PHOENIX — Another day, another workout session as the Phoenix Suns prepare for the 2014 NBA Draft. But Thursday’s six-player audition was different with a number of players coming from a variety of experiences.
There were Joe Harris, Scottie Wilbekin, David Wear and DeAndre Kane, all seniors in classification but all of different ages, ranging from 21 to 24.
There was P.J. Hairston, the North Carolina product who spent two years playing for Roy Williams before NCAA violations and off-the-court trouble forced him to spend last year in the D-League.
And then there was the Baylor Bears’ 20-year-old, Isaiah Austin.
The diversity brought up questions for Suns general manager Ryan McDonough. Do the Suns go young since they’re looking for immediate help? How do you judge how much a underclassman can grow? And how do you measure an upperclassman’s upside if he’s closer to his ceiling?
“You look at it two ways,” McDonough said.
Kane, for example, is 24 years old and strong as an ox at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds. His production in college at Marshall and then this past season at Iowa State — 17 points, seven rebounds and six assists per game — gave him the tools to make a more immediate impact. That’s important, especially in knowing how immediately he could help an NBA team.
“I guess it’s easier rather than guessing how a guy’s body will fill out and if he’s done growing and all those kind of things,” McDonough said, “you kind of have more of a feel for, ‘OK, this is who he is. And how can he get to his ceiling and put in the work to get there?
“He’s probably the same age as half our team. You have to factor that in, but you can’t dismiss that.”
On the other end of the spectrum, to a degree, is Austin. Though he was projected high enough that he could have entered the draft in 2013, the rail thin 7-foot-1 big man returned to play his sophomore year at Baylor. He’s still regarded as a project, and he knows it.
“I am a hard worker, I’m going to be in the gym every day,” Austin said. “I want to get better. To me, it’s not about the money, it’s not about where I get drafted, it’s about helping myself develop so I can be the best player I can be.”
And then there’s Hairston, who was suspended and eventually left UNC for NCAA violations, and being pulled over in the possession of marijuana.
The conversation about a player who played in college and then the D-League is a deep thing to dive into.
Hairston averaged 21.8 points and 3.5 rebounds this past season while shooting 36 percent from three-point range — mind you, those are his numbers accumulated playing for the D-League’s Texas Legends. The D-League’s all-business attitude shaped him differently than Kane, the 24-year-old fifth-year senior who used the graduate transfer rule, or Austin, who spent only a few years at Baylor.
“It was good that I played with guys that were in the NBA and that were also vets in the NBA,” Hairston said Thursday. “For example, Melvin Ely was one of my teammates. It helped me just being on the team with guys like that, that talked me through the game ’cause they knew so much.
“It kind of taught me to be on my own,” Hairston added. “In college, I mean, of course you had the coaches that were always holding your hand. They were always by your side. But when I got to the D-League, I had my own apartment, I was living by myself, I was just on my own.”
All of the very different backgrounds between the draftees loops back to two things.
For one, it is a reason for the proposed 20-year-old NBA age limit that commissioner Adam Silver is pushing for.
On another, more localized train of thought, the diversity in experience has a bit to do with the Suns’ acquisition of a hybrid affiliation with the Bakersfield Jam. The age restriction would put the Suns and other teams that run D-League squads in an odd bind — players that had forgone college but hadn’t qualified for the draft process could theoretically play in a league without being able to join an NBA squad. But it would also prop up the talent pool.
While Hairston isn’t the usual case of a D-League player, he represents the benefits of the minor league system becoming more useful should the age limit go into place.
“I think the advantages are it’s all basketball,” McDonough said. “I’m not trying to bag on college, but (the D-League players are) pros. They play all day, they practice all day. They are playing against men, so it’s different.
“I think the D-League is probably the best simulation for the size and strength and speed and physicality of the NBA game.”