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Expect an improved Deandre Ayton versus Nikola Vucevic tonight in Orlando

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Ayton is on a rampage through the East.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

While Deandre Ayton is (somehow) quietly having an excellent rookie season for the Phoenix Suns, he has been navigating a league that suddenly has guys as big as him or bigger and that’s been a challenge for Ayton, mentally if not physically.

A few days ago, Ayton avenged a relatively terrible game early-season game against the Nets and Jarrett Allen with a monster 26 point, 18 rebound, 3 block performance in a losing effort at Brooklyn. A loss that could be blamed on anyone but Ayton.

Tonight against Nikola Vucevic and the Orlando Magic, Ayton gets another chance at avenging a bad game.

Earlier this month, the Magic came to Phoenix to beat the short-handed Suns and as the game went on it was clear that Ayton could not outplay Nikola Vucevic, who posted a crazy 25 point, 15 rebound game (mostly in the second half) in a convincing Magic win.

Tonight against Orlando, Ayton has his wingmen back — Devin Booker and T.J. Warren both missed the first game — and has found himself a new source of offensive output while also clamping down a bit more on the defensive and offensive glass.

In the month of December, Ayton has improved his scoring, rebounding and blocks, while lowering opponents field goal percentage in the paint as the primary defender, even including what you saw on Saturday night against the Wizards. Teammate Richaun Holmes has been much better defending the paint, but Ayton has held his own in most games over the past month.

The new wrinkle to Ayton’s game this month is having a better plan on the catch in the flow of the offense. Ayton now spins past a defender and/or seals in the low post for a deep feed.

Here he is very early in the season on November 6 against the Nets (these are full game highlights to give you the gist of the game). You’ll notice Ayton getting the ball at the top of the key and Jarrett Allen not even bothering to defend him.

And here he is three days ago against that same team.

That’s a totally different looking Deandre Ayton on offense as well as defense.

In between those, you saw some development in Ayton’s offense in that earlier game against Orlando, which took place on November 30.

He was already starting to get more deep position on offense and doing a better job of sealing off his man.

Tonight, we get to see Ayton trying to extend his monster run of games that began on this road trip.

On these four road games, Ayton is averaging a whopping 24 points, 16.5 rebounds (6.3 offensive), 1 block and 1 steal per game with an overall positive plus/minus as the Suns have split the four games.

Let’s see how he handles his rematch against Vucevic tonight, and whether the Suns can finish this five-game road trip off with a winning record.