“Alright, hopefully I can make it. #TeamAyton”
My friend, a big University of Arizona fan who has been sucked into the endless chatter surrounding the Suns’ decision in the 2018 NBA Draft, is texting me. He’s trying to figure out a way to be at Talking Stick Resort Arena when Deandre Ayton is introduced as the No. 1 pick.
By the time I get to the arena, he’s not in the crowd, but thousands of seats are filled with purple and orange -- fans eager to get a glimpse of the future. They don’t know what will happen (there may even be some nerves that Ayton’s name won’t be the one Adam Silver says first), but they’re excited.
Driving up to the arena, I had noticed the same buzz around downtown Phoenix, a palpable energy as the city anticipated a new star. Garages were charging to park, and the restaurants were full. Anyone who knows Phoenix would know something different was happening on Thursday.
By the time Ayton’s name is called, the place erupts.
Talking Stick Resort Arena responds to Ayton’s first appearance as a member of the Phoenix Suns pic.twitter.com/FgjBWa6TSF— Locked On Suns (@LockedOnPhxSuns) June 21, 2018
The fact that Ayton lived in Phoenix and went to school in Tucson helps, as does the euphoria of finally getting the top pick after so many years of losing. Some franchises never get this.
General manager Ryan McDonough understands how momentous this opportunity was.
Remarking Thursday night on his impressions of Ayton after his workout in Phoenix, McDonough said, “I’ve been doing this 16 years and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen [any player] do better than that.”
McDonough added that the organization was struck by how seriously Ayton took the chance to stay at home and be the top selection, even with all the attention and pressure that comes with.
“The only thing I can possibly do is help this team start a winning legacy,” Ayton said in his introductory press conference Friday.
And coach Igor Kokoskov, despite a relationship with No. 3 pick Luka Doncic, seems ready to get to work with Ayton.
“Good players always inspire you as a coach,” he said Friday.
Of course, Ayton is not alone in his opportunity to accelerate this franchise’s timeline. Phoenix also came away with two players, Elie Okobo and Mikal Bridges, who they believe represented fantastic value at their draft slots. McDonough and his team were even willing to part ways with one of their top assets, a 2021 Miami Heat first-rounder, to trade for Bridges.
“We had a lot of discussion about that pick, and it was going to take someone special to move it,” McDonough said Thursday night. He added that Bridges was a player the Suns had targeted throughout the pre-draft process, and in the end the team felt good enough about him to move up.
That decision represents a firm pivot away from asset collection to cashing in (though Phoenix still has a Milwaukee Bucks first-rounder in its collection). Just as trading up to draft two big men in the 2016 draft was huge for the future of the franchise, Thursday’s draft could be a similar flashpoint.
We won’t be able to tell for a few years how the Suns fared in the trade, but that kind of move shows a franchise ready to change course.
“Jesus Christ, the Suns are gonna be the youngest, most talented team around,” the same friend texts Friday afternoon, after the dust has cleared.
He’s echoing a sentiment that can be felt around town right now. The build-up to a draft is focused around hope, maybes and wonder.
For fans, now’s the fun part. There are a lot more eyes in this team’s direction then there have been in quite a while. They’ll remember Thursday for a long time.