PHOENIX – The dichotomy within the NBA could not be clearer than in the month of June. While the final two teams battle for supremacy in the NBA Finals, the remaining 28 franchises must wait for the league’s annual draft later in the month to inject a sense of optimism into their organization. For the Phoenix Suns, who haven’t suited up for a June game in 13 seasons, this year’s draft holds even more significance as the franchise prepares to make its fourth straight top six pick.
With starters Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton likely entrenched long-term at their positions, the onus now lies with the Suns front office to find complementary pieces to pair with its budding superstars. One glaring position of need is point guard, a position the team likely will address June 20 in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Phoenix has cycled through a number of underwhelming options in its seemingly never-ending pursuit to find the ideal complement to Booker. Despite losing out on the chance to select consensus top-two pick Ja Morant of Murray State, plenty of intriguing options at point guard remain should the Suns choose to address the position with the sixth overall selection.
Darius Garland out of Vanderbilt University remains the likeliest option for the Suns at six, displaying an intriguing combination of long-term upside and immediate offensive production. Garland came into the season as the 16th-ranked prospect according to ESPN and the top point guard in the class. He looked electric in his first four games with the Commodores, averaging 19.8 points on 52.8% shooting from the field before injuring his left meniscus minutes into Vanderbilt’s fifth game of the season.
Even with the emergence of Morant, Garland has a legit claim to top guard in the class. His offensive skill set projects immediately to the modern NBA, which relies heavily on pick-and-roll action and quick decision-making. Garland is an elite level athlete, displaying a quickness and frenetic energy akin to the NBA’s best at the position.
“What separates (Garland) is his skill level,” said Hubie Smith, Garland’s coach at Brentwood Academy. “He has a phenomenal skill package, a phenomenal work ethic, and just a fantastic attitude.”
He also possesses an above-average handle for a 19-year-old guard, showing off a dazzling display of deftness with either hand. Combine all of that with a plus jump shot and an improving touch around the rim, and the tools are there for Garland to evolve into one of the league’s best scoring guards.
“His ball-handling is off the charts, but I would also say his passing is off the charts, his shooting is off the charts, his floaters are off the charts, and his basketball I.Q. is superb,” Smith said. “He just has all the intangibles to be an all-time great player.”
Garland’s play in the pick and roll is advanced for his age, as he has an impressive feel for how to manipulate bigger defenders in and around the paint. Here in an early-season matchup with USC, Garland uses the pick to beat his man off the dribble before freezing the Trojan defender with a devastating hesitation move and finishing at the rim at with ease.
As he better learns to leverage his quick handle and blinding speed, he will evolve into an absolute menace in the open floor. Garland has already acquired the ability to grab the rebound and immediately push the pace, generating easy opportunities for him and his teammates. Later in Vanderbilt’s matchup with USC, Garland looked the part of an NBA-caliber guard when he split two Trojan defenders, absorbed the contact at the rim and converted the layup.
Incredibly, despite all of his previously mentioned talents, Garland’s most NBA-ready skill may be his jump shot. The Nashville native has a smooth and silky release, allowing him a quick trigger in a variety of different situations. When defenders make the mistake of going under screens when guarding Garland in the pick and roll, he is quick to make them pay.
Like all great scorers, Garland looks comfortable shooting the ball in a wide array of situations. While he spent most of his time on the ball in his brief stint with the Commodores, Garland still showed flashes as an off-ball creator and scorer. In the same game against USC, the Trojans switched to a zone defense in an effort to put more bodies between Garland and the hoop. Garland responded by firing quickly and effortlessly from well behind the 3-point line, showing off a range few in the class possess.
The biggest detractor surrounding Garland is his shortcomings on the defensive end of the floor. Listed at 6 feet, 2 inches and 170 pounds, Garland is often overpowered by bigger and stronger guards who take him off the dribble. His defensive principles are sound, but they are not enough to overcome his slight and wiry frame. Here is Garland participating in the 2018 Nike Hoops Summit, an annual scrimmage featuring the top high school seniors from around the world. While guarding current Florida Gator Andrew Nembhard, Garland tries to avoid the screen and contain a Nembhard drive to the rim. Instead, Garland shoots the gap too early, giving Nembhard an easy path to the basket and allows him to convert the and-one layup.
