Expectations are high for Deandre Ayton as he returns to the fold for the Suns.
Ayton’s response to being suspended will define the rest of the year for him, and play a big part in how his career plays out. And it didn’t happen at a random time — Year Two is already important for young players as they attempt to improve upon their rookie season. As the Suns make a push for the playoffs, they also really need a lot of the skills Ayton brings.
How he plays will determine the course of the season.
So, all that was hanging over Ayton as he walked toward center court for tip-off at Staples Center on Tuesday night.
He responded. Big time. A simple smell test for young players is how much you feel their presence in a game. Call it the Andrew Wiggins Assessment. Plenty of young guys float through game action, actively harming their team by not getting involved. At times as a rookie, Ayton failed this test.
Against the Clippers, Ayton was involved. Anyone wondering whether Monty Williams and Ricky Rubio could together get more out of Ayton should be excited about that. The big man grabbed seven (!) offensive rebounds, mostly in a dominating open to the third quarter, and rarely fell out of plays defensively.
But despite filling his role, playing with energy and creating offense for a Suns team without its top scorer, many were disappointed. As if you all didn’t have two months to temper your expectations.
Whatever anyone took away from that blowout loss to the Clippers, those feelings were already welling up inside them before the game. Ayton made several defensive gaffes as Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell most notably took advantage of his lack of awareness. The Suns’ transition defense altogether was terrible, and Ayton’s ability to run the floor should probably help in that area more.
That viewpoint operates from an expectation that Ayton is going to morph into a superstar before New Year’s Day 2020. It’s also pretty silly.
Ayton last night did so much of what he never did last year, but it appears the goal posts have moved. Any time Ayton pulled the trigger quickly from midrange last season was a victory for the Suns. Hesitating killed him. He was decisive in Los Angeles. But immediately, folks wondered why he didn’t step behind the three-point line with that same energy.
Philadelphia fans will tell you not to hold your breath. They’ve been doing this with Ben Simmons for years. Learn to appreciate what Ayton is capable of right now and be diligent enough to observe progress, or you’ll miss out on it entirely.
In his 68th career NBA game, Ayton finished just below his career-high in field goal attempts, made nearly 50 percent of them, moved the ball intelligently within his new coach’s fast-paced offensive system, and didn’t hurt his team on defense.
Ayton was engaged and confident. He looked every bit like a player who will continue getting better and more comfortable with this new Suns team.
Expectations are heightened when teams achieve success. That’s part of the gig. Ayton has to know that, too. After all, he heard about it the whole time he was out — “can he fit in?” “Should he start?” “Why didn’t the Suns draft Luka Doncic?”
On and on and on. Then, he comes out and plays one of the better games of his career (go ahead and look back at his game log and tell me I’m wrong), and people spit out the take they’ve been salivating at the thought of making since before Halloween.
Go ahead. Create unrealistic expectations that Ayton will turn into Joel Embiid overnight and disappoint yourself when Ayton looks human.
Or, see things as they are, and be reasonable about the progress the former No. 1 overall pick is making and all the ways he already chipped in for the Suns in his return.
What grade would you give Ayton in his return to action?
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