CHICAGO — Five weeks out from the draft, and the focus of the NBA universe rests now in Phoenix, where the Suns will make the No. 1 pick and are likely to choose between Arizona big man Deandre Ayton and Slovenian guard Luka Doncic.
Of special interest is the effect that newly hired Suns coach Igor Kokoskov will have on the decision. Kokoskov was the head coach of the Slovenian national team last year in its run to the gold medal in the EuroBasket tournament — which featured Doncic averaging 14.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists in nine games.
That’s led to speculation that Kokoskov would push the Suns to draft Doncic. But sources familiar with the Suns’ thinking told Sporting News on Thursday that’s just not the case.
In fact, look for Phoenix to insulate Kokoskov from the decision, and to put it squarely in the lap of GM Ryan McDonough. That’s not to say Kokoskov won’t have any input, but the Suns do not want to put pressure on their new head coach by leaving the impression that he lobbied for or against Doncic, an impression that could hamstring him even before he started on his new job.
“He is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t,” one source said. “If he pushes for Doncic and they take him, then anything that happens with Doncic or Ayton from there is on him. No team wants to put their coach in that situation. No coach wants to be in that situation. They’re going to avoid that like the plague.”
Play out the possibilities and the logic behind keeping Kokoskov out of the decision is clear. If the Suns take Doncic because of his ties to Kokoskov, what happens if Doncic struggles? Won’t the head coach get the blame for that? And if Kokoskov allows Doncic to play through potential struggles, won’t the view be that he is playing favorites, or that he is too personally invested in Doncic succeeding?
If there’s the perception that Kokoskov pressed the team to take Doncic, and Ayton is a more immediate-impact rookie, the pressure on the coach will be amped up.
Again, McDonough might decide that Doncic is the right fit for the Suns. He could still go No. 1 over Ayton. But he will have no special advantage heading into the evaluation process, and if Doncic is drafted by the Suns, it won’t be because of Kokoskov.
Hamidou Diallo’s surprising vertical drop
Last year, one reason Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo made such a splash at the predraft combine was his incredible vertical leap of 44.5 inches. That was enough to get teams so intrigued by Diallo that he nearly decided to skip college and stay in the draft. Ultimately, he chose to go to Lexington for the season.
On Thursday, Diallo went through the physical testing again. He grew an inch, to 6-6, but that vertical that drew so much attention a year ago? It came in at 40.5 inches this time.
Shortly after Diallo left the gym, he talked with Sporting News about what happened on the reduced leap.
“I honestly don’t know,” Diallo said. “That’s a big question mark. I think I jumped higher. This is me straight coming from the gym right now, and I don’t know. Maybe my standing reach got longer, maybe it was miscalculated. It felt good when I jumped. But it is what it is. Everybody knows what type of jumper I am, how I am capable of jumping.”
Diallo added that his goal this week has been to show teams he can do more than jump.
“I am trying to bring a different level of competitiveness and energy to the game,” Diallo said. “I am trying to show that I can maintain that throughout a whole season. I am trying to show I can do that every possession. Everybody knows I am a great athlete. I have to show what else I can bring to the table.”
Donte DiVincenzo boosting his stock
Thursday was a great day for Donte DiVincenzo, but a mixed bag for Villanova.
The conventional wisdom heading into this week was that DiVincenzo — star of the NCAA championship game, in which he scored 31 points — would test the draft waters this spring, then ultimately return to the Wildcats for another season.
But DiVincenzo had the best vertical leap of the combine, at 42 inches, and was fifth in the lane agility drill (10.72 seconds, same as Kyle Kuzma last year). He was also ninth in the three-quarters sprint, at 3.11 seconds.
On the other end of the spectrum was Wildcat freshman big man Omari Spellman, considered to be a better shot at a first-round pick than DiVincenzo.
Spellman came in with 13.75 percent body fat, second-most at the combine. NBA types know they’ll need to improve Spellman’s conditioning, but still, that number was disappointing. So were his agility numbers: seventh-worst in the shuttle run (3.34 seconds), third-worst in lane agility (12.28 seconds), third-worst in three-quarters sprint (3.38 seconds).
Again, scouts knew Spellman would need some physical work, and his strength is his ability as a stretch-4, not as an interior athlete. But by the end of Thursday, it appeared that DiVincenzo would be the more likely to remain in the draft and be a first-round pick.