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The Suns Hold the Key to the Future. So Will It Be Doncic or Ayton?

Phoenix’s first no. 1 overall selection in franchise history will be a doozy. It’s no easy decision.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Suns were the worst team in the NBA over the past three seasons, and it’s culminated in this: Phoenix’s first no. 1 overall selection in franchise history. There is familiarity with Phoenix and both of the top-rated prospects in The Ringer’s NBA Draft Guide in Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton. Doncic made the biggest statement of his life at Eurobasket 2017 under Igor Kokoskov, the newly hired Suns coach who helped unlock some of Doncic’s latent potential on the Slovenian national team; Ayton would have a built-in fan base in Phoenix fully aware of his preposterous potential, having spent a year as an Arizona Wildcat. It’s a tough decision. Who they select will determine the path they’ve chosen for the future and the kind of team Kokoskov and Co. hope to build.

It’s not just that Doncic’s fit in Phoenix is a no-brainer. The most interesting thing about Doncic in general is just how easy it is to imagine a role for him on any team in the world. With Doncic playing alongside Devin Booker and Josh Jackson, the Suns could potentially trot out one of the most unconventional sets of ball handlers in the league, each with his own specialty. None is shorter than 6-foot-6. That’s as modern as it gets.

Kokoskov helped lead Slovenia to its first Eurobasket win on the backs of Doncic and Goran Dragic, who each took turns as the primary creator on the team.

It’s an exciting prospect to see that kind of dynamic translate at the NBA level. There might only be a handful of players 6-foot-8 or taller in the league who are as adept at running the pick-and-roll as Doncic is today: He’s the best passer in the draft with an impressive field of vision and a confident shooter off the dribble with a diverse bag of tricks necessary to fell a mismatch (including a fairly Hardenesque stepback and post moves against smaller defenders). Versatility is a buzzword thrown around often, but Doncic legitimately has the ability to play three positions (with a fourth possibly down the line).

He fluidly transitions in and out of certain on-court responsibilities, going from a James Harden–like primary ball handler to a Joe Ingles off the ball, putting himself in the right place at the right time for his veteran teammates to find him. The Slovenian’s steadiness in virtually any situation on offense would help with the learning curve of Jackson, who had a promising second half of his rookie season, and Booker, who is still discovering his capabilities as a pick-and-roll ball handler.

The biggest remaining question about him is just how much his lack of top-flight athleticism will affect him across the positional spectrum on both ends of the floor. He doesn’t have the explosiveness to create separation as easily as you’d hope, and while he’s a competitive defender, there is a ceiling to a player who can’t quite slide his feet quickly enough to contain speedier athletes. But it’s not a dealbreaker. I’ve long seen shades of Brandon Roy in his game, who almost used his average athleticism as a weapon; he was always a few steps ahead of his defender, finding angles and taking advantage of his superior timing. For a lesser talent, this would all seem like rationalizing; for Doncic, these are elite intangibles that in part explain how he’s become one of the most decorated draft prospects the league has ever seen.

But then, how do you deny Deandre Ayton, the most physically gifted player since … Anthony Davis? LeBron James? What is there to say about a 7-foot, 243-pound center with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and a purported 43.5-inch vertical leap (similar to dunk champ Zach LaVine, who is 7 inches shorter)? What about the fact he has legitimate 3-point range and impossibly quick feet to defend on the perimeter? Just reciting his measurables must send chills down Jay Bilas’s spine.

The Suns have drafted more than their fair share of big men in recent drafts, to varying degrees of disappointment. Dragan Bender, despite his atrocious per-game numbers, remains the most potential-laden young big on the roster, with the possibility of being an interesting 3-and-D center moving forward. Of course, he’s not enough to get in the way of Ayton should the Suns staff close in on the former Wildcat. You don’t pass up on a possible Shaq-like presence in the NBA because you have Brad Lohaus. I can’t imagine it being difficult for the Suns to talk themselves into a potential Kobe-Shaq union, retrofitted into the future.

“There are a lot of versatile bigs, but I’m a different versatile big,” Ayton told Slam. “The versatile bigs that are in the NBA, all the unicorns, they start outside in. I establish myself down low before I come out. That was just old school to me—that’s how they taught me how to play.”

But the old-school forebears that coaches have had him model his game after rarely had plays run to free them for open 3s at the top of the arc. Ayton is, in a word, awe-inspiring. He has the highest ceiling of any player in this draft, with the kind of game-changing ability at center Joel Embiid has shown flashes of in Philadelphia.

Ayton’s Achilles’ heel is the perception that has weighed on him since high school: Despite his physique, he has never shown the defensive acumen that his body suggests he should. His advanced defensive statistics are unimpressive for a center prospect of his caliber, and the eye test often confirms the numbers. Should the Suns look for an immediate rim protector, they may be disappointed in how much he’ll have to be coached up on that end from the get-go. But he wouldn’t be the first player to turn things around in an NBA environment; the knock on Ben Simmons entering the draft was his complete apathy on that end of the floor. In his rookie season, he emerged as one of the most versatile defenders in the game, already.

The recency bias that the postseason often creates suggests that it might be more important to develop the best-possible collection of large and versatile guards and wings as possible. I’d draft Doncic and rest easy. But Ayton’s exceptional potential could be too difficult to ignore, especially for a team that has just hired a coach with a strong background in player development. It’s an enviable position with an unenviable decision left on the table.