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‘He’s kind of like a new player’: Suns excited for Ayton’s return

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For the first time since October, Ayton doesn’t have to leave the arena by 5pm.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After a 25-game suspension during which the Phoenix Suns rode waves of success and failures, last year’s top overall draft pick finally gets unleashed back into the NBA tonight against the Clippers in LA.

Deandre Ayton is a much-needed fresh body who isn’t tired and sore from losing three straight games to teams below them in the standings.

“We’re looking forward to it,” backup center Aron Baynes said. “He’s a phenomenal player, and he’s definitely got a lot of energy. He’s gonna come in and add to us.”

Add to the Suns, indeed. Ayton brings a dynamic that hasn’t been seen on the Suns since the opening night 29-point blowout of the Sacramento Kings. Ayton is bigger, quicker and has better touch around the basket than anyone the Suns have put on the floor since he was suspended 25 games for violating the PED usage rules.

If you recall, Ayton followed up a 16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, .9 blocks per game rookie season with an opening-night 18, 11 and 4 with active defense before the NBA smashed their hammer on his pee sample.

Since then, backup centers Aron Baynes and Frank Kaminsky have held down the fort with varying success. Baynes was hot early on but missed 9 of the last 13 games with a hip injury, while Kaminsky has been durable but inconsistent as the starter these last 13.

As a starter for 12 games of Ayton’s absence (Suns were 6-6), Baynes averaged a career high 25.5 minutes, 15.5 points, 6 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game before bowing out to the strained hip and then strained calf. When he fully returned to action, the Suns decided the best long-term play was to have Baynes come off the bench in shorter minutes to get accustomed to his usual role of backing up Ayton. In these four games, Baynes is averaging 16.5 minutes, 11 points, 4 rebounds and .8 assists.

Frank Kaminsky has worked very hard in the middle over the 25 games despite being a bit slow of foot on switches and driving ball handlers. He is 5th on the Suns in total minutes played this season, averaging career highs with 11.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.9 free throw attempts in 24.3 minutes per game. The Suns were 4-9 in Kaminsky’s 13-game run as starter at center.

Both players are equally as effective off the bench as in the starting lineup, which is a good thing since Dario Saric and Deandre Ayton will be the starters.

Saric, who is 3rd on the team in minutes played this season, is excited for Ayton’s return but is understandably cautious about Ayton’s debut and integration.

“It will be easier with DA (Deandre Ayton) on the court,” Saric said, but then admitted, ”He’s kind of like a new player. We’ve only had one game with him but we’ll see. We know he’s an excellent quality player for our team. He’ll help us for sure.”

“He is a rim protector, he can rebound, he can score,” head coach Monty Williams said. “And we certainly need that pressure on the rim on offense. All of that stuff along with moving the ball, I am hopeful that it translates into us playing even better than we have.”

Ayton has been sorely missed on a team that struggles to rebound and score in the paint consistently against these NBA mammoths. Anyone who said the Suns didn’t need a 7-0 center because of the new small-ball NBA now realizes that every team needs a good one one because all the other teams do.

Just in these last three games the Suns lost by a grand total of 10 points, Jonas Valenciunas, LaMarcus Aldridge and Hassan Whiteside have controlled the painted area in the minutes they’ve played. And those guys aren’t even among the most talented centers in the West.

“He’s the biggest piece of the puzzle for us,” Baynes said of Ayton. “And it’s gonna be fun integrating him back into it and getting him going.”

In Ayton’s absence, the Suns have become a bit one-dimensional with their big men. None are equipped to score on the roll to the basket, so the Suns are predictably popping back to the three point line after every pick. That makes it easier for the defense to know what to do no matter which big men is setting the pick.

“It changes a lot,” small forward Mikal Bridges said. “Just having another different person with him rolling, Baynes popping. You’ve got two bigs who can mix it up, so the defense will have to switch their cover every time one of them comes in. Another person to mess up their defensive schemes.”

Bridges is one of only three Suns (Devin Booker, Elie Okobo) who have played more than one regular season game with Ayton. They know how talented the young big man with a path to the basket.

With the 21-year old Ayton back, the league’s youngest roster gets even younger in the rotation. Coach Monty Williams is already playing one of Elie Okobo or Ty Jerome (22) with Booker, Bridges and Cameron Johnson (all 23 years old) and Kelly Oubre Jr., who just turned the ripe old age of 24 in the past week. Saric (25) and Frank (26) are among the old guys with Ricky Rubio (29) and Aron Baynes (33).

Bridges is not worried about re-integrating Ayton to the fold.

“It’s going to work,” Bridges said. “All he does is bring energy. He’s gonna be ready no matter what the coaches tell him to do, if he’s off the bench, start him, he’s gonna be ready to play.”

Sage veteran Ricky Rubio — the oldest high-minutes guy on the team — finds himself often saying it’s time for the young Suns to grow up, to learn from these mistakes in a season they have lost half-dozen double-digit leads and have struggled to close out tight games, with five losses of 3-or-less points. Two of those five losses have come in the past three days.

“It’s a test for us,” the other veteran Baynes says. “It’s still relatively early in the season, and I think we can build from this.”

Building starts tonight against the Clippers, but the Suns have a long road ahead of them to try to fight for the playoffs.

“You are hopeful for 35 and 15, why stop at 20 and 10? I think big,” quipped Williams before Monday’s game, before settling into more serious speak. “I am hopeful that we don’t rely on anybody to be the savior. Like I am hopeful that our style of play stays the same and that he fits right in and makes it even better if that makes sense.”

The Suns may still be missing their very best player in Devin Booker (day-to-day with wrist / forearm soreness), but the return of Ayton gives the team their best big man back as a heated playoff race begins to take shape.

Today, no fewer than seven Western Conference teams have between 10 and 12 wins on the season with only six West teams ahead of the pack. That leaves those seven teams fighting for the last two playoff spots with two-thirds of the season to go.

Rev your engines, Suns fans!