Heading into this year’s training camp, the Phoenix Suns have plenty of new faces all around. Not only is Igor Kokoskov the new head coach, but the team acquired five rookies in Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Elie Okobo, De’Anthony Melton, and George King. Also, the Suns have two new veteran leaders to go along with Tyson Chandler in Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson.
As you can see, the culture was seemingly reset around Devin Booker, who they signed to a 5-year, $158 million extension during the summer with plenty of two-way talent surrounding him.
However, the Suns’ first No. 1 pick in franchise history has been making a great impression on all of his new teammates since his arrival, and has improved his game since Las Vegas Summer League.
After only one official training camp practice — the Suns have two-a-days with non-contact practices in the morning, which the media can observe, and then full-go in the evenings — Ayton’s teammates were gushing about how fast he’s picking concepts up already.
As far as what Ayton himself thought of his first practice in Flagstaff, it was just an introduction for things to come. And by no surprise, it seems like Kokoskov will be developing Ayton all season to think defense first.
“Today was a hello, it wasn’t that bad,” Ayton said. “It’s a lot of details, they are throwing a lot of stuff at you. Lot of defense. Lot of sets and plays. You just gotta stay dialed-in today.”
Booker, who said he’s already developing great chemistry with Ayton, mentioned the 20-year-old Bahamian big is picking things up so quickly that he’s doing exactly what Kokoskov wants him to right away, without issue. Heading into his fourth season, Booker has never had a big like Ayton to work with. Gone are the days of Alex Len fumbling away possessions, and in are pick-your-poison pick-and-roll and alley-oop situations at a fast pace.
“Just a willingness to learn, picking things up quick,” Booker said of Ayton. “Coach tells him one thing, then I watch him the next five plays he does exactly how coach says. Being able to pick things up like that young and being a big. Usually bigs can’t pick up on things like that from my experiences, but he’s really intelligent, really smart. That’s important for him.”
During Summer League, Ayton had his first experience playing center in the NBA going against the likes of Mohamed Bamba and Harry Giles, but established veteran DeAndre Jordan is waiting to greet him on Oct. 17 in the Suns’ season opener.
Even though Ayton’s Summer League didn’t catch the eyes of the general audience like Kevin Knox or Collin Sexton, this year’s No. 1 pick arguably was the most consistent, outside one subpar performance. Ayton averaged 14.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1 block per game, earning him All-NBA Summer League Second Team honors.
Ayton spoke Tuesday morning about how he’s a completely different version of himself compared with July. That was still the college version of Ayton, and the newest upgrade is supposedly a lot better.
“I’m a whole new person now.” Ayton said. “Summer League, I was still Deandre from U of A. Now, I’m changed, like now I think my game upgraded a lot more.”
An aspect Ayton is still getting used to is having huge amounts of space to operate near the rim. At the University of Arizona, Ayton was always paired on the court with one of Dusan Ristic or Keanu Pinder, which resulted in him playing power forward and switching onto perimeter-oriented talent far too often. This also led to Arizona’s eventual demise, as head coach Sean Miller failed to realize what Kokoskov is now doing with Ayton: Give him ample spacing and surround him with plus shooters.
Ayton acknowledged that he’s going to not only be down in the post more often this year, but this is a permanent change he’s looking forward to until he hangs up his Pumas and retires 15-plus years from now.
The rookie big man was also giddy about sharing the floor with a floor-spacer like Anderson. It’s going to lead to a situation where double-teams rarely come Ayton’s way due to the three-point shooting ability around him, and he absolutely loves it.
“Rules are changed, I’m more down low now this year. For the rest of my career,” Ayton said. “Ryan (Anderson) won’t ever come in the paint unless he has a blow-by or a mismatch. The spacing is amazing. I have a lot more time and room to myself. I draw a lot more attention when it comes to pick-and-rolls. Trust me, there won’t be any double-team, I can tell you that. That’s good. It’s going to be fun this year.”
Even though Melton could be seen as the more valuable long-term piece, Anderson’s immediate value spacing the floor and providing much-needed on-court leadership will go a long way for not only this roster, but Ayton himself.
Anderson has been in this situation before, too. He was around during Dwight Howard’s peak years and helped guide a then-rookie Anthony Davis along. From just those two examples alone, you can see why the Suns pursued their swap of Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss for Anderson and Melton last month.
“Yeah, I played with some great, talented bigs and we’ve had a lot of success being able to play off of each other,” Anderson said. “Obviously, I can give him more space, but you can’t really leave him alone down there. Guys might have to dig off him. I know we are going to have a really good dynamic in that way. He’s done a great job implementing.”
Anderson pointed out that the center position has been simplified to build around pick-and-roll actions, but also that Ayton is capable of doing plenty more, even at this stage of his career.
“The system nowadays as a center is pick-and-roll. He can do a lot more than that, and coach is going to set up a lot more plays like that, but he’s going to get so many open looks because of his ability to roll hard,” Anderson said. “Once he gets a lot of attention down there, that’s when shooters like myself get wide-open. I’m excited for this dynamic. It will be really fun. It reminds me of old Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard. We had a lot of success on that man rolling to the basket, open three-point shooting around them. And he’s just so skilled. He’s already picked up on it.”
First impressions from Flagstaff indicate the Suns’ prized rookie is picking up things way quicker than expected. Building a system predicated around heavy ball movement and spacing is an ideal match for someone as talented as Ayton. If Ayton is on one night, that pulls defenders from the perimeter, allowing Anderson, Ariza, Booker and more to get easier opportunities. If the shooting is on fire at points, that will open up even bigger amounts of space for Ayton to go to work one-on-one against his matchup.
“When you have a dominant big such as Deandre rolling and filling the paint, it’s kind of like pick your poison,” Booker said.
Deandre Ayton in transition is going to be a sight to behold this season. Freakish athleticism. pic.twitter.com/VirQA8ConE— Evan Sidery (@esidery) September 25, 2018
Depending on how smooth the transition is into Kokoskov’s system, the Suns could be in a position early and often to create those scenarios Booker mentioned Tuesday. And with Ayton already impressing his veteran and rookie teammates, that’s the first sign of the development program under Kokoskov’s staff already paying more dividends than the previous regime.