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Deandre Ayton was the wrong pick in 2018, but that doesn’t matter anymore

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The issue isn’t whether Deandre Ayton deserved to be the top pick in 2018. It’s whether he can help lead a team deep in the playoffs.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I am hearing yet another groundswell of sentiment around the local media that Deandre Ayton must prove to us once-and-for-all that he was the best player out of the 2018 Draft. And that if he can’t prove it this year, the Suns will have to consider rebuilding all over again.

What? Here’s the reality. The 2018 Draft doesn’t matter anymore.

It doesn’t matter if he wasn’t your favorite pick from that draft. It doesn’t matter if Luka Doncic dribbles between his legs before draining an uncontested floater. It doesn’t matter if Jaren Jackson Jr. blocks three straight shots on one end while draining three-pointers on the other. It doesn’t matter if you think one of those players could have re-ignited the Suns more than Ayton will.

What matters is what happens going forward with the Phoenix Suns. I’m a fan of the team, not the individual players. What matters is which player or set of players the Suns can amass that will propel the team into the ACTUAL playoffs and ACTUAL title contention, not those who theoretically might have if the universe aligned perfectly in those creative minds.

I’m only looking forward to the future, and how the Suns can become relevant again. With Deandre Ayton as their center. At least while he’s on the roster.

If Ayton had been drafted by another team, would I be pining for him? No. I would not. But that’s because I don’t do that kind of thing. I don’t pine for other teams’ players. Seems like a huge waste of time and energy. I don’t waste energy on things that cannot possibly happen.

The Suns intentionally suffered through a half-decade of rampant losing in order to get the highest possible draft picks to lay the foundation for a rebuild to contention. They followed The Process and, when Lady Luck laughed in their faces and they compounded it by laughing back, even one-upped the Hinkies of the world by going longer on the losing than any reasonable human being should have to endure. Sorry Suns fans.

Despite having the leagues worst, second-worst, second-worst and fourth-worst record in four consecutive seasons from 2016-2019, the Suns picked higher than fourth in the draft only once (2018). The other times? 4th, 4th and... blechhh... 6th. Thanks for nothing, ping-pong balls.

The two fourth picks have already washed out, while the six was ultimately used on someone you’d think based on analysis at the time was 94-year-old, one-dimensional player (Cameron Johnson).

So it’s all down to Deandre Ayton. If he fails, a half-decade of rebuild fails too. That’s a LOT of pressure. Deandre Ayton has all the physical tools and natural offensive basketball instincts to be a Top-10 NBA player one day as long as he dedicates his mind and spirit to the sport, but so far his outlook on the game projects more like a fringe All-Star.

Is that good enough? Not for most fans. This is where we get to the “wasn’t the best pick” part.

Other high picks from that 2018 Draft are getting much more publicity. Because they’re pretty damn good players too. They’re flashier. They exude more energy. A better vibe. They are alphas while Ayton looks more content to be a beta.

Let’s just call it now. When all is said and done down the road, Ayton will NOT have been the best player from the 2018 Draft.

  1. Deandre Ayton
  2. Marvin Bagley III
  3. Luka Doncic
  4. Jaren Jackson Jr.
  5. Trae Young

Bagley almost matched Ayton’s stats as a rookie despite coming off the bench most of the year (though you could argue Ayton put his numbers up against much tougher opponents than Bagley). He has a fearless personality and looks like he could be a 20-10 player his whole career going forward.

Doncic might average a triple-double some day with a more lovable personality than Russell Westbrook ever had and is already considered a probable for perennial All-NBA recognition. Sorry Russ. The NBA lovey-dovey eyes have turned away from you for good.

JJJ could be the league’s top defensive player one day while also making 40 percent of his threes as an uber-modern stretch five.

Young might lead the league in assists and 30-foot threes one day, becoming a next-generation amalgam of Steve Nash and Stephen Curry. He’s got a big personality too, and his hair is almost as bad as Two Time’s.

All four could become All-NBA mainstays, whereas the Suns’ Ayton might simply become the next DeMarcus Cousins, Al Jefferson or Greg Monroe. Pretty good, but not great.

They all have their flaws, for sure. But it’s Ayton’s quieter demeanor and goofy personality that have conspired to dim his star among the 2018 rookie class, and I don’t see that ever changing unless that goofy guy becomes a difference-maker on a perennial playoff contender. And not in the Dwight Howard way where he blowtorches his reputation and then becomes a laughable liability along the way.

Heck, Ayton one day might not even be considered among the Top 5 from that vaunted 2018 class either. People love the futures of (among others)...

7. Wendell Carter Jr.

11. Shae Gilgeous-Alexander

14. Michael Porter Jr.

26. Landry Shamet

36. Mitchell Robinson

Does that ruin the career of Deandre Ayton if he’s not considered, long-term, the very best of the class of 2018?

Maybe in your eyes it does, but not in mine.

All that matters to me is that the Suns become perennial championship contenders again sometime soon, and I believe that Deandre Ayton can be the second- or third-best player on a championship team. In Phoenix.

