Phoenix Suns’ star shooting guard Devin Booker talks about how the Philadelphia 76ers have built through NBA draft.
Duane Rankin, Arizona Republic
PHILADELPHIA – Devin Booker sees Philadelphia as proof that you can build an NBA playoff team primarily through the draft.
“They ended up being a playoff team (last season),” Booker said last month. “Obviously, they’re in the Eastern Conference, which is a lot different than (the Western Conference), but I think they created something that a lot of the NBA saw and are trying to follow.”
A lot different?
Translation: The Eastern Conference isn’t as tough as the Western Conference.
That’s fair, but the Phoenix Suns have been building through the draft just like the Sixers.
Here’s a look at their respective first-round picks beginning in 2014.
- 2014 – PHI:Joel Embiid (3rd overall), Elfrid Payton (10th, traded to Orlando for Dario Saric). PHX:TJ Warren (14th), Tyler Ennis (18th), Bogdan Bogdanovic (27th).
- 2015 – PHI:Jahlil Okafor (3rd). PHX:Devin Booker (13th)
- 2016 – PHI:Ben Simmons (1st), Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (24th), Furkan Korkmaz (26th). PHX:Dragan Bender (4th), Georgios Papagiannis (13th, swapped for 8th overall pick Marquese Chriss). Skal Labissiere (28th, also swapped for Chriss),
- 2017 – PHI:Markelle Fultz (1st). PHX:Josh Jackson (4th).
- 2018 – PHI:Mikal Bridges (10th, traded to Phoenix for 16th overall pick Zhaire Smith), Landry Shamet (26th). PHX:Deandre Ayton (1st), Smith (16th, traded for Bridges).
The draft is hit-or-miss. Even with all the scouting, analysis, projections and research, it’s all a mystery until the prospects become NBA players.
With that being said, Philadelphia hit two home runs with Embiid and Simmons that’s ultimately offset trading Okafor to Brooklyn last season and Fultz’s puzzling rookie season.
The Payton-Saric trade worked out for Philadelphia, too. Now, the 76ers just sent him to Minnesota as part of a mega-trade to get Jimmy Butler, but Saric played a key role in Philadelphia making the playoffs last season.
The Suns found a star in Booker during that 2014-16 timeframe, Warren has established himself as a scorer, but Bender hasn’t lived up to being a top-five pick, and Chriss didn’t work out in Phoenix.
The Suns traded Chriss and Brandon Knight in the offseason to the Houston Rockets for Ryan Anderson and 46th overall pick De’Anthony Melton. Chriss has only played in five games for the Rockets and scored a total of eight points.
Anderson is planted on the bench right now after starting the first six games and Melton is a work in progress at point guard. So, Phoenix traded away a top-10 pick for a veteran who isn’t playing, and a rookie who has seen action in the G League
Then there’s Ennis and Bogdanovic.
Ennis averaged just 2.8 points in his eight games for Suns before being dealt to Milwaukee as part a three-team trade that brought Knight to Phoenix. The point guard played for two more teams — Houston and the Los Angeles Lakers — and is now playing overseas, where he suffered a broken tibia last month.
Bogdanovic never played a game for the Suns. He stayed overseas and Phoenix eventually surrendered his draft rights to Sacramento as part of the Chriss deal. The shooting guard joined the Kings for the 2017-18 season and averaged 11.8 points. He’s appeared in five games so far this season and is averaging 12.2 points per game.
So, not only did Phoenix come up empty on those two, Chriss and Knight are no longer there, either.
Based on how all that unfolded, it’s also probably safe to say Philadelphia has done a better job drafting than Phoenix. Granted the 76ers had the top pick when taking Simmons, but the Suns have had high lottery picks, too.
The Suns hope their first-round rookies — Ayton and Bridges — and Jackson develop into great NBA players. Ayton is averaging a double-double and is one of the leading candidates for the league’s Rookie of the Year award.
Bridges has shown flashes of being a future two-way star because of his ability to shoot the 3 and get to the rim, plus he has the defensive instincts to get steals and deflections.
Overall, the Bridges-for-Smith trade has been a huge win for Phoenix.
Smith suffered a fractured foot in August and had to undergo a thoracoscopy in September because of an allergic reaction to a food product. He hasn’t played this season and reportedly isn’t expected to do so.
As for Jackson, he hasn’t picked up where he left off his rookie season, but the former Kansas star is on his third coach in essentially a year’s time with first-time NBA head coach Igor Kokoskov.
The 76ers began their process, or tanking as labeled by many, a little earlier than the Suns. In 2013-14, Philadelphia went 19-63 before drafting the 7-footer Embiid.
The Suns finished 48-34, but missed out on the playoffs after drafting the man who was supposed to be its future in the middle — Alex Len. The Suns used the fifth-overall pick in 2013 on the Maryland product.
Embiid has overcome injuries to emerge as one of the game’s best bigs and the centerpiece for the 76ers, while Len’s five-year run in Phoenix didn’t pan out and he’s now with the Atlanta Hawks.
It’s all hindsight, but Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th overall, Milwaukee Bucks) and Steven Adams (12th overall, Oklahoma City Thunder) were chosen after Len. Antetokounmpo’s a stud and an early NBA MVP candidate while Adams is a skilled brut with “next level strength,” as Ayton says.
Drafting Embiid certainly put Philadelphia on the right path despite his injury issues. At the time, Phoenix was still winning after taking Len, but having that high of a pick not pan out looks bad now.
What tends to get lost in rebuilds is coaching.
Unlike the Suns, the 76ers stayed with the same coach — Brett Brown — while building through the draft. Phoenix has had six coaches during Brown’s tenure at Philadelphia, which began in 2012-13.
The Suns came into this season saying their three-year rebuilding window was over.
It’s time to starting winning, but that isn’t happening right now.
Yes, the Western Conference is stronger, but Phoenix has been building through the draft just like Philadelphia. The 76ers have just done a better overall job at that.