Deandre Ayton has discovered something precious: Perspective. Fatherhood. Coaching. People who love you enough to tell you the truth. All of the above.
The impact is breathtaking.
Ayton is one of the NBA’s unsung stars of the postseason. He’s playing 36 minutes per game. He’s dunking whenever possible, creating tidal waves of energy in his team’s favor. He’s playing well above the rim, accepting all forms of contact without flinching.
He’s giving the Suns exactly what they want because he finally understands exactly what they need.
You can see Ayton’s improvement in the numbers. In 11 playoff games, he’s made 78 shots and missed only 31. He’s doing all his damage around the basket. He’s averaging nearly 11 rebounds per game. He’s staying out of foul trouble. He’s keeping his feet active and his body vertical. He’s running the floor with real speed, punishing slower-footed centers.
He’s becoming lethal.
You can see it in the demeanor of his opponents, who are now flopping for fouls; or getting out of the way to avoid getting Punk’d on a poster dunk; or changing defensive strategies to cope with his newfound dominance. Nikola Jokic even gave him a signed jersey with the following inscription:
“To my brother DA. U are Beast!!!”
National media who paid minimal attention to Suns basketball in 2021 will not understand the implications of what we are all witnessing. Earlier this season, there was a time when Ayton struggled to catch the basketball. He struggled to hold onto the ball in crowded spaces. He sat out entire fourth quarters, losing crunch-time minutes to Dario Saric.
If you’re watching the Suns for the first time, those facts sound absurd. But they’re true.
By contrast, Ayton could’ve been Ben Simmons, a former No. 1 overall draft pick who turned out to be a big-stage liability in the playoffs, who might have punched his ticket out of Philadelphia on Sunday. In an elimination game on Sunday, Simmons was alone with the ball under the rim. He could have easily dunked the ball, but instead froze from fear. He passed to a teammate on the perimeter and the vitriol has been flowing ever since.
It has been a while since Ayton has had one of those awful moments.
Ayton could’ve conceivably turned out like Kwame Brown, a former No. 1 overall draft pick who has reinserted himself into pop culture in recent weeks, resurfacing with blistering attacks on hyperbolic critics who continue to tag him as an all-time bust.
Truth is, Brown jumped to the NBA from high school and landed in the worst culture imaginable, in the sunset of an aging Michael Jordan, in the crosshairs of a ruthless teammate who never wanted the underdeveloped Brown as a teammate.
In Phoenix, we are watching something different and wonderful. Ayton was blessed to have general manager James Jones, who brought him Monty Williams and Chris Paul. In an essay recently penned for The Players’ Tribune, Ayton recalled how Jones told him about the acquisition of Paul, and what it would mean for a young center struggling in the shadows of Luka Doncic.
“DA, this is about to be great for you,” Jones told him.
To his credit, Ayton is also one of the more coachable young players in recent memory.
ESPN analyst Brian Windhorst said he watches games on the NBA League Pass, which does not show commercials. Instead, the cameras pan on the respective huddles during breaks in the action. Windhorst said that no player in the league gets chewed out more than Ayton during timeouts.
Shortly after arriving in Phoenix, Paul told a friend that Ayton looked like a player who hadn’t received substantive coaching his entire basketball life.
Yet Ayton accepted all the tough love and in-house criticism with an open mind and open heart. That tells you a lot about the student and the teachers. It illuminates the culture and brotherhood fueling this basketball team, one that is seven victories away from the greatest achievement in team history.