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Deandre Ayton showcasing dominant potential since Devin Booker’s return

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Ayton’s improved play has helped form a dynamic duo in short order for the Suns.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Even though it’s been vastly under-hyped this month, Deandre Ayton is transforming into the dominant 20-point, 10-rebound producer we all expected from the get-go.

Ever since Dec. 15 versus the Minnesota Timberwolves, the game when Devin Booker finally returned to Phoenix’s starting lineup following a re-aggravation of his hamstring, Ayton and the Suns’ max contract star have become one deadly duo.

During the Suns’ past eight games, they have gone 4-4 and are only getting outscored by 0.2 points per 100 possessions netting them the 14th best net rating over this span.

Booker has averaged 29.5 points, 5 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 1.4 steals and carrying a 58.5 true shooting percentage. Meanwhile, Ayton is putting up numbers to the tune of 21.4 points, 14.1 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 1 block with an outstanding 69.7 true shooting percentage. On top of that, Ayton’s increased motor has led to him leading the league in offensive rebounds amassing 5.9 per game.

“Bring the fight to the guys, that’s about it,” Ayton said of his tenacity on the glass. “Just me always set the tone early to get the team going. Just always being aggressive and vocal.”

With the Suns preserving max cap space, their recent play is speaking for itself if any veteran star believes they could be the final piece in the Valley.

Lets focus on the Bahamian big man for a moment though. What he’s doing over the past few weeks is showing the enticing upside former GM Ryan McDonough thought he had when it really wasn’t even much of a debate between he and Luka Doncic at No. 1.

After going 12-for-13 in the second quarter on Saturday night versus the Western Conference’s top-ranked Denver Nuggets, it provided a quick glimpse into how truly dominate the Suns’ 7’1” center could be within the next few years. It’s not often you see rookies drop 24 points in a quarter, let alone a big man.

In total, Ayton capped off his best game as a pro netting 33 points, 14 rebounds, 4 steals, and 1 block on 16-for-20 shooting. He just turned 20 years old five months.

“I don’t want to lose by these guys again,” Ayton said of taking over the second quarter in the manner he did. “The first time we met them, I just felt that, they thought it was easy, so kind of started off slow but we knew as a team that we not going to be beat like that so there was a lot of pep talks in the huddles and guys just suck it up and really got locked in on the defensive end and took pride.”

When factoring out garbage time, as CleaningTheGlass.com does, Ayton is converting 75 percent of his opportunities at the rim so far this season. Outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who leads the league at 77 percent, Ayton is nipping right at The Greek Freak’s heels before he even knows what he’s doing some nights with his supremely gifted package of athleticism and touch.

For reference to show how special Ayton already is as a finisher in the restricted area, check out how he compares to Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis during the 2018-19 campaign:

Ayton - 75 percent

Embiid - 71 percent

Davis - 69 percent

Booker, who made an instant impact himself once he started receiving heavy minutes in a Suns uniform as a rookie, notices Ayton taking huge strides forward along the way as Phoenix quickly comes up on the halfway mark.

“It’s unbelievable, just every game he’s getting better. He’s taking steps, major steps, every game,” Booker said of Ayton. “I think the first time he matched up against Jokic, it was kind of tough for him and now he comes back around and is holding his own. It’s a learning curve, but I always say learning quicker is better and he’s doing that. The second time, third time against these guys he’s figuring it out.”

Through 37 career regular season games, Ayton has currently accumulated a plus-1.2 VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). He’s tied as the best in that category alongside Doncic — and only Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, and Jayson Tatum eclipsed that VORP figure last season.

Ayton is producing at this high of level even though he’s averaging 2.8 free throw attempts per game over his last eight. Like Davis did during his second year in New Orleans when his attempts to the charity stripe doubled, we could be witnessing the same development path with Ayton as he gets more familiar to opponents on the professional level.

The next seven months will be so interesting to follow, because the Suns led by co-interim GM James Jones could take many different avenues to continue building around young scoring juggernauts in Booker and Ayton. However, the long-standing question about Phoenix not having stability seems to be washing away with a 22-year-old Booker and 20-year-old Ayton starting to progress at warp speed.

A key step in the Suns’ rebuild turning into a success was Ayton reaching his All-NBA upside alongside Booker. Early indications seem to show Phoenix might indeed be heading in the exact right direction.