Draft week always sends me scurrying back through Suns’ history, looking at players come and gone, seasons of success and not-so-much-success. It’s a good time to consider what’s come before, when you’re about to get a dose, in some form or other, of what’s going to be.
The Suns drafted George Gervin in the third round of the 1974 NBA Draft.
There’s been a lot of talk this off-season about the Suns’ past few drafts; players that didn’t pan out, players the team might have drafted and passed on, deals that did or didn’t work. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.
Did you know the Suns drafted the following notable players who never put on the purple and orange: ABA/NBA ironman and all-star Ron Boone (1968 – 11th round), ABA/NBA legend and scoring champ George Gervin (1974 – 3rd round), 70s scoring ace Billy McKinney (1977, 6th round), and man-mountain shot-blocker Mark Eaton (1979, 5th round)?
Of course, those were the days when the NBA draft had something like two hundred rounds, and in some cases, there was the ABA, a whole other league, to contend with, so the science of selecting players was a bit less defined.
Also, back then, fewer underclassmen and almost no Europeans made themselves eligible for the draft, and the emphasis wasn’t as much on potential as it was on ready-to-play athletes; there was a better chance of finding a hidden gem in a late round (remember Alvin Scott, the Suns’ 7th round pick in 1977?
He went on to play most of a decade for the club as a super-sub). Nowadays, as there are no late rounds, and every pick is absolutely crucial, from a financial standpoint, and from the standpoint of improving your team. You get just a few shots in the draft now, so you better be right about your picks…which is why the entire city of Portland is sweating bullets as I write this.
The Suns pick 24th, 29th and 59th in this year’s draft, and there are so many scenarios swirling over what the Suns might do with their picks that I can’t keep them all straight. I have my preferences, but I’m notoriously bad at eyeing talent that I think will help the Suns (years ago, when now-Suns staffer Steve Koek called to tell me the club had traded Eddie Johnson for Xavier McDaniel, I confidently predicted the NBA could forward the championship trophy to Phoenix immediately), so I’m just a nervous, hopeful observer.
So, to pass the time, I donned my 20/20 spectacles to look back at previous Suns drafts in hopes of determining which one did the most for the franchise. My criteria were: 1) Impact players for the team. Not guys who may have gone elsewhere and had great careers. What did Suns draftees contribute to the Suns? (2004 Suns draftee Luol Deng may turn out to be a great player, just not here) 2) Depth of draft. The Suns have landed many strong players in drafts where they only had one or two picks (Shawn Marion in 1999 and Amare Stoudemire in 2002, to name two) – which is all you can ask for in this day and age, but I want to reward the team for reaching for those hidden gems. So, naturally, earlier drafts are weighted a bit heavier than more recent ones.
For me, it came down to two Suns drafts. Narrowly finishing in second place was the draft for the 1975-76 season. Only two players from that draft played for the Suns that season (a third, Bayard Forrest, came aboard later), but they were crucial in turning the team into an NBA force, starting a winning tradition that has continued, nearly uninterrupted, to this day. Phoenix had two first-round picks, and used the first (Number 4 overall) on an undersized, high-post, underclassman center from Oklahoma, Alvan Adams.
The second (Number 16 overall) became Ricky Sobers, a two-fisted guard from Shawn Marion’s alma mater, UNLV. Both emerged as starters. Adams became the Suns’ first Rookie of the Year. And thanks in no small part to the efforts of these young players, the Suns made it to their first NBA Finals in 1976. In other words, Adams and Sobers were crucial to turning the franchise around and setting them on a successful track. Sobers didn’t stay with the Suns long, but his initial impact was powerful. Adams, of course, never left the Suns, remaining with them to this day. In his playing years, he was long the face of the franchise, and a cornerstone for the team to build around.
