I had a chance to speak with Suns center Deandre Ayton yesterday at his PUMA shoe reveal at Champs Sports at the Scottsdale Fashion Square. Some proceeds from every shoe sale will be directed to hurricane relief efforts in his native Bahamas, which was devastated by a Category 5 storm a few weeks ago.
Ayton and I spoke in between him signing more than a dozen basketballs and photos for folks who bought his shoes on the spot at the reveal. Ayton was patient throughout the process, including fitting me in for a quick interview despite running behind schedule due to the high demand for his shoes at the store.
He’s sticking around to meet and greet all the fans here pic.twitter.com/GvTLsZLcm3— Dave King (@DaveKingNBA) September 27, 2019
Of course, I asked him about his role in the coming season.
A week ago, GM James Jones mentioned on a Suns.com podcast that he sees Ayton getting some playing time next to Aron Baynes, which led to Ayton commenting about becoming a three point shooter and returning to his power forward days in college.
Over the last few years, Ayton has regularly talked about being a power forward more than a center when he was growing up. He hasn’t been 7’1” 260 pounds forever. Back in prep school, he wasn’t outsized to play the forward position. Then in college, even after he topped seven feet tall, he happened to join an Arizona team that had the 7’0” Dusan Ristic as one of the top four talents on the whole team. Ristic didn’t have the skill set to play anything but center, so Ayton played power forward for Sean Miller that year.
In the NBA, there’s usually only one behemoth on the floor at a time, and that will be Ayton. It doesn’t matter what position you call him, the more of a threat he is at different spots on the floor the more difficult the Suns will be to defend.
A big man good at making threes is the same concept as a guard being good at scoring in the paint.
Ayton wants to grow his game. Just like any talented basketball player, he wants to use his skills with ball handling, shooting and passing, as well as finishing around the rim and rebounding. In basketball, power forward is seen as a more dynamic position than traditional center, so you can’t blame him for using that term to communicate wanting more variety in his game.
That doesn’t mean Ayton will suddenly morph into a stretch four, but it does mean he will get more freedom on the court which includes adding the long ball.
“Coach Monty himself told me we need threes this year out of everyone, including me,” Ayton told me at Champs on Thursday. He said the coaches have him taking threes in spot-up situations, trailing on the break and pick-and-pop with a point guard.
“They let me work on them, so I know I’ll shoot them in the game,” he said with earnest. “The game is different now to where I have to shoot that three.”
But Ayton does not intend to become a stretch four where he spends most of his time along the three-point line, waiting for a kick out. He will still get most of his touches in the paint, where he set efficiency marks for a rookie last year. Ayton is the only 7-foot rookie in NBA history to make at least 58% of his shots on 10+ attempts per game.
“You have to. Inside-out, regardless,” he said of still spending most of his time in the paint. “Regardless of what it is, inside-out.”
On his comments the other day about being a power forward that caught a lot of folks off guard, Ayton said it’s been a source of humor on the practice court.
“I tried to tease [coaches Monty Williams and Mark Bryant] today about playing the four,” he said with a laugh. “They didn’t give me no answer though.”
When he does play the four, it would be next to new backup center Aron Baynes who Ayton calls “a beast.” All the players are in town now, Ayton says, ready for training camp to start with a new sense of purpose.
In recent years, a vast majority of the Suns’ rotation was on a rookie contract or way past their prime. Most of the roster this year is filled with three to eight-year veterans who know how to prepare for an NBA season. While the Suns are still the league’s youngest team by average age, they are much more balanced than past iterations with “prime vets,” as James Jones calls them.
“The team is contagious with working,” Ayton said of his teammates. “If you’re not working hard, you’re going to be the odd number. You’re not getting exposed on purpose, its just you don’t fit right with everybody. They’re just doing what they have to do.”
He’s got a good feeling about coach Monty Williams.
“I’d say he’s a man of wisdom,” Ayton said, with a sudden bit of reverence in his tone. “He gave me some wisdom already about this game. About how to approach the game, be a professional. His leadership is beyond what all of us think it is. He’s taking his time with me and it’s helping me.”
Ayton designed his own Colorway of the Puma RS-X with three primary colors in mind: The sands of his native beaches (beige), the pristine ocean water (blue) and his favorite color (red). Everything he wears has to have some red in it.
“It came out all right,” he said, after some trial and error with a bit too much red.
Even the insole of the shoe is designed to remind him of walking his native beaches.
“That’s just my peace of mind,” Ayton said of the beaches in the Bahamas. “Just relaxing. To this day when I go home, that’s where I’ll be. Not even in the water. Just on the beach, listening to the ocean.”
Ayton is the only NBA player who has released a “lifestyle” design through PUMA rather than a court shoe, but that’s perfect for this beach theme. The RS-X shoes are meant to be worn as daily wear, walking around town and even chilling on a beach.
Ayton attended the shoe reveal with a number of members of his family, including his mom, who was just about the kindest person I’ve met. She introduced herself unprompted, and graciously made sure to take a picture with her son for me, amid the hectic scene in the back of the shoe store. Here he is with the whole group.
After donating $100,000 of his own money, loading a city bus full of supplies and hosting a fund raiser at Ocean 44 — a new seafood restaurant in Scottsdale near the Fashion Square — earlier in the week, Ayton now worked with PUMA to help the relief efforts too. PUMA will donate $25 to hurricane relief for every pair of these signature shoes sold.
The Bahamas were recently devastated by Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that led to a reported death toll of 53 people (and counting), with more than 1,300 people still missing and an estimated $7 billion in damage.
The shoes are available exclusively right now at Champs Sports, including the one at the Scottsdale Fashion Square that sold dozens of pairs on Thursday at the reveal. They will be available online and worldwide as of this weekend through the Puma.com website for $120 a pair (which is not inflated for the relief efforts).
Get yourself a pair and help just that little bit with these relief efforts.