Nash uncertainty clouding Suns' draft plans

BY foxsports • June 18, 2012

The uncertainty that accompanies the upcoming Steve Nash Employment Project has the potential to complicate the Suns' trip to the free-agent market.

Planet Orange has been chewing on that one a while. We all remember the radio tour during which Nash pretty much promised that the Suns' ability to upgrade their roster would largely define his decision on whether to leave or stay put. But how many upgrade-caliber free agents would be eager to play in Phoenix before Nash commits to returning? In addition to this pickle of chronology, the Suns must deal with sifting through a free-agent pile that lacks elite-level players with an unrestricted tag.

Perhaps more urgently, the Nash timeline also has the chance to impact the Suns' draft selection.

Sitting at 13 with less than two weeks before the party begins, the Suns are expected to select a perimeter player. In his recent Lunch With Lance event, general manager Lance Blanks reminded reporters that Phoenix really could use a player capable of supplying some scoring punch.

NBA media rumors suggest the Suns have made a promise to Dion Waiters of Syracuse or -- depending on the gossip purveyor -- Duke's Austin Rivers, two combo-type guards capable of making plays on ball screens, a characteristic that would come in handy if Nash is working elsewhere.

According to sources contacted by me and everyone else who covers the team with any regularity, no promises have been made. Based on the fluid nature of every draft -- and this particular prospect crop truly is difficult to peg after the first pick -- players who created some compelling early-draft-process buzz may slide.

A team could end up boxed in by such a promise and have to select a player they like a bit less than someone who slipped lower than expected.

Anyway, with perimeter help an admitted priority, the Suns should be able to land Waiters, Rivers, UConn's Jeremy Lamb or Washington's Terrence Ross. That's assuming Bradley Beal of Florida is off the board early and a few post prospects are selected before No. 13.

With the evaluation wagons circled, the Suns' affection for any of the aforementioned players is mostly spitball speculation.

But a recent visit by North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall reminds us the Suns could be looking for Nash's heir apparent ... although if he's available and they select him, it doesn't mean they won't make a strong effort to keep their Hall of Fame-bound leader.

It also should be noted that adding a wing scorer in free agency rather than the draft will be tricky, because most FAs checking in as shooting guards or small forwards (and worth a seriously big contract offer) come with the restricted tag.

The unrestricted-free-agent point guard pool is much deeper in quality prospects.

SLEEPER SELL

With a harsh increase in luxury-tax penalties lurking around the corner, a few teams with lower first-round picks reportedly are not opposed to swapping their draft spots for cash.

So with more teams worried about skipping over the luxury-tax limit, a cap-flexible franchise such as the Suns could, in theory, be willing to take on a reasonable, multi-year, guaranteed contract that accompanies a pick late in the first round.

Yeah, chew on that: The Suns spending money for a pick. By the way, the collective-bargaining-agreement cap on such a transaction is $3 million.

The Blanks-Lon Babby front-office partnership -- after beating the build-through-trades-and-free-agency drum last year -- claims to be ready to embrace the draft.

"We're gonna use the draft," Babby said during his Lunch With Lon event in early May. "It hasn't been used here often enough."

You don't say.

"We got a draft choice last year, and as you know, we traded it," Babby said in reference to a pick the Suns excised from the Magic and traded -- along with Goran Dragic -- to the Rockets for (cough) Aaron Brooks.

For the record, Babby didn't come anywhere near second-guessing the Suns' decision to keep Nash and fight for a playoff spot instead of moving him for whatever middling, future-building asset they could wrangle. But last week's pre-draft workout guest list suggests the Suns may use whatever assets they can muster to add a later pick.

With stretch power forward Andrew Nicholson of St. Bonaventure and shot-blocking Syracuse center Fab Melo in attendance, Blanks and Babby are either preparing for late-first-round duty or are a lot higher on certain players than most other teams.

By the way, teams rumored to be interested in surrendering a pick for cap-friendly cash include the Thunder (28th and facing future luxury-tax issues), the Grizzlies (25th) and the Celtics. The C's have the 21st and 22nd picks, and -- considering the existence of a few late-first-round prospects with presumed baggage and advanced talent -- they might whiff on a rare opportunity for a cheap talent infusion by selling.

THE FIRST (PICK) NOEL?

With the possibility of Nash running the offense for another team next season, it's not too early to consider the Suns' use of the draft in 2013.

Although they'll attempt to build a competitive team (without jeopardizing their flexibility by signing mediocre free agents to big contracts), it's conceivable that whatever they do this summer will be insufficient to produce a team capable of racking up many W's without Nash.

Even in this predicament, the Suns probably wouldn't be lousy enough to challenge the NBA's dregs, but the lottery hopper rarely provides the ultimate reward for the worst team. And in a post-Nash doomsday landscape, the potential lottery bonanza could be a kid named Nerlens Noel.

Noel, it should be noted, checks in at a skinny 6-foot-11, will be a freshman at Kentucky and is one of the top shot-blocking prospects we've seen in years.

Does that remind you of anyone?

"I'm not saying he'll have the same impact," an NBA personnel executive, referring to recent UK star Anthony Davis, told me this week. "But he has similar potential."


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