PHOENIX — He played a little basketball in high school, but he was more of a baseball guy. He’s been putting up impressive hoop numbers as a pro, but most of his work has been accomplished in a uniform that features a coat and tie.
So how can 33-year-old Ryan McDonough register as the most important Phoenix Suns signing in recent years?
Well, since the sport of talent evaluation has jumped over the lines defining a playing surface and into the realm of more comprehensive analysis, general managers are becoming the sidebar superstars in professional sports.
McDonough, whose introductory press conference was held Thursday at US Airways Center, has what could be categorized as front-office upside.
“He’s prepared for this all his life, I think,” Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby said. “We couldn’t be more thrilled or more excited.”
That sentiment seems to be widespread among local media watchdogs who understand how crucial the person identifying potentially elite players and coaches can be. In the NBA, where talented whippersnappers are drafted for duty — and expected to produce reasonably quickly — at a young age, being able to deduce which prospects translate to professional success is vital.
McDonough, whose league-wide respect was generated during a 10-year rise from video guy to assistant GM with the Boston Celtics, seems to have sufficient analytical chops and in-person scouting tenacity to satisfy all would-be critics.
But, with assessments based on his meet and greet, what can we expect as he begins to steer the Suns back to reasonable prominence?
Let’s start with the hiring of a full-time coach.
“That’s my first order of business,” McDonough said. “I’m going to spearhead the process, and that process has begun.”
His co-stars in the process, of course, are Babby and owner Robert Sarver.
“We’re in alignment on a lot of names — most of the names,” McDonough said without divulging any.
Earlier this week, Babby said interim coach Lindsey Hunter remains a candidate. McDonough didn’t deviate from that stance during his press conference. Broadcast and/or published reports also have identified longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, Indiana Pacers assistant Brian Shaw, current Houston Rockets assistant Kelvin Sampson and former Missouri coach Quin Snyder as potential candidates.
For McDonough, the next coach of the Suns needs to be “someone who’s a leader and commands the respect of the players and commands the respect of the organization.
“We also need someone who’s a teacher.”
Feel free to go back to the names listed above and attempt to determine who fits.
Now, what about that pesky roster?
“The talent needs to be upgraded across the board,” the new GM told the media choir.
McDonough did mention point guard Goran Dragic as a player he’s fond of and recommended patience regarding the process of adding talent. Based on McDonough’s agility in handling questions, we can figure the Suns’ overhaul will preclude quick-fix acquisitions for the sake of making a short-handed charge at the postseason and instead focus on making prudent decisions in the draft that can build the Suns into a contending team.
Seeded fourth in the upcoming draft lottery, the 25-57 Suns can find a nice piece to this voluminous puzzle right away. McDonough, whose supporters always refer to him as a tireless worker, said the most difficult aspect of judging a prospect is assessing attitude and toughness.
The skills can be obvious; understanding which players have the capacity to improve and reach an elite level is more difficult.
In his 10 years, McDonough said evaluators have been obliged to adjust to increases in size, speed and explosiveness of prospects while making allowances for alterations in tactics.
“The league, in recent years, has teams embracing the 3-point shot more and more,” he said.
So in addition to figuring out how athleticism of a prospect translates at the NBA level, more importance of particular skills can lead to tricky juxtapositions and shift a player’s potential impact up or down.
How much difference can one guy make? On the floor, a go-to scorer can create opportunities for teammates. In the front office, a seemingly comprehensive thinker also can transform the evaluation potential of scouts and other personnel employees.
“I don’t want specialists,” McDonough said in reference to hiring staffers with specific knowledge of prospects in Europe or the D-League or the NBA or college basketball.
When judging a player from one of the basketball landscapes, he wants to know how any potential Suns player compares to everyone available.
It’s a philosophy that served McDonough well while learning the personnel ropes from Danny Ainge in Boston.
“I wasn’t going to leave unless it was a fantastic opportunity,” McDonough said of going from the Celtics to the Suns. “I feel like this is that opportunity.”
The Suns — and fans who prefer substance over flash — feel the same.