From a distance, it looked like the Phoenix Suns had a clear list of objectives to complete this offseason, one that was going to require action and complexity to complete.
As it turns out, general manager James Jones has his own agenda. The first-year general manager is prioritizing his types of players at the expense of every way you could conceptualize value.
Those players share a couple of similar attributes, ones that Jones also held that made him one of the league’s most well-respected veterans during his 14-year career.
A few of them can shoot, all of them play tough and they’re smart players on the floor. For what limited Jones as a specialist in the NBA, that’s how he hung around for so long.
Jones acquired Dario Saric from Minnesota, a gritty power forward who is too slow to be a true difference maker but is intelligent and skilled enough with a high motor to be a positive. He also got Aron Baynes from Boston, one of the toughest dudes around who will bash sense into Deandre Ayton every practice and force teammates to respect his team-friendly style of play.
Those two players, in a vacuum, make sense for the Suns and you can see some logic in acquiring them. Well, that’s if you can get around the tire fire of value they lost in the trades to acquire them.
Jones drafted his basketball doppelganger in Cameron Johnson 11th, a player that skill-wise is best suited as a small-ball four. But he’s too weak to play there while also being too slow laterally and too bad at dribbling to play shooting guard.
That relegates Johnson minutes to primarily at small forward, which is concerning for a multitude of reasons we’ll hit on in a minute.
Ty Jerome, who was involved in the Baynes trade, is an expert at running pick-and-roll and joins Johnson as one of the best shooters in the draft class. He also has a wingspan (6-foot-4!) that is smaller than his height (6-foot-6), is far from an NBA athlete and will need to overcome speed and length concerns to maximize his talents as a defender and ball-handler.
If you’re sensing a theme now, it’s that Jerome and Johnson both share weaknesses that Jones himself had to deal with in the NBA. Jones was seen as a limited player, drafted 49th overall in 2003, projected to go in the same range as the likes of Jerome and Johnson because of his limited upside.
To credit Jones, he overcame that to a very successful career, and to that point, you can understand why he would be biased in thinking Johnson and Jerome can too.
We have to call it that, right? Bias.
Because I’ve had a lot of time to sit with the Johnson pick and I cannot comprehend what’s worse: the Suns taking a third-string small forward in the back-end of the lottery or reaching on Johnson himself.
There’s no other way to explain reaching on Johnson at 11 besides Jones seeing something of himself in the forward when a shot-blocker like Brandon Clarke is there or the balanced, relentless two-way play of Grant Williams could come to Phoenix. That, too, is assuming Jones didn’t want the high upside of Sekou Doumbouya, combo guard craft of Nickeil Alexander-Walker or skill and versatile offense of P.J. Washington.
Did we mention yet that Johnson is the oldest lottery pick of the decade? Right, I didn’t. Thought we should make that clear. And that the Suns got him and potentially one year of Saric for a 19-win season. OK.
Anyway, the added bonus was all five of those guys slotting into a spot at forward or guard the Suns needed to fill. Meanwhile, head coach Monty Williams is now going to have to be creative to get Johnson legit playing time.
Unless he won’t have to, because the warning signs have gone off.
In order to get T.J. Warren — a good NBA player — and his contract out of Phoenix, Jones was willing to attach the No. 32 pick in order to do so.
That’s a pick he could have used to fill a need or draft someone like Jerome, who he traded the protected first-round pick from Milwaukee for, which by the way, was one of the few remaining trade assets the team had left.
Jones did so for Jerome, along with signing undrafted free agent point guard Jalen Lecque to a four-year deal, knowing he had point guards De’Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo on his roster.
Melton and Okobo certainly both showed signs as rookies they could be NBA players, particularly Melton, but it doesn’t look like they are Jones’ cup of tea and they are likely up and outta here sooner rather than later.
That’s a waste and asset mismanagement, an unnecessary “out with the old and in with the new” reset when it wasn’t needed.
Which makes you wonder about Johnson’s selection at No. 11 and the future of the small forward position in Phoenix.
Is Jones about to let Kelly Oubre Jr. walk in restricted free agency? I sure hope not, because Oubre is a good NBA player who played a serious part in legitimately changing the vibes around the locker room and fanbase after he was acquired in December. If the Suns think they can do better with the $12-plus million a year Oubre would hypothetically get paid, they are very, very wrong.
What about Mikal Bridges? That move happened on Ryan McDonough’s watch, like the acquisitions of Melton and Okobo and Warren’s contract extension. Bridges exceeded all expectations as a rookie and looked poised for a breakout season in year two or three. He’s exactly the type of player to sandwich in-between Devin Booker and Ayton.
Unless Jones thinks he actually isn’t, and if he does, he’s proven that he’s quick on the trigger.
And that’s obviously concerning because Jones is now out of major trade assets besides his own future first-round picks. If he wants to make a major move, Bridges likely has to be involved.
But what’s even more troubling is thinking that moves resetting the roster at any spot on the floor are a good idea right now.
If the Suns continue to shuffle names in and out of the door, it won’t be long until one of those names out is Devin. Instead of seeing the warning signs of smoke for that potential core-crumbling blaze, now we’re suffocating on it.