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Saturday November 17th, 2018 3:04PM

Suns already know 3 great candidates for No. 1 pick

By The Associated Press
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CHICAGO (AP) — Deandre Ayton might be going back to Arizona after all. The same can be true for Marvin Bagley III. Or maybe Luka Doncic gets to reunite with his past coach.

The Phoenix Suns have a trio of fine candidates for the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

In various ways, the team already has an element of familiarity with each one of them.

Ayton played his college ball at Arizona. Bagley, the Duke freshman star this past season, is an Arizona native. And Doncic, the Slovenian teen who has been tabbed a can't-miss NBA prospect, won a title with new Suns coach Igor Kokoskov last summer — when they helped give the tiny nation its biggest sports win, a gold medal at the European Championships.

These are good days for the Suns, who have gone through three dreadful seasons and eight consecutive playoff-less campaigns. But they have a new coach in Kokoskov, a promising young core and after winning the draft lottery on Tuesday night, a chance to pick No. 1 overall at the draft in New York next month.

"It's not a race," said Josh Jackson, who just completed his rookie season with Phoenix and is part of that young group that the Suns believe will get them back into the playoff mix before long. "We're going to progress at our pace. Any progression is good progression, in my opinion. So wherever we are, hopefully we keep taking steps forward."

This draft could be a big step forward.

Start with Ayton, who averaged 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds in his one college season at Arizona. He came to the U.S. from the Bahamas, hoping for great things but never expecting this would be the cards he was dealt.

"It's God's plan," Ayton said.

Bagley was the Atlantic Coast Conference player and rookie of the year, leading the league in scoring (21.0 per game) and rebounding (11.1 per game). Unlike Ayton, he's expected to work at the draft combine that commences in earnest in Chicago on Thursday, and he will be on the Suns' radar.

He said he would obviously welcome the chance to go back to Arizona, where he was born and raised.

"It would mean a lot if it were to happen that way," Bagley said.

Doncic will get plenty of support from Kokoskov, and others who know his game well — like Miami guard Goran Dragic — insist that he has the ability and intellect to make a quick impact in the NBA.

"It's been a good month for us, a good week in particular," Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said. "We targeted a three-year rebuilding window and I know it's been a little bit controversial in some ways. ... If you're serious about winning a championship someday in the NBA, it's really hard to build through the middle, so to speak."

So three years ago, when they couldn't convince LaMarcus Aldridge to come to Phoenix, the Suns decided it was time to push the reset button.

The results: They got budding stars in Devin Booker and Jackson, wound up creating some cap space to spend on veterans this summer, and will not only have the No. 1 pick but also two others in the top 31 selections in this draft.

"The future's bright," McDonough said. "And our hope and our goal is to be a lot better next year."

McDonough left the lottery holding a placard with a big red "1'' on it, and Jackson left with the one bearing the Suns logo that NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum displayed when announcing that Phoenix won the right to pick first.

The Suns aren't holding all the cards.

They're just holding the most important ones.

"We have a small target grouping in mind, but we're not going to rule anything out at this point," McDonough said. "I think we'll have a great choice, no matter who we select."

___

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