What will it take to corral Deandre Ayton?
Even his teammates weren’t too impressed with what he’s done so far.
“Impressed? Not really,” Trevor Ariza said with a grin after the game on Wednesday. “That’s what’s expected of him. I’ll be impressed when he has a 20/20 game. That’s impressive, which he has the capability to do.
“The 20/20 game is coming.”
Through two games, neither the young, bruising Sacramento Kings frontcourt or the New Zealand Breakers’ knock-down, drag-out style has been able to do much of anything to stop the 2018 No. 1 overall pick.
On Monday against the Kings, Ayton smashed into Willie Cauley-Stein, owning him athletically and using his body as a weapon. Two days later, Ayton battled against the Breakers, whose starting lineup collected 13 total fouls, and came out looking even better.
General consensus says rookies might be productive but rarely help their teams win games. But Ayton has surpassed anything we could have expected watching the Wildcats last year. His 21.4 rebounding percentage, buoyed by five offensive boards, is not a surprise. He was always going to use his body to help out on the glass, his energy in that area present even in college. But his technical skill protecting the rim vertically and moving the ball has been impressive compared with where we thought he was in college.
He has struggled to always make the right play down low on offense or read schemes at the rim on the other. But the rest of his game has been, even within the obvious lesser levels of preseason, a revelation.
It feels like nitpicking even to acknowledge the deficiencies.
Ayton has used 24.6 percent of the Suns’ offensive possessions this preseason, and he’s been great from everywhere on the court. He’s 11-17 (64.7 percent) from the restricted area and even nailed six of 11 mid-range jumpers. All of that adds up to a sterling .638 true shooting percentage.
And ah, the dunks. Seven of them on the season, including four alley-oops, courtesy of terrific lobs from Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren and Trevor Ariza. Ayton has said constantly the last two weeks that Jackson is “so big” on Ayton rolling to the rim when Jackson drives to the interior. But it’s not just Jackson who has benefitted from Ayton attracting and overcoming attention in the paint.
Everyone is looking for the big man. Warren had about one assists per 36 minutes last year, but has been a willing and eager passer with the ball moving more under Kokoskov and the defensive gravity toward Ayton.
Seeing Ayton pick up the small details of his role within coach Igor Kokoskov’s complicated offense and make his teammates better so quickly has made it difficult not to fantasize about his future. Others on the team are more hesitant, forcing the ball into clogged space and bailing on open shots. Jackson and point guard Shaquille Harrison have combined for 18 turnovers, and mistakes like those are almost holding Ayton back.
He’s struggled in some cases to receive the ball cleanly, despite sealing opposing centers off around the basket to earn easy looks, but for the most part he’s overcome ugly deliveries to clean up inside.
Will the regression come as a result of Ayton’s own fatigue, by way of a rookie wall impeding his progress in January or February, or is there something coming sooner that might break his momentum? Your gauge on that is probably still impacted by how you felt about him in the first place, but it’s tough not to be even more optimistic after two weeks of camp.
“He’s going to be a tough deal for the next 10 or 12 years,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said after Monday’s game. He’s been convinced, though the Kings seem curiously to have published their draft board, with Ayton on top, on the internet this week. He’s just like us -- excited, happy to live in this moment.
The quote I’m looking at, though, is one from Kokoskov after Ayton’s dominant premiere: “I know he’s sure that he’s pretty good. But you have to step on the stage and kind of measure yourself with other guys on the court.”
Maybe the better question about what might stop Ayton is better framed not as a “what,” in terms of a rookie wall or (heaven forbid) an injury, but a “who.”
Portland, the Suns’ opponents in two of the next three preseason games, presents an interesting challenge for the rookie. Physical veteran Jusuf Nurkic just signed a new, four-year deal with the Trail Blazers this summer, while Ayton was on the court at the Thomas and Mack Center for the first time.
He will be a real test for the Suns’ new center. He’s been statistically dominant as the anchor of the Nuggets’ and Blazers’ defense for years, and is as strong a player as you’ll find in the league.
Ayton will face the forceful Nurkic twice in the next five days, and then the regular season will swallow this young Suns team, ready or not. Whether Ayton can rise to the challenge and continue his progress into the winter and as Devin Booker recovers from surgery will be the biggest difference between another bad Suns season and one that injects the franchise with optimism. Ayton has handled every challenge in his young career with poise and intelligence. He’s improved every time we’ve watched him play. Doubt is the default when watching rookies develop, but so far, Ayton’s rapid development has withstood any of the normal conversation on young players.
If the Suns do surpass expectations and live up to their own hype, it may be more as a result of Ayton’s growth than in spite of his deficiencies.