But the best draft, in my opinion, came a dozen years later, for the 1988-89 season. It was a season of enormous change for the Suns. Wracked by devastating drug scandal rumors, poor records in previous seasons, coaching changes, and whispers of a possible move to another city, the Suns completely overhauled their roster and their image. At the end of the previous season, the Suns had shipped their franchise player, Larry Nance, to Cleveland for Mark West, Tyrone Corbin and Kevin Johnson, and it was clear all three players would make an impact on the Suns’ future. Sharpshooting sixth man Eddie Johnson had come aboard in a trade. Cotton Fitzsimmons had returned to the Suns as Director of Player Personnel, and would soon be named Head Coach once more. The off-season yielded a proven superstar as a free agent, Tom Chambers. The Sun with the longest tenure on the team was a young guard named Jeff Hornacek (himself a hidden gem in the draft, once upon a time). The Suns were priming themselves to resume their position as a perennial contender. But the draft would be crucial – there were holes to fill, and this would be their chance.
I was an intern at KPNX-TV that summer, carrying tripods for photographers, mostly, and trying not to wilt in the heat. But I finagled my way into a hotel ballroom along with our news crew for the Suns’ draft party, and watched with great interest as Cotton and Assistant Coaches Paul Westphal and Lionel Hollins, from the stage, announced the Suns’ picks.
As I recall, I fervently hoped the Suns would take a big man with their first pick at Number 7, probably Rony Seikaly or Will Perdue (sorry, Mark West, like I said, I’m a terrible judge of draft talent). Instead, the Suns went with Tim Perry, a high-flying forward from Temple I didn’t know much about. The pick was greeted with some indifference, if I remember right, and while Perry never proved to be the most consistent player, he had his moments, and he figured prominently in the trade that brought Charles Barkley to town some years later…so give the Suns points for that.
The Suns had another pick in that first round, Number 14. After not selecting a “big name,” there was grumbling in the crowd. Gary Grant had been in for workouts, and was a big name from Michigan. Rod Strickland of DePaul was still available, and so was Notre Dame’s David Rivers (remember, Kevin Johnson was more promising than proven then, so the Suns’ interest in a point guard would have been understandable). Instead, the Suns picked Dan Majerle…and there were boos. No one had ever heard of him. His description didn’t help him. He was from Central Michigan (where?), where he had played center at 6-foot-6 (what?). I proudly state that I didn’t boo…but I wasn’t happy either, even when Cotton told us, “I cannot help how you feel…You will be sorry you ever booed this young man.”
He was right, of course. Thunder Dan became one of the most popular players in team history, beginning his career as a role player extraordinaire, a la John Havlicek, a slasher, a defender and a tireless worker. He’d go on to become one of the most feared three-point shooters to ever play, and was a key cog in the Suns teams that became perennial contenders in the Western Conference throughout the Nineties.
In the second round, the Suns finally selected a big man, a baby-faced center from Arkansas named Andrew Lang. He never put up the biggest numbers, but he was a capable player who worked hard on defense and protected the rim, and for a franchise that hadn’t really had a lot of success in the middle over the years, they were welcome traits. Lang played serviceably for several years with Phoenix before also figuring in the trade for Barkley, a trade that paved the way for the franchise’s second Finals appearance in 1993.
Three picks, three players that figured prominently and favorably in Suns history. All three were key components in making the franchise a force, restoring its place not just in the NBA, but in the hearts of Phoenix sports fans. At the team’s lowest ebb, they helped bring it back from the brink.
There was one other pick of note in that Suns draft, by the way – a scrappy guard with a bad knee and very little quickness, but with great basketball intelligence and a deadly stroke from downtown. He played college ball down the road at the University of Arizona, meaning even if he didn’t make the team, he’d at least be a fan favorite.
Steve Kerr didn’t play long for the Suns, but he lasted longer in the NBA than anyone else the Suns took in that draft, and the championship rings he collected from Chicago and San Antonio attest to his value. He also ended his career as the NBA’s career leader in 3-point shooting efficiency.
Okay, but what was his long-lasting impact on the Suns? What did he do that changed the franchise, and helped make the 1988 draft the most significant in franchise history? Well, he never cut his ties to the state, and on June 2, 202007, he accepted the post as the Suns’ General Manager and President of Basketball Operations, so we’re about to find out. And we’ll start this Thursday at the 202007-08 NBA Draft.
Who knows? Maybe, in nineteen years, we’ll be talking about it as the best in Suns’ history.