I’ve been around basketball for almost 40 years, a season ticket holder for five of those and credentialed media for six more. In that time, I’ve not witnessed a better pro debut than the one laid out by 20-year-old Deandre Ayton against the Kings on Monday night.
In Ayton’s first 13 minutes wearing his official Suns uniform, he racked up 12 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks, 1 steal and was a stonewall on defense to the point the Kings shifted their shot attempts outward from there on in.
I’ll give you the obligatory Suns quotes in a minute, but I prefer to lead off the analysis of Ayton’s pro debut with a comment from Kings coach Dave Joerger.
“Ayton is going to be really good,” Joerger started. “He’s going to be a tough deal for the next 10 or 12 years.”
It’s what he said next that Suns fans should absorb, because it’s contrary to what we’ve been told all summer since Ayton was taken No. 1 overall in June.
“It’s hard to take him off the court as an opposing team coach,” Joerger continued. “Because he defends the pick and roll really well I think, so you can’t take advantage of him that way. He’s switchable, he can show. So he’s going to be a handful in areas that not a lot of people are talking about.”
Ayton’s first block came on the game’s opening possession, where he was switched onto De’Aaron Fox at the three point line and blocked Fox’s shot. Ayton proceeded to gobble up inside attempt after inside attempt from there on.
To be sure, Ayton was everything his fans wanted him to be on Monday night. Offensively powerful, with huge soft hands, incredible reach to catch the pass or rebound, excellent body control. Defensively aware and present, aggressive contests of shots in his area, on-ball blocks (as opposed to weak side flybys), and foul-free verticality.
The final tally: 24 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks, 1 assist and a steal. And only 2 personal fouls committed, the second one fighting for a loose ball with seconds remaining in the game.
Ayton was, and has consistently been, most interested in his talking on the court. After years of Alex Len being so quiet, it’s nice to see a young big man take ownership of the defensive end.
“Defense I thought I talked a lot, when I was out there,” he said. “I think I really helped my guards on communication with the pick and rolls. Telling them when to go under the screens, off ball screens as well for the flares. Just being in their ear, letting them know where they are, if they’re by themselves on an island, just being their backup...”
Watch his whole postgame presser here. He’s a talker all right.
“I think he was engaged, he was vocal,” coach Igor Kokoskov said of Ayton. “He’s a playmaker defensively, too, so that’s something that he can command and we’re waiting for that command and direction to give to the guards. His voice is very important. I think that he showed decent pressing defensively and we should start with that.”
He wasn’t perfect though.
Ayton tallied just 12 points, 1 rebound and 0 blocks in the last 17 minutes he played, after going up in a crowd of bigs to try to catch and finish one-handed on a roll to the basket and coming out with a limp. He had to reach way behind him and try to slam it in one stroke as he was being pushed by defenders.
“There’s a lot of big dudes in that paint. I’m surprised I got the ball,” he said of the play on which he came up limping. “It was a little tweak [of the knee], I was a little scared, but I walked it off quick. It was a self-check.”
Could be that Ayton pulled back a bit then. He’s never really been injured and didn’t want to ruin his NBA rookie season right off the bat. Could be that the Kings stopped trying to score in the paint, too, or that they shifted the way they played in order to minimize his impact.
Afterward, Ayton had no treatment on the knee, no ice packs or anything like that. He’s fine. Just had a ‘scared’ moment.
The Kings certainly started shooting more from the outside after that, and contested Ayton a lot less. For the game, the Kings made only 18 of 43 shots (42%) in the paint while draining 21 of 39 on jumpers (54%, including 44% of their threes). It’s that success on threes that won the Kings the game.
The Suns knew they’d failed to contest enough on the perimeter.
“I think defensively,” small forward Jackson said, “We could’ve did a better job getting a couple more rebounds and just getting at the shooters a little bit more. They didn’t feel us enough.”
Jackson had a great game, eschewing his out of control game from summer league and returning to the do-everything playmaker he flashed last spring. Jackson had 17 points (7 of 12 shooting), 6 rebounds, 5 assists (team leader) and 2 steals.
Three of Jackson’s assists were to Ayton on the pick and roll.
“As soon as I screen and the ball’s in the air, I just got to go get it,” Ayton said. “That’s just Josh. He will find you. He just keeps telling me to keep seeing that I’m too big, nobody can really get around me and stuff like that. So, I just have to listen to guy who’s been there before and you will succeed.”
The Suns lost the opener, and will continue to struggle if they can’t make outside shots. The imported veterans, Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza, played sparingly in the opener (“we know what they can do,” Igor said) and the team overall made just 3 of 22 long-range shots. That’s not gonna get anything done.
But the main takeaway from Monday’s opener: Deandre Ayton is the REAL deal, and Josh Jackson looks like he’s going to have a very good year as well.
Two fun (to me, at least) anecdotes from Monday’s game.
- Dave Joerger is fun to watch on the sidelines. My courtside seat was right next to the Kings bench, so I got to hear Joerger yelling out plays and (mostly) admonishments all game long. He was especially hard on the Kings rooks, mostly because they didn’t punish Dragan Bender enough on the block “Kick his ass!” Joerger yelled more than once.
- Deandre Ayton is a kid, still. In his first postgame locker room experience with media, he modestly asked the awaiting cameramen to turn their cameras away when he was just in his towel, then grabbed his pants and promised, “Be right back!” while we went to dress in the shower area. He clearly hasn’t learned the trick of sliding your drawers on under the towel while a dozen disinterested media wait patiently for him to get dressed.
- Check out Ayton’s shirt. He told us it’s a custom-made Two Time shirt his friend designed.