The key with Ayton, as with any of these great players, is the team built around him. Those other top picks need the perfect team built around them too, or they’ll never succeed.

Young and Bagley, and maybe even the great Luka, are even worse defenders than Ayton. Their teams will need to build a defense to hide those flaws, or at least minimize them. JJJ isn’t very dynamic on offense, doesn’t rebound well and fouls way too much, so he might not be able to thrive as a 35-minute pivot man for his career. The Grizzlies will have to find the perfect frontcourt partner for him to thrive.

Ayton’s problem, per se, is that he’s hard to hide on defense if he doesn’t improve. He IS the last line of defense, and that’s not a great thing. If Ayton is dominating offensively, rebounds like a monster and becomes functional defensively, he will be expected to man the pivot in the game’s most crucial turn-on-a-dime minutes. In those minutes, he’s got to be trustworthy on defense. He’s got to be someone that locks down.

Can he do that? I don’t know.

But here’s what I do know:

He does NOT need to be a big-time shot-blocker

Please stop insisting that Ayton is a bad defender if he doesn’t average two blocks a game. Just look at Aron Baynes, for example. Though Baynes been a better rim-protector than Ayton, he’s by no means special in that area. Dude is about as earth-bound as it gets, but he’s a good defender because he can guard his position. He can root guys out of their comfort zone, and he’s not afraid to take charges to force a turnover. You don’t need to be a great shot blocker to be a good defender.

He DOES need to be a good paint defender

There’s a difference between blocking shots and protecting the paint or the rim. Again, watch Aron Baynes. Ayton needs to become fundamentally sound enough defensively that he gets into the right position, holds his vertical position and avoid fouls as he defends the paint and keeps opponents below their averages. If he can do that, the Suns are in good shape.

He does NOT need to become a world class defender

Some have said that Ayton needs to develop into a difference-making center on defense, and I do not agree. He merely needs to become good and dependable in key situations. He needs to be personally accountable, and to lock in on a frequent basis. But the Suns can win a championship one day with him average on defense. And if you don’t believe that, then you don’t believe the Denver Nuggets can win with Nikola Jokic. And you don’t believe the Wolves could ever put enough around Karl-Anthony Towns to win with him. And you don’t believe the Warriors won rings with the guys they had in the pivot either. Or the Cavs.

He DOES need to continue being uber-efficient

People don’t even notice that Ayton led all those top-five guys in an advanced stat called Win Shares with 5.8, which attributes portions of a team’s wins to each player on the roster based on their amalgamation of stats. That means the stat makers gave 5.8 of the Suns 19 wins to Ayton. More than they gave those other guys whose teams had more wins to share.

This stat is a measure of efficiency and productivity across the board on all the counting type stats, both offensive and defensive. Ayton is world-class in this area already and should continue along the way.

He does NOT need to be a volume 40 percent three point shooter

Sheesh. Folks. Sure, we’d all love to watch Ayton rain threes like a modern-day Channing Frye, pulling big men out of the paint on the regular to open passing and driving lanes for Ricky Rubio. One of the limiting factors for the Jazz in recent seasons, especially Ricky, is that he couldn’t drive into the paint for kick-outs because Gobert and/or Favors were already rooted in the paint with their defender, clogging up the lane. So Ricky and the other guards had to work outside-out unless they ran the pick-and-roll.

But he doesn’t need to be a stretch five and just wait around the perimeter on offense.

He DOES need to be a threat from out there

Ideally, Ayton would be a threat, making at least 33-plus percent on 2-3 bombs a game. On demand, he could pull the opponent’s biggest player out into no-mans land to make room for Rubio and Booker and Oubre. But Ayton doesn’t need to be a high-volume threat or a standstill waiter like Channing was. If Ayton can just be a threat like Joel Embiid and Marc Gasol are a threat, then the paint will open whenever the Monty Williams calls for it.

He DOES need to rebound like a madman

Ayton is good at rebounding, and he will get even better through the years. It’s easy to project Ayton as a top-five rebounder in the NBA soon. So let’s make that an expectation.

He DOES need to draw more fouls, to make the opponent less aggressive

I don’t quite understand how Ayton gets so few free throws. He doesn’t avoid contact, per se, but it’s unnerving to think how such a big man who plays so close to the basket can navigate around contact so easily.

Ayton has GOT to draw more fouls when he goes up to score. Not just to get the easy points, but to get the other’s teams big men into foul trouble. Which makes them more timid, and less effective on defense. Which helps in the fourth quarter in a close game.

That’s where Amar’e Stoudemire was a master. He drew fouls a lot, and got the opposing big men into foul trouble regularly. And that made the Suns even more effective offensively.

Summary

Since I don’t actually care whether the Suns got the best overall player from the 2018 Draft, it doesn’t hurt me to admit it. I never cared. I just simply don’t like players on other teams, and that’s why I never gushed over Luka or Jaren or Trae. And I never will.

I want the Suns to win. And I believe Deandre Ayton helps them get there.

That’s all that matters.