Two years ago, Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton gave himself an “F-” grade for his play in a loss to the Utah Jazz. The then-rookie was 1-of-9 from the field, and while Ayton downplayed that was due to a matchup with Rudy Gobert and cited he was switched off him quite a bit, it still had to be a factor.
Fast forward two seasons later and Gobert is one of the matchups that brings the best out of Ayton.
Hearing him talk about it after shootaround on Friday ahead of his latest meeting with Gobert explains a lot of why.
“Now that I’m somewhat aware of what goes on in the NBA, I think playing against Rudy, just [the] physical specimen (he is), that area I picked up on,” he said. “Just being physical from the jump ball, knowing that it’s going to be a physical game, you’re going to get hit, you’re going to get [elbows].
“And just [taking] that and throwing that back at him in the most basketball way possible of course,” he said with a laugh. “Just a real clean fight.”
Ayton has always spoken highly of fellow centers like Gobert and Steven Adams, two of the most physical players in the league, and how he respects the way they play.
If you watch Ayton closely enough, you’ll see how those matchups bring it out of him.
Back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo qualifies as a physical player.
Ayton had seven offensive rebounds in the Suns’ win over the Jazz earlier this month. He grabbed six of them while Gobert was on the court, and five alone in the fourth quarter.
Ayton and Gobert will take turns on Friday night grabbing at each other. You’ll see them swipe at the other’s arms occasionally, trying to break that contact up so this doesn’t happen.
“When you can embrace that and compete at that, you tend to learn stuff from your opponent,” Ayton said. “And what I have learned from him is his presence. He’s so good at being a big presence at the paint. You’d think he’s contesting your shot when he’s right under the rim. I’m at the elbow, I’m at the free-throw line, but that dude is a big dude and I’ve learned how to use my size and length just by playing against him the way he was using it against us.
“That’s what I’ve picked up from Rudy, just being a great presence for the team on that defensive end and showing your arms, showing your hands, not getting in foul trouble, being a good shot blocker, contesting anything in that paint whether it’s a good eight feet out — you can get to that.”
Statistically, Ayton has been a mixed bag against Gobert. Following that aforementioned two-point outing his rookie season, he scored in single digits for two of the last four games, including a four-point night for the Suns in a win over Utah earlier this season. He also was an absolute game-changer with 18 points and 12 rebounds in the huge victory last time around and had 16 points in 21 minutes against the Jazz last February.
With no Donovan Mitchell or Mike Conley for the Jazz on Friday, it’s undoubtedly the big matchup.