Bordow: Deandre Ayton Over Luka Doncic a Fortuitous Draft Mistake By Suns

No one could have envisioned the events that were triggered that Wednesday afternoon.

Not then-Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough. Not owner Robert Sarver. Certainly not Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges, Monty Williams and the two men whose professional fates were determined that day:

Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic.

But as the Suns take on the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals it’s stunning to look back and see how a single decision brought the Suns to where they are today — favorites to win the NBA title.

***

It was Wednesday, June 6, 2018, and these were the words I wrote for the Arizona Republic as the Suns beat writer: Deandre Ayton walked into the Al McCoy Media Center, sat down behind a microphone and boldly proclaimed there should be no doubt as to whose name will be called first by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

“I know I’m going Number 1,” Ayton said.

Ayton had just completed his one-and-only pre-draft workout with the Suns. McDonough, who addressed the media prior to Ayton’s appearance, called the workout “phenomenal.”

But there was still some debate — internally among the Suns — and certainly outside the organization as to whether Phoenix should take Ayton or Doncic with the No. 1 pick.

Just a month before the Suns had hired Igor Kokoskov as coach, and Kokoskov had a history with Doncic: He was the head coach of the Slovenian National Team when it won EuroBasket 2017 with a teenage Doncic making the All-Tournament team.

Pairing Doncic with Kokoskov made sense, as did the argument that guards had become a more valuable commodity in the NBA than big men.

But the Suns put Ayton through a series of drills that foreshadowed the positive impact he has now on both ends of the floor. They tested Ayton in pick-and-roll coverage, trying to find out if he could cover guards on the perimeter, and had him shoot jumpers both from mid-range and beyond the 3-point line.

“I can probably count on one hand the number of guys with his size, athleticism, footwork, balance and touch,” McDonough said. “It’s a unique package.”

Sound like the Ayton we see today?

Yet, four years later, two indisputable facts remain about the Suns’ decision to take Ayton:

They got it wrong. And it couldn’t have turned out better.

***

Let’s not kid ourselves. As important as Ayton has become to the Suns, he’s not on the same level as Doncic, who is a top-five player in the NBA and a future MVP. Doncic is a superstar. Ayton is arguably the third most-important player on Phoenix’s team.

As for the idea that Doncic, a ball-dominant scoring point guard, wouldn’t have been a good fit with Devin Booker, please. Those two would have found a way to work together.

But think about the ripples — or should we say tidal waves — that were caused by the selection of Ayton.

Let’s start with that draft.

If the Suns take Doncic, they may not have made the draft-night deal with the Philadelphia 76ers in which they traded Zhaire Smith and a future first-round pick to Philly for Bridges.

“Once we decided that Deandre was going to be the No. 1 pick, we wanted to figure out which other young studs would best complement Devin and Deandre,” McDonough said. “We felt Mikal Bridges would be the perfect guy to play alongside those two because of his character, work ethic and dynamic two-way ability.”

That’s just the start of it.

Kokoskov coached the Suns to a 19-63 record — the second-worst season in franchise history — in 2018-19 and was fired after one season. But if the Suns had taken Doncic, there’s a good chance Kokoskov would have been given a second season because of his relationship with the Slovenian guard.

And if that happens, Williams, hired by Phoenix in May of 2019, is the head coach of another NBA team. Try to imagine where the Suns are now if Williams isn’t the coach.

Finally, there’s no chance — none whatsoever — the Suns trade for Chris Paul in November of 2020 if Doncic is the team’s point guard. And Ayton isn’t the player he is today without Paul pushing and prodding him.

Bridges. Williams. Paul.

All here because Phoenix drafted Ayton instead of Doncic.

Funny how things work out.

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