesn’t figure to be enough to kick-start a significant rise in the Western Conference standings.

The most important addition was Maryland sophomore center Alex Len, who — after some surprising selections in the top four picks — ended up falling to the Suns at No. 5. At No. 29, they grabbed Kentucky freshman shooting guard Archie Goodwin. And with their only selection in the second round, the Suns took power forward Alex Oriakhi, who played his final collegiate season at Missouri after three years at Connecticut.

As had been widely speculated, the Suns did attempt to put some assets together in pursuit of another first-round pick. Based on the twists and turns of this particular draft, making a deal was tricky.

“Teams were hesitant to deal first-round picks,” McDonough said, citing the draft’s volatility as a stumbling block.

But that pick at No. 5 — preceded by some head-scratchers — was just fine in Phoenix.

“It was an easy decision,” McDonough said of going with the 20-year-old Len, “because of how I feel about Alex.”

He added, “We think he’s just scratching the surface of his potential as a player.”

And McDonough isn’t alone in that thinking.

“It was a no-brainer for us,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said of selecting the Ukranian big man. “The guy we rated highest on our board may end up getting there (to No. 5). And that’s what happened with Alex.”

Len, whose modest productivity (11.9 points, 7.8 rebounds) was abetted in part by shaky guard play at Maryland, was the choice despite the relatively unexpected availability of sweet-shooting Kansas two guard Ben McLemore and Kentucky shot-blocker Nerlens Noel.

“It’s not very often you can get those kinds of players,” said Hornacek, who added that all-around skill separated Len from the defense-oriented Noel.

In Len, the Suns have a skilled, agile center from Eastern Europe. Right, they already had one of those. Incumbent Marcin Gortat isn’t as good facing the basket and knocking down shots as Len, but both players change ends of the court very well and are solid two-way players.

Hornacek said having Gortat — whose contract expires at the end of next season — will help in Len’s development. And even though neither player has great capacity to defend the power forward spot, the new Suns coach said it’s conceivable that both will be on the floor at times in a twin-towers alignment.

Gortat was a favorite potential trading chip of Suns fans hoping the team would negotiate a deal to bring another first-round pick to Phoenix. But the Polish Machine may have more value at the trade deadline.

With Gortat’s presence limiting how much Len can help the team’s win-loss record in his first season, the pick earned by going 25-57 may not be converted into much of a rally right away.

 

But regardless of how much Len plays as a rookie, both he and Hornacek seem convinced that his ceiling isn’t even close to being reached.

“My improvement is going to be better in the NBA,” Len said Thursday night on a conference call from Brooklyn. “There’s better spacing … I’m going to have more room to operate in the post. I think (the) NBA game will fit me well.”

He’ll also have more attention from the Phoenix guards than he had at Maryland.

“He’s going to be used a lot more than he was in college,” Hornacek said.

But, thanks to an ankle injury that will continue to keep him from basketball activities until August, the learning curve must wait to be negotiated.

“We’ve been told he’s going to be fine by training camp,” Hornacek said.

And once he’s on the court, Len expects to succeed in his NBA transition.

“I don’t compare myself to anyone,” said Len, whose athletic chops were boosted by competing in gymnastics as a kid, “but growing up, I watched at lot of Tim Duncan.

“I have a very big upside and I know I’m going to work hard.”

Although Len has a unique size/skill combination, his assimilation to the NBA may be easier when the opposition has the ball.

“Probably on defense,” he said when asked how he might impact the Suns right away. “I’m pretty agile and quick for my size, so I can hedge out on ball screens.”

If Len can produce competent work on ball screens, it would represent quite a change for the Suns’ defense.

Goodwin, who won’t be 19 until August, demonstrated considerable potential as a defender in his only season at Kentucky. One of the nation’s top high school prospects in 2012, the former McDonald’s All-American had been considered a potential high-lottery candidate until going through an uneven college season.

Often playing out of position as UK’s point guard, Goodwin’s decision-making was abysmal. In averaging 14 points per game, he made 44 percent of his shots from the field, including 27 percent from 3-point range. And in addition to inconsistent play, Goodwin’s body language talked him out of lottery range.

At the NBA draft combine, Goodwin’s bounce was calculated with a 36-inch vertical, but — even while shooting against air — his jumper didn’t exactly help rehabilitate his prior draft status.

With great quickness and a decent handle, Goodwin’s attack mentality may benefit from wider driving lanes created by the NBA’s defensive three-second rule.

The same could be said of Len, who will be in town to meet the press Friday afternoon.

“We feel fortunate when he was there at 5,” McDonough said. “I think the guy’s going to be really good.”