Overall, Garland projects as an immediate offensive force as both a scorer and facilitator. His ability to get to the rim and convert difficult shots separates him from his fellow point guards in the class, and should give him a long and lengthy career in the NBA. Add in a consistent jump shot and a knack for creating separation, and the tools exist for Garland to thrive in the pace-and-space era. Pairing him with Booker would give the Suns a dynamic duo of scoring guards who are both equally adept at running the offense or spotting up for easy threes. While the pair would certainly have their defensive shortcomings, the offensive potential may be too enticing for Phoenix to pass up.
Coby White from the University of North Carolina is another popular option for the Suns at six. His frenetic energy, superb speed and incredible hair quickly made him a fan favorite among the Tar Heel faithful, and his ability to mesh with a talented but often disjointed UNC team made him an integral member of the starting lineup. As a freshman, White started all but one game for the Tar Heels, averaging 16.1 points on 42.3% shooting while dishing out a team-high 4.1 assists.
He presents a similar skill set to that of Garland, as both prospects possess impressive finishing and shot-creating skills but have glaring defensive deficiencies. White is a little taller and more physical, coming in at 6-5 and 185 pounds. In the NBA, White will project as more of a combo guard rather than a true point guard, as his long-term outlook will likely be determined by his ability to translate his chaotic style to the NBA.
White is an electric athlete who will bring an instant boost of speed and quickness to whatever team selects him. He is constantly looking to push the ball up the floor, aiming to capitalize on an unprepared defense. While this strategy certainly results in its fair share of errant passes and ill-advised shots, White’s ability to control the pace of the game and put constant pressure on the defense is a unique and valuable skill. Even without the ball, White is always looking to run, making him an ideal fit for the transition-heavy Suns.
“If you’re in transition, and he’s coming at you,” said Rob Salter, White’s coach at Greenfield High School, “you’re at his mercy.”
Here against the eventual national champion Virginia Cavaliers, White is able to beat the majority of the Cavalier defense down the floor before finishing against the taller defender.
In the half court, White’s speed stands out even amongst elite athletes. His ability to beat defenders off the dribble is advanced for his age, and in the pick and roll White is able to leverage his speed for easy buckets. Standing at 6-foot-5, White almost plays smaller than that as he is consistently able to slither between defenders before exploding at the rim.
“His body control is unbelievable,” Salter said. “You think the defense has cut him and off and he can just slide through defenders and just maneuver his body to get in there and score.”
Although there is certainly a need to add more nuance and feel to his pick-and-roll game, the potential is there for White to be an absolute force offensively. In a mid-season matchup with the Duke Blue Devils, White displayed some of the offensive production and creativity that has NBA front offices foaming at the mouth. He begins by beating defender Tre Jones off the dribble before weaving between two Blue Devil defenders to finish at the rim. While this specific play isn’t as technically sound as some NBA teams prefer, there is an undeniable energy and intensity that emanates from White whenever he steps on the floor.
As an isolation scorer, White showed flashes of absolute brilliance throughout the season. Despite his average handle, White was often able to blow by his defenders simply due to his quickness. The fear and respect for White’s off-the-bounce game forced defenders to play back, giving White ample space to launch his shot. The Goldsboro, North Carolina native was consistently able to make defenders pay, displaying a wide array of maneuvers designed to get him easy shots.
“I’ve never seen a young man that can score at all three levels like Coby can,” Salter said. “I’ve known he was special since his freshman year (of high school).”
Here, going against fellow projected Top 10 pick Cam Reddish, White loses the 6-foot-8 forward with a devastating step back before connecting on the wide-open jumper.
While he certainly has a ways to go, White showed significant progress this past season as a facilitator and passer. His above average height for the position allowed White to find unusual passing angles, and set his teammates up with easy scoring opportunities. In the following clip, again against Virginia, White makes the difficult pass look easy as he finds teammate Garrison Brooks for the layup.
Similar to Garland, White’s biggest question mark lies on the defensive end of the floor. His length and athleticism suggest he could one day evolve into an above-average defender, but currently White too often finds himself out of position. Like many young guards, White frequently overran passes or made daring steal attempts in an effort to force turnovers and as a result gave up his fair share of easy points. While guarding Tre Jones of Duke, White attempts to cut off the baseline drive by predicting where Jones is about to go. Instead, White guesses incorrectly and allows an easy path to the rim and a layup.
White is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and intriguing players in the upcoming draft, presenting a tantalizing combination of scoring and playmaking ability. His above- average height and quickness make him a terror in the open court, and his consistent success converting near the rim suggest he may be more NBA-ready than some anticipate. While the defensive deficiencies are clear, White’s physical tools give hope that under the right tutelage he could transform into at least a league average defender. In total, White is a bet worth making in the Top 10 of the upcoming draft and he could easily become one of the best players from this year’s crop of draftees.
