By now, you’re well aware of the Phoenix Suns’ relative disdain for young prospects as they try to build a championship team. The last time they used a draft pick on a rookie was Jalen Smith in 2020. That was three drafts ago!
Since that draft pick, the Suns have won more regular-season games than any other team and also appeared in six playoff series in that time, tied with the Milwaukee Bucks for the most playoff series and most games. of playoffs played since the Bubble.
They have done it with a fairly young nucleus… but not that young man. And certainly not with mixed draft picks. That Jalen Smith pick? He hardly had playing time.
For the past two years, the only regular rotation player under the age of 24 has been center Deandre Ayton, and even now he’s reportedly off the team due to his relative immaturity and inconsistent work ethic.
Since James Jones took over the draft process, only two picks have been used in the last four drafts on young players with a lot of development needed. Both Jalen Smith and Ty Jerome were buried in the depth chart and were eventually traded.
“Jalen [Smith] it wasn’t better than [Suns backup center] JaVale [McGee] on a competitive team trying to win a championship,” Jones told ESPN recently. “You could say, ‘If we give him opportunities, he can be productive,’ but what’s the trade-off?”
Once again, Jones’ Suns have been very successful, and historically not many basketball games are won with young players up and down the lineup.
This list of veterans is in stark contrast to what Jones inherited from Ryan McDonough just three years ago. On that 2018-19 team, 22-year-old Devin Booker was one of 11 players 23 and younger to take the court at some point. Six of those 11 are basically or literally out of the league now and that 2018-19 team was a disaster, the ninth in a 10-year playoff drought and the fourth straight finish in the bottom five.
Since then, Jones has worked hard to surround an increasingly younger core with proven veterans. Since taking over as full-time general manager in May 2019, days after the 2018-19 gross year ended, the only players he has acquired before their 24th birthday are Cameron Johnson (22), Jalen Smith ( 20) and Landry Shamet. (23). Johnson was a five-year college player and Shamet was already a three-year NBA veteran. Smith was the only truly raw young player Jones has acquired.
For Jones, youth = losing.
He’s definitely not going to rely on underdeveloped youth for important minutes.
“I respect what OKC does,” Jones said in a recent ESPN article when asked if he appreciated the Oklahoma City Thunder’s more deliberate strategy. “That’s what they’ve chosen to be, I suppose. Everything is a choice. I don’t judge. I respect it. It’s just not for me.”
Jones was lucky enough to inherit a young core of three heads (two of whom were drafted with him as assistant GM). OKC has just one legitimate player in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander amid a bunch of unproven youngsters, and they just added four more rookies Thursday night.
Booker (22), Ayton (20) and Bridges (22) were already on the team before Jones got the permanent job. He replaced all the other kids (remember when I said Book was one of 11 players 23 and under on that team?) with veterans to stop the cycle of constant losses.
His first review circled the core with Ricky Rubio (29), Aron Baynes (29), Kelly Oubre Jr. (23), Dario Saric (26), Frank Kaminsky (26), and Tyler Johnson (25).
His second review swapped Rubio and Oubre for Chris Paul (36) and Jae Crowder (31). That second review took the Suns to the NBA Finals, as the Suns became the third team in league history to rise from the bottom two to the top two in the league standings in two years.
He chose the right players in his consolidation. The three youngsters he kept have become three-time All-Stars, a $20 million-per-year Defensive Player of the Year candidate and a potential $30 million-per-year defensive anchor. The other eight have cracked the ‘major rotation player’ cap, but mostly hit rock bottom as failures.
“I’m trying to win now and try to win later,” Jones told ESPN. “The players know that every day in the league brings them one day closer to the end of their careers, and I can’t waste their days.”
Now, the young core has come to the 25-plus club, and without the youth behind them, the Suns are quickly going from one of the youngest teams in the league to one of the oldest.
Last season, the Suns were the eighth oldest team in the league with an average age of 27.5 years.
As the new league year begins this Friday, which kicks off free agency and trade season, the Suns would be just over 28 years old if they bring the whole gang back.
Narrowing it down further, of the 16 players who finished this season on the roster (Dario Saric was an exception on the roster due to injury), only 9 are under contract for next season. The average age of that group will be just under 28.5 years.
Guess where that would rank the Suns among last year’s teams, in terms of age? 5th oldest, behind only the Bucks, Nets, Jazz and Lakers.
A lot can change in the coming weeks as the Suns shake up the back of their roster, and it’s possible that some of the new additions will make the team a little younger overall. But then again, if their main ‘perfect world’ goals are letting go of Ayton (age 24) so they can bring back Kevin Durant (age 35) or LeBron James (age 37), I wouldn’t expect a Suns team. youngest on the floor next season.
Jones has a pattern, and it’s about surrounding his core with veterans to win a lot of games, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. It has worked so far. His Suns are first in regular-season wins and second in postseason wins the past two years.
Expect more of the same this summer.
To make his point as clear as possible to Kevin Pelton in that ESPN article, Jones used the pick of Devin Booker as an example of something he wouldn’t do as a GM. He says he wouldn’t have taken an 18-year-old Booker with the 13th pick in 2015.
“It all depends on what your goal is,” says Jones. “Devin is great, but there are 50 skeletons tied to that swing set for the star. It wasn’t until winning mattered (Chris, Jae Crowder, drafting a 3-year-old who could help right away like Mikal) that it translated into success. And if you don’t mind winning around him, there are even more skeletons. So if you want to find the guy with the most potential to be the future star, then it makes sense to recruit him, if you’re willing to navigate the landmines.”
Jones is staying away from ‘prospect drop’ landmines at the same time he’s also trying to avoid ‘team drop’ landmines that the Lakers, Jazz and Nets also hit.