Before the 2018 NBA Draft, Luka Doncic dominated the discussion.

Featured in Europe for years as a kid playing against men, Doncic looked like a future NBA star for sure.

Making his debut for Real Madrid when he was 15, it took him two seasons as a professional before leading the team to the EuroLeague title, claiming EuroLeague MVP honors in the process.

Four years later, Doncic is a legitimate MVP candidate, with many wondering how and why he slipped through the Suns’ fingers.

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Despite showcasing the obvious talent of a potential No. 1 overall pick, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony highlighted some of the potential challenges facing international prospects.

“As small as the world has become, and even though we have more movies and information at our fingertips than ever before, I continue to believe that international players are at a disadvantage in the NBA draft process compared to their NBA peers. NCAA,” Givony wrote.

“There’s just a level of comfort and familiarity to NBA teams in the hunt for college players that internationals don’t enjoy. Most NBA executives will go to Europe once or twice, what if you fall into one or two bad games?

Of course, the United States has produced a host of top teams that have fallen short of expectations, but perhaps the international prospects are more memorable. Andrea Bargnani, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 Draft, comes to mind. Or even Ricky Rubio, who, like Doncic, had built an impressive resume as a teenager in Europe. Now in his 11th season in the NBA after being selected with the No. 5 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, Rubio has had a successful professional career to be sure, but he hasn’t quite reached the All-Star level many expected. what it would achieve

Before the draft, there were some question marks over whether or not Doncic would want to play for Sacramento, Atlanta or Memphis, who had the picks immediately after Phoenix. Of course, Doncic would have the option to continue playing in Europe after Draft night and not make it to the NBA.

night project

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With Phoenix set on selecting Deandre Ayton with the first overall pick and Doncic reportedly distancing himself from Atlanta, the Hawks began talks with the Mavericks.

What followed was a blockbuster trade that saw Doncic end up in Dallas, with Trae Young heading to Atlanta.

Of course, Ayton would pick No. 1, with Marvin Bagley II heading to Sacramento with the No. 2 pick and Jaren Jackson Jr. heading to Memphis with the No. 4 pick.

“[Dallas] been talking to me,” Doncic told the ESPN/ABC broadcast on draft night. “They were very kind to me. And I’m glad, you know? Just happy to be in the NBA. Just happy to be a part of it.”

Adding to the intrigue was the presence of Phoenix head coach Igor Kokoskov, who was intimately aware of Doncic’s talent as head coach of the Slovenian national team. Kokoskov was fired in April of Ayton’s rookie season. After returning to Europe for a stint, he’s now on staff in Dallas…once again working with Doncic.

Why did Phoenix select Ayton?

While the obvious guard comparison between Doncic and Young will be equally perennial, the bigger question that remains is why did the Suns pick a center in an era when the importance of the traditional big man has seemingly diminished?

Givony was on the money with his pre-lottery analysis, reporting that Ayton was asserting himself as the likely best pick.

“After canvassing most of the league in recent weeks, it appears a consensus is forming around Ayton as the ‘safe pick’ at No. 1,” Givony wrote.

“Which team ends up getting the pick will obviously play a role, but Ayton’s sheer productivity combined with his odd physical tools make it increasingly difficult to keep Luka Doncic at the top, especially after a somewhat lackluster February for their standards.”

It’s not a blow to Ayton, who was a top prospect, but for a Phoenix franchise that had been out of the playoffs for several years, the idea of ​​taking the ‘safe pick’ feels like a disappointing approach. At the time, the Suns lacked a franchise point guard, with a mix of players from Tyler Johnson, Isaiah Canaan and Elie Okobo starting during Ayton’s rookie season.

Interestingly, international prospect Okobo, who was once considered a potential first-round pick, was picked with France’s 31st pick. He is no longer in the league.

Is it possible the Suns were shying away from using another top pick on an international player given that just two drafts earlier they had used the fourth overall pick on Croatian talent Dragan Bender?

Bender would play just 171 games for the franchise over three seasons, averaging 5.3 points and 3.8 rebounds.

Speaking with the Basketball Network, former scout Antonio Williams discussed some of the decision-making process when it came to moving on to Ayton ahead of Doncic or Young.

“With Deandre, one of the things was, you look at the things he does, his size when you combine athleticism, dexterity and agility, there are things he can just get out of bed and do,” Williams said. .

“Of course, we knew Luka and Trae Young were going to be great, but when we look back at Deandre, there are things that we feel like he can inherently get out of bed and do that we didn’t have in mind.” our list.”

The first returns

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In many ways, the comparison between Ayton and Doncic was always going to be skewed. Doncic had the ball in his hands since opening night as the dominant guard, while Ayton plied his trade struggling in the paint, working as screen and rolling man with Booker.

The young Suns finished Ayton’s rookie season with a 19-63 record, though the big man impressed by averaging 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds.

Doncic was a blockbuster from Game 1, finishing the season with 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists on a Dallas team that finished 33-49.

From night one, it was clear that Doncic is a franchise-changing talent, immediately sparking discussion about how he slipped through the fingers of multiple franchises.

The Suns would eventually find their point guard, trading Chris Paul in a move that sparked a surprising run to the 2023 NBA Finals. Ayton was on spectacular occasions during the postseason, producing a monster 22-point, 19-rebound effort in the Game 1 of the Finals against Milwaukee.

PLUS: Deandre Ayton is a pick-and-roll mismatch nightmare

Ayton’s emergence on the biggest stage is yet another indication that Phoenix landed a really good player on the night of the 2018 NBA Draft, leading many to believe that he’s in for a big payday.

Whats Next?

On the back of that playoff playoff streak, Ayton was shaping up to be the next player in the 2018 class to be cashed with a major payday.

Doncic signed a five-year, $207 million supermax rookie extension as soon as possible this offseason.

Young also signed a five-year extension that can be worth $207 million with an All-NBA extension in the allotted time frame.

Jackson Jr. agreed to a four-year, $105 million extension in Memphis.

Ayton, on the other hand, was unable to reach an agreement with Phoenix on an extension, and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the property does not believe he is on the same level as Doncic, Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and other classy men who They have received big -time contracts in the off-season.

“I mean, obviously, we’re disappointed that we weren’t able to get an extension deal done this offseason,” Suns general manager James Jones told The Athletic’s Sam Amick. “Deandre is important to us. He means a lot to us and he was instrumental in what we did and what we did last season.”

MORE: Why Deandre Ayton, Suns failed to reach agreement on maximum contract extension

Last month, the team agreed to a four-year, $90 million deal with versatile flanker Mikal Bridges. Bridges joins Devin Booker as an assured centerpiece for the future, with Paul also signing a four-year deal worth up to $120 million in August.

Whether it’s the Suns’ trio of Paul, Booker and Bridges, or the 2018 draft class of Doncic, Young and Gilgeous-Alexander, the collection of top payday talent have something in common.

They are not a center.

Ayton will now have the opportunity to sign an offer sheet with a rival team next offseason as a restricted free agent.

Failing to block Ayton caused many Suns fans to blame owner Robert Sarver, as the Suns haven’t been a luxury tax team since 2010. Coming off a run to the Finals, it could strain a relationship with their national team. three-year number 1 overall. above is certainly a curious decision.

The 23-year-old had an injury-interrupted start to 2023-22, appearing in just six games as he battled a leg contusion. A consistent double-double player as he has been throughout his career, Ayton is averaging 14.2 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game so far.

Ayton is sure to become one of the talking points of the 2023 free agency period, with the rising big man’s relationship with the franchise seemingly tested through last summer’s failed contract negotiations.

Now we wait for the next chapter in the 2018 Draft night story to unfold.