On Tuesday and Wednesday, Deandre Ayton and the Phoenix Suns finally crossed paths for the first time during the predraft process.
After finishing up his private 1-on-0 workout in front of Suns brass on Wednesday, Ayton wasn’t told he was going to be the No. 1 pick but the vibe given off was seemingly that.
“I know I’m going number one,” Ayton said when asked further about Phoenix being his one and only workout before the 2018 NBA Draft on June 21.
Before Ayton spoke to the media — the biggest assembling of them at any Suns event over the past year — general manager Ryan McDonough mentioned how Ayton’s workout was everything they expected. They tried to create as many game situations using assistant coaches, like switching pick-and-roll defensively while also spacing the floor from all three levels.
The Suns’ scripted workout for Ayton showed off his tremendous versatility and ability to switch-and-slide with great foot speed to cover switches all over the floor. Also, with a reported 42” vertical on top of his massive frame, McDonough mentioned there were plenty of finishing opportunities above the rim via lobs as well.
For going against just air, it seemed like the workout went perfectly to plan for both Ayton and the Suns.
“Not in a bad way,” McDonough said of anything new in workout saw. “I think the way he shot the ball was pretty impressive. There aren’t that many guys at 7’1” with his length and strength who can step away from the basket and make shots. He did it some at Arizona, but that wasn’t his role, we didn’t get to see him on the perimeter a whole lot. Today, he shot the NBA three pretty comfortably. He get some shots up last night, so we saw him shoot there. He has a really good form, good touch, good rotation on the ball for a guy that size especially. That was a little bit unique. I mean we knew he was big and strong and athletic and moved well at that size, had good length, great hands but to see him make shot after shot in a workout — in different scenarios, it wasn’t just catch-and-shoot shooting. We put him in pick-and-roll scenarios. We would have him on the move some. Some relocation off pick-and-roll, things like that. And he shot the ball very well.”
This past season at Arizona, Ayton averaged 20.1 points 11.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.9 blocks. Ayton also reeled in the PAC 12 Player of the Year award alongside the Karl Malone award for the best NCAA power forward for his Herculean efforts.
When asked by the media what separates him from the other prospects up top like Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley III, Mohamed Bamba, Ayton immediately pointed to his competitiveness. Ayton alluded to modeling his craft after not current names dominating the modern NBA, but Hall of Famers in Kevin Garnett and Hakeem Olajuwon for their intensity and footwork, respectively.
“I’m the best competitor in this draft,” Ayton said. “I won’t say I’m the best player, I won’t say that, but I would say on the competitive level I am the best competitor. I don’t think there’s anyone like me.”
Ayton is a near consensus top two prospect, by far the highest ranked big, on most draft boards and McDonough knows why. Participating in various war rooms over the past 16 years in Boston and Phoenix ranging from scout to assistant general manager to running the show since 2013 in the Valley, McDonough points to five players or less possessing Ayton’s rare on-court gifts.
With the capability of stepping into an immediate 20-10 role plus slowly developing into the hopeful terrifying rim protector he can become, Ayton is really like a moldable ball of clay. As McDonough mentioned, Ayton was immediately picking up concepts during Wednesday’s private workout while continuously draining jumper after jumper.
“It’s pretty rare. It’s my 16th draft coming up and I can probably count on one hand the number of guys with his size, athleticism, footwork, balance, touch. It’s a unique package,” McDonough said. “The fact that he hasn’t been playing the game all that long makes it more impressive. He seems to pick things up very quickly. Even in the drills today, when we would give him something — it’s not like we gave him the script in advance, kinda threw a lot at him on the floor to see how he would handle different scenarios — he seemed to be able to pick it up and integrate it into his game very quickly. I think that’s because he’s a pretty bright guy and seems like a pretty quick learner.”
After the Alex Len experiment reached its end after playing on the qualifying offer this past year, Ayton would become not only the best big man prospect McDonough has placed onto this roster but likely the one with biggest two-way potential in franchise history. Even Amar’e Stoudemire doesn’t come nearly close enough in touching Ayton’s package of eye-popping physical and already proven capabilities out on the floor.
And if Ayton is able to be taught how to defend the rim without mental lapses getting in the way while also stepping out and consistently hitting his perimeter opportunities, there is a chance he’s the one alongside Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid that fits into today’s pace-and-space league with no issue.
Ayton mentioned Wednesday that he would not work out for any other team leading up to the draft, immediately pointing to whether Phoenix promised Ayton during his 48 hours with the organization. Also, Ayton once more pointed towards historical outliers when mentioning possibly playing with Devin Booker over the next decade or so.
He believes Booker and himself can create an immediate spark flipping the Suns into starting up a winning legacy once more.
“Like I said from the beginning, that’s Shaq and Kobe 2.0,” Ayton said. “That’s big. We can really make something happen in Phoenix, and really have a spark and start a winning legacy.”
Both McDonough and Ayton dismissed defensive concerns relating to subpar rim protection. McDonough, as he mentioned earlier this month, pointed toward the presence of Dusan Ristic playing heavily into Ayton’s below average block percentages. Meanwhile, Ayton is thankful head coach Sean Miller played him at the 4 in Tucson because his quick-twitch athleticism helped show off he can stay on guards with no problem.
Ayton also knows the NBA will allow him way more space to operate, unlike continuously seeing two or three guys charging his way at Arizona. Next to Booker and Josh Jackson, Ayton should be able to flash more of the rim-running anchor archetype who also helps space the floor for everyone else simultaneously.
“I’m happy that Coach (Sean) Miller really had me on the perimeter a lot at Arizona guarding a lot of guards, guarding teams’ best guards at the 4. This will really help me because I’m really good at sliding my feet and staying in front of the guards and using my length,” Ayton said. “I can score inside and out. It will be a lot of mismatches because if I guard them, they have to guard me at the end of the day. I can score. I can pick-and-pop. I can pick-and-pop. I can put the ball on the ground. Rebound. Push the ball. It’s an open floor now, nobody’s really double-teaming or triple-teaming.”
Even though Ayton won’t allowed to wear Suns gear again technically for two more weeks, it seemed all but wrapped up after Wednesday’s session at Talking Stick Resort Arena. At this point, it might be time to start worrying more about what the Suns do at No. 16 (trade it for win-now veteran or trade up in draft?) compared to No. 1.
All of a sudden with a likely core of Booker, Jackson, Ayton, and Dragan Bender / Marquese Chriss, Phoenix is set up to become an attractive destination via free agency next summer, if this core gels into the rising threat many intend they will.