The argument that raged all last summer in Phoenix has gotten quieter recently. Winning will do that. So will peak performance from a player to whom a desperate franchise hinged its hopes.
Deandre Ayton is playing impassioned, explosive basketball for the first time all season and making even his greatest skeptics accept that he is getting better in a hurry.
The big man, who played power forward until this season, called on those ingrained perimeter skills to contain two of the most fearsome and versatile playmakers in NBA history in consecutive games at home this week for his best defensive performances of the season. Giannis Antetkounmpo is the future of the NBA, LeBron James the guiding light for that wings who can put the ball in their hands and take over games. Ayton limited both players in two huge wins for the Suns.
“Deandre accepted the challenge,” coach Igor Kokoskov said. “We can use his strength, his length, and he was just good enough to contain the ball and make somebody else make a play.”
James, with his incredible control and feel for the rhythms of a game, still went off for 27 points and 16 assists, but the Lakers fell apart. Ayton’s defense helped put the Lakers in an uncomfortable position, relying on Rajon Rondo spotting up and JaVale McGee making plays with the ball. The team’s usual scorers such as Kyle Kuzma were quiet.
Ayton’s defensive impact also carried over to offense, where his attentiveness and energy — absent many times this year — helped create efficient shots at the basket for the Suns. He scored 26 points on just 11 shot attempts and got to the line a season-high 14 times.
“He showed presence on both sides of the court,” Kokoskov said. “His teammates were looking for him, finding him on deep seals, catches in the paint and he was a problem and they had to adjust and put a five man, McGee, in.”
“They had a small guy on me, I just tried to do what I could to put some points up,” Ayton added.
But that hasn’t always been the case for Ayton. The rap coming out of Arizona was that he sometimes lacked the killer instinct to put a team on his shoulders and take over a game — and that he may not have the ability on defense to do that even if he wanted to. There were flashes such as the Wildcats’ final road game of the year, when Ayton clobbered the smaller Oregon Ducks for 28 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks, and many more this season. The problem has been that it comes and goes.
He can’t disprove that perception over the course of a few games but this version of Ayton has to be snuffing out a fair amount of doubt. The rookie big man is doing things we’ve never seen from him before.
“He is a very mobile big, lateral movement was never his issue, he was playing the 4 in college and I never had a doubt that he is going to be OK,” Kokoskov said.
Take one late offensive possession of Monday’s win over Milwaukee, when a rare pick-and-roll between Ayton and Devin Booker put the ball in Ayton’s hands, the game tied with 30 seconds left and Antetokounmpo lurking near the rim. Ayton caught the ball on the short roll, soared into the air, bumped hard into Antetokounmpo and layed the ball in through the contact, a sense of purpose and aggressiveness on offense unleashed in one layup.
Then came the flex. It hasn’t shown up much this year but when the rookie busts out his signature move, you know he’s feeling good.
“I can do all that, it’s just time and spacing and the rhythm of the team,” Ayton said. “I told y’all, the second half of the season, y’all were gonna see something new.”
The big man was in great spirits this week and rightly so. He took on two of the game’s best players — the GOAT and a likely MVP — and came away victorious, growing individually and meshing with his teammates after weeks of losing.
Wednesday’s double-digit victory over the Knicks felt like the best kind of afterthought — the Suns beating a team with less talent. Ayton got into foul trouble and, facing DeAndre Jordan for the third time this season with the veteran changing teams, got substantially out-rebounded by New York’s bigs. The Suns have to feel good, regardless, about their big man’s confidence growing and his more consistent effect on the game from start to finish.
Ayton himself knows how important it is for his teammates to be able to count on him.
“We’re embracing each other’s trust,” he said.