Matisse Thybulle out of the University of Washington is a very different prospect than either Garland or White, but could easily have a much longer and more fruitful career than either of the more highly-touted prospects. A four-year starter for the Huskies, Thybulle withstood coaching and scheme changes to become one of the most successful players in Washington basketball history.
A two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year, Thybulle wreaked havoc this past season at the top of the Huskies vaunted 2-3 zone. The Pac-12’s all-time leader in steals, Thybulle averaged an almost unthinkable 3.5 steals and 2.3 blocks per game as a senior. Standing at 6’5 with long arms and quick feet, Thybulle is an elite on the ball and help defender who will immediately step into any NBA lineup and hold his own defensively.
In a game against Cal, Thybulle singlehandedly disrupted an entire possession by simply being in too many places at once. The possession begins with Thybulle tightly guarding his man on the wing. When the ball finds its way into the paint, Thybulle drops to double-team, negating any chance of a shot. When the ball gets swung outside to a wide-open Golden Bear, it initially appears that Thybulle is out of position and will be unable to contest the shot. Somehow though, this isn’t the case, as Thybulle times his jump perfectly to block the shot and jumpstart the Washington fast break.
Plays like this are simply routine for Thybulle, who’s ability to disrupt a team’s offensive possession from anywhere on the court is second to none. His defensive versatility should be his biggest calling card, and while some natural concerns will emerge about Thybulle’s ability to transition from a 2-3 zone to a man defense when he enters the league, the tools are there for Thybulle to lock down a variety of different scorers.
Here in a matchup with Utah, Thybulle is guarding Utes leading scorer guard Sedrick Barefield. Barefield is able to get a step on Thybulle, but like he did so many times throughout his record-setting season Thybulle is able to deflect the ball out of bounds and neutralize any chance of a Utes scoring opportunity.
On top of his impressive defensive instincts, long arms and quick feet, Thybulle also looks the part of an elite athlete. His breakaway speed will be an immediate tool for whatever team drafts him, and his quick-twitch nature makes him almost as dangerous a help defender as he is on the ball.
Offensively is where Thybulle’s game presents the most question marks. On a talented Huskies team, little was asked of Thybulle on the offensive side of the floor and thus little was shown about what he can do with the ball in his hands. Averaging a respectable 9.2 points on 41.5% shooting from the field and 30.5% shooting from three, Thybulle mostly operated as a spot-up shooter in his time with the Huskies. Little was asked of him in terms as a creator, and although Thybulle certainly showed flashes of competency any team that drafts him will have to be patient with his offensive progression.
Thybulle’s quickest path to at least average offensive production will be as a spot-up shooter. His form and footwork look solid, and he already has good experience coming off screens in catch-and-shoot situations.
There’s also groundwork laid for Thybulle to evolve into at least an average creator with the ball in his hands. His handle will certainly have to improve, but his natural athleticism and improving shot present is an intriguing skill set for an NBA team to work with. Here, going up against projected first-round pick Rui Hachimura, Thybulle is able to shake him with a nice crossover and connect on a pull-up three.
As a whole, Thybulle possesses one of the draft’s most unique profiles and looks to be the rare rookie who can contribute immediately for whatever team selects him. His defensive intangibles are almost unheard-of for a rookie, and his ability to neutralize essentially any scoring threat regardless of size is a rare and unique gift. While his offensive skill set certainly needs improvement, the foundation has been laid for Thybulle to develop into at least average if not slightly above average scorer in the NBA.
While he doesn’t exactly fit the profile of the pure point guard Phoenix is likely searching for this offseason, his pairing with Booker would present a tantalizing contrast of skills that could provide immediate improvement for the Suns on both ends of the floor. Starting Thybulle next to Booker would shift Booker into much more of a scorer and creator type role, a role in which he thrived in toward the end of last season. Conversely, the pairing would alleviate much of the offensive pressure from Thybulle, allowing him to focus primarily on defense where he would match up with the litany of talented guards that currently populate the Western Conference. Factor in the defensive energy Booker no longer would have to expend, and the pairing has the potential to pay immediate dividends for a franchise in desperate need of some competency.
Armed with the sixth and 32nd picks, the Suns will likely look to address the point guard position at some point in the draft. Both Garland and White would be exciting options at six, while Thybulle would be an intriguing selection at thirty-two. No matter who Phoenix selects, the pressure is on the entire Suns front office to produce as the team looks to secure their first playoff berth in 10 seasons.