With the caveat that no one knows anything about how this will turn out in the long term, it’s fair to say that the Phoenix Suns had a strange 2019 NBA Draft. They dropped in the rejiggered draft lottery to land with the sixth pick, then dropped another five spots Thursday night via a genuinely head-scratching trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
There are two factors that make Thursday night’s trade seem like a strange decision by Suns general manager James Jones. Teams move down in the draft order all the time, but generally speaking they do so in return for a handsome reward from the team moving up into their spot. The Pelicans, for example, moved from the fourth pick to the eighth pick, and in return they got the 17th pick and a high second-round pick, plus salary relief. That was to move down four spots, but to stay inside the top-10. The Suns, meanwhile, dropped five spots, to 11th, and all they got in return is one season of Dario Šarić, whose rookie contract will expire after the 2019–20 NBA season.
Šarić is a solid player, and the Suns will retain right of first refusal when he hits restricted free agency after next season. But one measly year of control over a non-star player is not much of a prize for a disgraceful, directionless, perpetually rebuilding team to get back in exchange for dropping out of the top-10 of a not especially deep or promising draft. The Suns will get one year to look at Šarić up close, and then they will be on the hook for paying him his next contract; in order for the acquisition of Šarić to redeem this trade, that next contract will pretty much have to be a long-term deal. One season aboard a talent-poor roster led by a new head coach is, generally speaking, not a very strong foundation for making that kind of commitment.
And then there’s what they did with that 11th pick, the one they got back from the Timberwolves. The Timberwolves used the sixth pick on Jarrett Culver, an athletic and versatile wing who was recently the best player on a Texas Tech team that played for a national championship. The Suns used the 11th pick to select 23-year-old Cameron Johnson of North Carolina, the oldest player in the draft, and someone the NBA didn’t even bother inviting to the green room. Johnson took sort of an unconventional route to this moment: he started for one season on a bad Pittsburgh team, then transferred to UNC and played two solid but unspectacular seasons for a couple of good but generally disappointing Tar Heels squads. ESPN Analytics ranked him 66th among draft prospects by median projection, and gives him just a four percent chance of developing into an NBA starter. Johnson ranked 38th in FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projections, listing his closest NBA comps as Matt Bonner and Steve Novak. It would not have surprised anyone if Johnson had been picked in the second round, to say nothing of outside the lottery portion of the first.
Most NBA draft grades are bullcrap. For all anyone knows, Johnson could wind up becoming a superstar. Stranger things have happened. But it’s safe to say whatever analysis the Suns used to rank Johnson as a lottery pick differed quite a lot from the consensus opinion! If nothing else, if the Suns were going to move down in the draft to get him, they could’ve moved down a lot more. Even Johnson’s college teammate and apparent biggest fan, seventh overall pick Coby White, was shocked to the point of speechlessness by the news that Johnson had gone so high:
The first two roster moves of the James Jones–led Suns front office have not been very encouraging. They traded T.J. Warren plus a pick in exchange for cash, dumping the salary of a useful player in order to clear cap room they definitionally will not be able use on anyone who is good enough to insist upon playing for a contender. And they turned the sixth overall pick into one season of a role player and a guy they almost certainly could’ve drafted two hours later. Maybe the Suns have gotten their 2019 offseason exactly right, but from outside their offices it looks like more of that classic Robert Sarver–style chaos we’ve all come to love.