The Phoenix Suns have been unafraid to swing big since Mat Ishbia took control of the franchise last February.
They have acquired Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal to join forces with Devin Booker since then as the front office has remade the majority of their roster over the past few months.
While their last two major deals involved them gaining the best player in the trade, the opposite holds true for their most recent one. Phoenix squeezed itself into the blockbuster Damian Lillard deal which allowed them to unload their starting center and 2018 first overall pick Deandre Ayton.
The 25-year-old is still a few years away from his prime and remains a tantalizing prospect as a mobile 6’11, 250 lbs center who can hold his own against the best big men in the league today. However, there have been persistent rumblings about his attitude and it seems like the Suns would rather have a fresh start over putting up with Ayton for another season.
In exchange for Ayton, Phoenix received Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen, Nassir Little, and Keon Johnson. Nurkic is the most accomplished player among this group and he is set to slot into Ayton’s role as the team’s primary center. The 29-year-old has been hampered with injuries over the past four seasons, but if he can remain healthy, the drop-off from Ayton is not as steep as it seems.
Nurkic has proven to be a capable two-way player as seen in the ‘18-’19 campaign which was his best so far in the NBA. During that season, he averaged 15.6 points on 50.8% field goal shooting, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, one steal, and 1.4 blocks per game.
The Bosnian center has a soft touch around the rim and even expanded his range beyond the three-point line last season. In 52 games last year, he took 2.3 three-pointers per game and hit them a decent 36.1% clip.
What sets him apart from Ayton though is his ability to create opportunities for his teammates from the block. Nurkic has proven to be a decent passer and put up almost three assists per game last season. He had eight games with at least five assists for the Portland Trail Blazers last year and this number should only move higher as he slots in next to three of the most dynamic scorers in the league today with the Suns.
The biggest challenge for Nurkic in the coming season though will be on the other end of the floor. As a slow-footed 6’11 big man, he is susceptible to being played off the floor come the postseason. Nurkic is likely to be targeted by opposing guards in pick-and-rolls and he will have to get into the best shape of his career if he is to keep up.
It is unlikely though that Nurkic can overcome this given his physical limitations and Phoenix is likely to depend on their free agent signings Drew Eubanks, Bol Bol, or even one of their wing players down the stretch. The energetic Eubanks was actually Nurkic’s back-up at Portland over the last two years and he often closed out games versus opponents that favored small-ball line-ups.
The Suns may have lost this deal if it is viewed in the lens of swapping out Ayton for Nurkic, yet the depth that they have gained from it is expected to be a major boost for them as well. Allen and Little are two players who could very well wind up as their fifth starter once the new season tips off.
Phoenix clearly fancies itself as a title contender as proven by this deal that reduced some of the uncertainty and volatility that comes with having Ayton onboard. If Nurkic, Allen, and Little can all contribute at the same level as their career averages, this deal may ultimately turn out to be a homerun for the Suns.
While they are still expected to lean heavily on their Big Three, winning the championship will boil down, as it always does, to their overall play from the top to bottom of their rotation.