When James Jones took over the Phoenix Suns as interim general manager in 2018, he inherited a team spanning nearly a decade and at least two iterations in an overfueled rebuild. His 2018-19 roster included a whopping 11 players aged 23 or younger, including six rotation players aged 21 or younger.
They won just 23% of their games this season and ended up with the second-worst record in the entire league. This was their fourth straight season winning less than 27% of their games.
Midway through the season, Jones was kind enough to do an exclusive interview with Suns fans at Bright Side Night, our annual event where we send thousands of underprivileged kids to their first Suns game. In this interview he explained the end of the endless rebuild. He declined to fill a proper college scouting team and vowed not to draft another teenager.
Jones’ best player this season, 22-year-old Devin Booker, who was struggling in his fourth NBA season without a playoff after being the league’s youngest player three years earlier, was now just that Seventh youngest player on own team!
“It wasn’t until winning was imported – Chris (Paul), Jae Crowder who called up a three-year-old who, like Mikal, was able to help right away – that [drafting 18 year old Devin Booker] translates to success,” Jones recently told ESPN ($$). “And if you don’t care about winning around him, there are more skeletons. So if you want to find the man with the greatest potential to be the future star, then designing him makes sense – if you’re willing to navigate the landmines.”
Jones openly admits to ESPN that if he had been front office in 2015, he probably wouldn’t have been drafted (digression: he wasn’t because he was still an active NBA player, fresh off his 5th of 7 finals in a row). an 18-year-old in 13th place overall.
“It all depends on what your goal is,” Jones told ESPN. “Devin is great, but there are 50 skeletons tied to this swing set for the star.”
Jones’ predecessor, Ryan McDonough, was the opposite of Jones. He wanted to acquire assets every year in the draft, hoping for just the right mix of young talent to win games before they were old enough to drink. Over a six-year period, McD’s first-round picks included Alex Len (19), Archie Goodwin (19), TJ Warren (20), Bogdan Bogdanovic (20), Tyler Ennis (20), Devin Booker (18), Dragan Bender (18), Marquese Chriss (19), Josh Jackson (20), Deandre Ayton (20). Mikal Bridges was the only 21+ player drafted by McD in the first round at the ripe age of 22.
Of the 10 players under the age of 20 on draft night, only four — Warren, Bogdanovic, Booker, and Ayton — progressed to starters on playoff teams.
You could say this is Sun’s fault for not picking well at the top of the draft. But the draft has always been a crap shoot. Across all 30 NBA teams, draft lottery prospects have historically been 40% confident of becoming long-term picks at all, and even fewer of them are playoff-team picks.
And if you’re not trying to attract players who can start on a playoff team, what are you even doing?
“You either try to win or you don’t try to win,” says Jones. “If you’re not trying to win, say what you want, but you’re trying to lose. You can say, “Well, let’s take it slow and win later,” but there’s too many things between now and later. I try to win now and win later. The players know that every day in the league brings them one day closer to the end of their careers and I can’t waste their days.”
“I respect what OKC is doing,” Jones says when asked if he appreciates the Oklahoma City Thunder’s more deliberate strategy. “That’s what they chose, I guess. Everything is a choice. I don’t judge. i respect it It’s just not for me.”
Jones’ track record in three NBA drafts since taking over the Suns’ front office:
- 2019: was traded down taking 23-year-old Cameron Johnson to No. 11, who finished 4th in the 2022 sixth man of the year poll while also getting Dario Saric
- 2020: took 20-year-old Jalen Smith at No. 10, but declined his 4th-year option when he failed to crack the rotation until sophomore year
- 2021: traded the number 29 and Jevon Carter for 23-year-old Landry Shamet
- 2022: traded the number 30 for Chris Paul two years ago
With those four draft picks, Jones gained four rotation players that helped the Suns win more games than any other NBA team in two seasons, appear in six playoff series in two seasons, and reach the 2021 NBA Finals.
Two of those players, Johnson and Shamet, are still on the rise in their careers, but none are under the age of 24. Quite a contrast to the Ryan McDonough regime.
McDonough is now full-time media and talks about the league instead of working in it. Jones, on the other hand, was voted Executive of the Year by his front office peers in 2021.
Now the 2022 draft is a day away and the Suns have no picks on the agenda. Which is fine for Jones, considering he and his scouting department don’t really focus on young non-NBA players anyway.
The scouting team is small and spends more time embedded with the Suns than away to see players in action.
The Suns don’t have a formal reporting system that Gomez or Mastin can feed after every game they watch or a conversation they have with a college coach. Jones prefers his scouts to stay as close to the Phoenix team as possible. As a result, Gomez — the Suns’ lead international scout — will spend far more time in Phoenix over the course of the basketball season than his European counterparts on their mother ships, if they return at all. While most NBA teams do the exhausting work of compiling their “draft board” rankings for dozens of prospects, the Suns have sworn off the practice for the past three years.
“Our draft board would be a travesty for other teams,” said Zach Amundson, senior analyst for people and team evaluation at Suns. “When we were done, we only had five to seven people on our design committee.”
Five to seven players on a draft board?
That doesn’t mean the Suns have only seen 5-7 players all year. That means the Suns only rate a handful of players as suitable for this current team for the coming year. Jones later did not draw for three years. He designs for now.
Check out the full article if you can, although it’s behind a paid wall. The bottom line is that nothing has changed since we first heard in the spring of 2019 that James Jones didn’t have a full scouting department and wasn’t sending scouts across the nation to watch every player in every game.
The limitations of watching the Dantes and Roddys of the world play live basketball and then projecting a 15-year career is just one reason the scouting operation that Gomez and Mastin are participating in in Phoenix is met with greater skepticism about the draft works as most NBA teams. While there’s still limited usefulness in noticing a player’s body language in a live game and delving into the temperature and tone of a game, Gomez and Mastin leave the arena with a few notes but no inclination to report as scouts at length write by many NBA teams would.
Again, the design sucks. In the lottery alone, there is less than a 40% chance that you will find a starter for a playoff-level team. Outside of the lottery, where the Suns will live, as long as James Jones can help, the odds of even finding rotational talent drop to 20%.
The 2022 NBA Draft takes place on Thursday evening. Don’t expect the Suns — who have already made their first (Chris Paul) and second (Torrey Craig) picks — to trade back into the draft to pick up a prospect who likely won’t make a playoff rotation next year. They ran out of patience with Jalen Smith in 18 months!
If the Suns re-enter the draft, it will be for a player that Jones is confident can help this iteration of the Suns now.