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Young Suns growing up with Rubio, Baynes mentoring

Sweat equity and timely advice from Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes helping young Suns learn how to win games.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns have won seven of their last 11 games, including a win on the road over the Celtics on Saturday where they led for 47 of 48 minutes, and now are back into ninth place in the West.

The resurgence has been spear-headed by All-Star level play from their two most talented young players in Devin Booker (23 years old) and Deandre Ayton (21).

Booker is on a real tear lately, second in the league in scoring during this 7-4 run with 32 points (0.5 points behind leader James Harden), 6.7 assists and 4.3 rebounds and the best plus-minus among the league’s top 12 scorers (plus-6.9 points per game) in that span.

With the Suns winning games to get back into relevancy in the Western Conference playoff hunt, Booker is putting himself squarely into the conversation to make the All-Star game as a reserve guard. You almost can’t leave Booker off the team now.

Deandre Ayton has been a big catalyst as well. He has been on the court for 10 of the past 11 games, leading the team in paint defense by holding opponents a full 11 percent lower than their regular field goal percentage inside 6 feet. Ayton is giving up only 50 percent field goal percentage on shots he’s defended inside 6 feet of the rim, a mark that puts him 11th in the whole league since he’s returned to the lineup (among those who defend 6 or more such shots per game).

But he’s not just a defender, as you know. Over the past 10 games since returning from the suspension and ankle injury, Ayton has posted 17.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. He is 3rd on the team, behind only Booker and Mikal Bridges, who is a plus-5.8 per game.

On Thursday, Deandre Ayton delivered the first 20/20 game by a Phoenix Suns player since Amar’e Stoudemire in 2008 (post-microfracture surgery!) and becomes one of only 14 Suns in the franchise’s 51 year history to record a 20/20 game.

Ayton is also the first Suns player to record back-to-back 25/15 games (twice now) since Shawn Marion recorded FOUR straight 25/15 games in February 2006. Across Suns history, only Marion, Ayton and Charles Barkley have ever even recorded back-to-back 25/15 games.

This team will only go so far as Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker take them, and lately it seems like this pairing could be a contending pair in the coming years.

If you think that’s a huge leap from the same duo who oversaw a 19-63 campaign a year ago and started catching flak such as “looter in a riot”, “empty stats” and “walking double-double that still plays losing basketball”... well, you’d be right.

Booker and Ayton have taken leaps this year in terms of playing winning basketball. Booker’s scoring and assisting are both down a bit from last year, but he is even more efficient and already has been credited with more Win Shares* in half a season this year than any prior whole season. And Ayton was dead last in the league a year ago among high-volume qualifiers at defending the paint.

*Booker’s 4.4 win shares puts him just outside the top 20 in the league this year, despite win shares being a function of a team’s actual win total. 14 teams have more wins than the Suns so far.

You can thank veterans Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes for teaching helping mentor the young players on how to impact winning basketball.

In the Suns regular rotation during this stretch, only Rubio (29) and Baynes (33) are more than 25 years old. The rest of the current rotation is Ayton (21), Elie Okobo (22), Booker (23), Mikal Bridges (23), Cameron Johnson (23), Kelly Oubre Jr. (24) and Dario Saric (25).

“We are finally at the point where we look each other in the eye, and give constructive criticism,” Ayton said of the growth among the whole team. “To where it’s ‘I trust you, what did I do wrong ... okay, got you. Let me fix it.’”

For example, on Thursday night you could see Ricky showing Ayton that he needs to try a spin move to clear himself from a box-out, and soon after that Ayton got an important rebound with that very move.

“I look up to Ricky and Baynes a lot,” Ayton said. “I listen to everybody, but it’s those two guys are the main guys that talk on the team to where it’s instruction. It’s just positivity.”

When Ayton was frustrated a few games ago for missing some assignments on defense, it was Baynes who got into his ear to calm and re-focus him after the coach had ripped his effort.

Booker has talked all season how he knows he needs to learn how to win important games, and he looks to Rubio and Baynes for help in that area.

The Suns have had designated mentors before, including Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley, Jamal Crawford and Trevor Ariza, but none of those players were second in the league in assists (Rubio) and none were playing out of their mind to start the season on the right foot like Rubio and Baynes have done.

Young players listen to leaders who can show it on the court, not just talk the talk from the sidelines. Both Rubio and Baynes show it every day.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens had great things to say about Baynes from his two years in Boston before being traded to the Suns.

Rubio is averaging a career high in assists per game, while Baynes has been setting career highs across the board. And both are showing the Suns players that you can play defense and offense in the same game, even within the same minute.

Booker’s three-steal-three-stop sequence against the Magic in the final minute to give them the lead when the Suns were down was the best series of plays in his career. And Ayton’s play these last two games has directly led to wins over teams that play physical defense.

Part of Rubio/Baynes success could be attributed to the Suns players being more ready to excel. It’s tough to ask a veteran mentor to turn a 19 or 20 year old into a winner overnight. But with Booker now 23 and Ayton in his second year, they are more ready to absorb advice that clearly helps them win games.

These boys are growing up. And we can thank two vets’ “sweat equity” for the growth they are showing.

Next up

In game 43, the Suns (18-24) will try to tie their win total for the entire past 82-game season (19-63) if they can beat the San Antonio Spurs in Phoenix on Monday.

Get down there to support the team!