Barring a trade, this will be the Suns’ first No. 1 overall pick in franchise history. After a league-worst 21-61 season, Phoenix had the best odds to win the lottery.
“It’s a historic day for the franchise,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said while clutching the No. 1 envelope that the Suns logo appeared from to win the first pick.
This is the fourth straight season in which the team with the best chance to end up with the No. 1 selection got the top spot.
The Suns have an interesting decision to make, as the franchise has some familiarity with two of the top prospects in this year’s draft.
Big man DeAndre Ayton is expected to be one of the first players selected next month, and he played in the Suns’ backyard at Arizona. He averaged 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds in his only season with the Wildcats, earning the Pac-12 Player of the Year award. The 7-foot center dominated the NCAA to the tune of 24 double-doubles on the season, the second most by a freshman in Division I history, behind only Michael Beasley, who recorded 28 in 2007-08 for Kansas State.
Swingman Josh Jackson, the fourth overall pick in last year’s draft, was the Suns’ representative at the lottery. Afterward, he said he knows whom he wants the team to select.
“For me personally I would have to say DeAndre Ayton,” Jackson told ESPN while discussing which prospect he thought would fit best with Phoenix. “A kid I’ve been knowing for five or six-plus years. I’ve watched him grow from a freshman to a senior in [high school], and I’ve seen him improve every year, adding something more to his game. Before his shot wasn’t really that good and now you got to respect it. You can’t leave him open because he can knock it down. He’s got so much potential and he’s such a hard worker, that’s probably who I would go with.”
Real Madrid’s Luka Doncic has been on NBA radars for a while, earning the 2016-17 EuroLeague Rising Star award while growing his game overseas. At 19, Doncic already has the type of professional experience that scouts salivate over as he transitions to the NBA.
New Suns coach Igor Kokoskov coached Doncic as the pair helped lead Slovenia to a gold medal in last year’s European championship.
“We’ll certainly weigh it pretty heavily,” McDonough said of their relationship. “He’s our head coach and has a good track record of evaluating players, developing players. Obviously he and Doncic have a great history together having won the European world championships and Doncic is a phenomenal talent who’s certainly in the mix for the No. 1 pick for us. At the same time, a few other guys who are in this room tonight are in [the mix] as well. And knowing Igor he’ll have strong opinions on Luka and I know how he feels about Luka and the special connection they have. At the same time, he’ll want us to draft the best player, whoever we think the best player is, whoever stands out throughout the process.”
Another possible candidate at No. 1 is Duke freshman Marvin Bagley III, who became the first Blue Devil in history to lead the ACC in scoring and rebounding, averaging 21.0 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. The 19-year-old helped lead Duke to the Elite Eight, becoming one of just five players in a major conference over the past 25 years to average 20-plus points and 10-plus rebounds and shoot 60 percent or higher from the field in a season. That list includes Ayton, Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin (2008-09), Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan (1996-97) and Northwestern’s Evan Eschmeyer (1997-98).
McDonough hopes the top selection can give the Suns the kind of star power that will carry them into the next phase of their rebuilding process.
“Hopefully it gives us another foundational player to build around,” he said. “We feel like we have one in Devin Booker, we feel like Josh Jackson has the potential to be one, he certainly made strides over the second half this past season. Usually in the NBA it takes three elite players to win at a high level. We feel like we have the potential to hopefully develop that and then add in free agency. So it’s big for us, it’s big for our franchise, I think it will be a jolt of energy and excitement into our fan base and we can’t wait for the draft on June 21.”
When told that Jackson wants the Suns to select Ayton, McDonough chuckled.
“I was hoping it was unanimous,” McDonough said. “That would make my job easier. I guess we got a decision to make.”
The Suns, in fact, have several decisions to make as they own four picks in June’s draft — two each in the first round (Nos. 1 and 16) and the second round (Nos. 31 and 59).
This is the 10th straight year the Kings have picked in the top 10. The team has not made the playoffs since 2006, the longest active drought in the NBA.
The Hawks, who recently hired Lloyd Pierce as their head coach, have their highest draft pick since they selected Al Horford at No. 3 overall in 2007.
This is the final year of this lottery system. Next season, the three worst teams in the regular season each will have the same 14 percent chance to win the lottery. This year the Suns, who finished dead last in the league, had a 25 percent chance to win the lottery, while the Memphis Grizzlies had a 19.9 percent chance and the Dallas Mavericks had a 13.8 percent chance. The Grizzlies and Mavs landed at Nos. 4 and 5, respectively.
The rest of the lottery slotted as follows: Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Charlotte Hornets, LA Clippers (picks Nos. 12 and 13) and Denver Nuggets.
The Cavs, who are playing the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, likely had higher hopes for what became the No. 8 pick. Cleveland acquired what was the Brooklyn Nets‘ pick from Boston in the Kyrie Irving trade.
Cleveland general manager Koby Altman, though, believes the team will find a valuable player there.
“I think when I, as we’ve gone through the process this year, I think this is a really deep draft,” Altman said. “If I was sitting with [No.] 8 in past years, I might not say that. I think 8 is very valuable this year.”
Altman was also asked if he would consider trading the pick to find a veteran to play alongside LeBron James in hopes of enticing the four-time MVP to re-sign with the team.
“We have every intention of diving into who we can get in this draft and how it can help our team,” Altman said.
McDonough, who called the final few minutes before the pick was revealed “torture,” beamed as he spoke of the lottery luck the Suns received. Jackson, who noted one of his lucky charms was a pair of underwear he wore to the event, acknowledged the tension in the room.
“Before they started to call out the teams and the picks I was really nervous,” Jackson said. “I didn’t have any control over it but I was still really nervous. After they got down to the bottom three, I got to be a little more confident knowing that we would get the No. 1 pick.”The look of happiness and relief on both of their faces was mixed with a level of optimism within the organization that hasn’t been felt in several years.
“I hate to say this because Joel (Embiid) says it all the time — it’s a process,” Jackson said. “It really is. It’s not a race, everybody can’t win, so you got to kind of be able to take your losses on the chin and just know that one day it will be your turn. And you just got to stay focused and keep working and be willing to wait. ”
Jackson stood on stage with the Suns logo card after the lottery, taking pictures and smiling for all to see.
“I’m not letting this go,” he said.
Information from ESPN’s Dave McMenamin was used in this report.