Suns zero in on promising perimeter players
We’ve reached a stage in the NBA Draft’s preamble when previously harmless misinformation becomes weapon-ized.
But despite what should be our commitment to grain-of-salt interest in most prospect-related scuttlebutt, we’re pretty sure Suns general manager Lance Blanks was on the level recently with the following remarks:
“Our perimeter is an area that we’d like to add a little youth, whether it be the one, the two or the three,” Blanks, referring to the point guard, shooting guard and small forward positions, said. “We want to inject some youth in that.”
Based on contractual context (most free-agent Suns work outside the lane), the need for perimeter talent seems pretty obvious. Steve Nash, for example, is dribbling into unrestricted free agency, and it’s also no secret that anyone with a stake in the franchise believes there’s a screaming need for a wing player who can score.
With those marching orders, it was no surprise last week when the Suns were identified as suspects in a couple of “promise” stories erupting during the pre-draft mixer in Chicago. Included as we-promise-to-draft-you-if-you’re-still-on-the-board suspects were Syracuse’s Dion Waiters and Duke’s Austin Rivers.
Without going into great detail regarding what the Suns — who have the 13th pick for the second consecutive draft — would hope to accomplish by making a promise, what a promise means and why it may or may not be prudent to do so, let’s just go with this:
According to a team source, no promises have been made. The source didn’t even admit the two players in question are on the radar, but did (cough) reveal that the Suns are interested in multiple prospects with NBA perimeter futures.
That may be a good thing, especially if the evaluating chops of a different source — who’s employed as a personnel hotshot by another NBA team — are on the money regarding the perimeter guys we’re about to pinpoint.
With seemingly little to gain by lobbing weapons-grade misinformation in my direction, this personnel sharpie was asked for input regarding point guards and two guards.
“If they want to go point guard at 13 and Marshall’s there, that would be … well, I think it’s a good move,” he said in reference to the North Carolina lefty Kendall Marshall, considered by many dedicated observers to be the top passer to hit college hoops in a while. “He’s played at tempo in college and passing is a skill that translates.”
And that skill may be enough to overcome Marshall’s limitations as a shooter and defender. Our insider believes Damian Lillard — a scoring point guard from Weber State who’s roaring up the speculation charts about four months after Suns guard Ronnie Price gave me the unofficial scoop on his considerable talents — will be long gone by 13. That also could happen with Marshall.
But if the Suns prefer (or are forced) to choose a two or three with their pick, the popular suspects include Waiters, Rivers, Connecticut’s Jeremy Lamb and Terrence Ross of Washington.
“I like Ross,” our personnel guy said. “Especially in Phoenix. If they still want to play at pace, use pick-and-rolls to cave the defense for drive-and-kick 3s (Blanks sort of said they do), Ross would be a good fit.”
For the record, Ross is a 6-foot-6 (at least) sophomore from Portland who can work at shooting guard or small forward. He provided the Huskies with 16 points and 6.4 rebounds per game last season, making 46 percent of his shots from the field, including 37 percent from 3.
By the way, that 3-point percentage is pretty standard for the four players we’ve referenced, although Lamb (33.6) was a bit lower.
“He’s very athletic and can really shoot it,” the personnel guy said of Ross. “He’s good in catch-and-shoot situations, good at reading the defense to curl or flair on pin-downs and can elevate, get balanced and make shots in traffic.
“He’s not bad right now on defense. He didn’t always lock in, but he’s really quick laterally and has good reactions out of his defensive stance. He’ll get stronger, too, and that’ll help.”
Now, the bad news.
“Well, you’d like to see him get to the free-throw line a lot more,” the insider said. “He can put the ball on the deck to get his shot, but he needs to use his ability to lower that center of gravity to get his hip past the defender and then play to contact. He plays at pretty much the same speed all the time … and that’s fast. But if he incorporated a stop-and-go move, Ross could be lethal, especially with NBA rules leaving the lane more wide open. His vision, make that recognition, as a passer needs a lot of work, though.”
Although our evaluation source likes all four shooting guard prospects listed in this examination, his praise is a bit more reserved when discussing Lamb and Rivers.
“Lamb looked like a beast in the Under-19 worlds last year,” he said of the skinny, 6-6 UConn sophomore who was the go-to guy for Team USA’s junior squad. “But he was sort of a mystery at UConn this year. Some of that I attribute to playing alongside two ball-dominant smaller guards. That also didn’t help us get the kind of look we needed at UConn’s big kid (Andre Drummond).
“But, as a breakout player during their championship run the year before, you wanted to see him be more assertive and more of a leader. He’s very skilled — he can shoot off the catch and bounce, put it on the floor and elevate at the rim. Pretty good defender. He just doesn’t always seem engaged. Even now that he’s outside of UConn and away from those ballhogs, I’m waiting to see that.”
According to the aforementioned dangerous, pre-draft chatter, Lamb didn’t exactly wow teams during the interview process in Chicago.
Rivers, who reportedly came across as supremely confident during his meet-and-greet maneuvers, checked in at 6-5, providing NBA profilers with less reason to doubt his future as a two guard. The son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, Austin provided Duke with 15.5 points per game as a gunslinging freshman.
“He’s a scorer,” our personnel guy said. “Not a great shooter, but pretty good and could get better. Really good off the bounce, good change of direction. But he’s just a so-so athlete and hasn’t seemed committed on defense. But that’s not all that rare at this stage.”
The praise was more effusive for Waiters, a compact 210-pounder who’s listed as 6-4 but left last week’s combine before getting measured.
“He’s probably about 6-3,” the sharpie said. “I’ve heard the comparisons to Dwyane Wade … in addition to not having Wade’s length, obviously, I’m not going to reach that high. Waiters is a very good basketball player, though. But I see him more as a (Detroit Pistons guard) Ben Gordon type.
“I think his role is providing instant offense off the bench. He’s really strong, pretty explosive at the rim and shoots it OK. He played at Syracuse and was pretty disruptive at the top of their zone, but we haven’t seen him in man-to-man situations.”
In 24 minutes per game as Syracuse’s sixth man, the relentlessly-attacking sophomore averaged 12.6 points on 48 percent shooting.
Frequently used in pick-and-roll sets, Waiters plays with great leverage, is strong and decisive going left (his off hand), has a tight handle that enables him to split defenders on ball-screen traps and finishes against contact. He’s a decent shooter who can get his shot off the bounce, but — despite having balance when attacking the rim — has a shot-compromising tendency to fade on his jumper.
“Any of these guys look like a good pick up at 13,” our insider said. “If I or anyone else could see real stardom in one of these players, they wouldn’t be around at 13. And there’s a good chance that three of ’em won’t be, I think. Even though due diligence helps us in these choices, it’s impossible to really know how good one of these guys could become. You think you know what’s inside a player, but you really don’t until they get out there.”