Something special happened to the Suns in the Bubble. That much was obvious. But because fans and media did not have their typical day-to-day access into what was going on with the team, in many ways the 8-0 breakout this team went through remains a mystery.
So it was particularly interesting to hear from James Jones and Deandre Ayton on Wednesday night in a season ticket-holder panel hosted by ESPN’s Maria Taylor. The theme of the evening quickly became culture as part of the Suns’ Breakthrough series, and specifically how the Suns built over their first year under Jones and Monty Williams.
You can watch the full video here.
“If you’re a high-character player and you’re highly competitive, that’s our culture,” Jones said. “If you’re not ... you’ll walk away because you’ll realize this environment isn’t right for you.”
Ayton, who has seemed markedly more mature and locked-in during the Bubble and since, agreed with Jones’ point. He spoke to why the way the Suns have come together was so impactful to him.
“If you’re not all in completely, you will be pointed out,” Ayton said. “Guys work on their game every day. We work hard, and we’re great guys off the court as well. We’re young and from different areas in the world, but for us to just compete and become one, it’s something that was really new from my career playing basketball.”
That hard work is a big part of Jones’ emphasis as well. When he was asked by Taylor about what he saw among his championship teammates in 2012, 2013 and 2016 alongside LeBron James, it was work ethic that Jones identified.
So he was giddy when he heard Ayton talking about getting in the gym, being energized by working up a sweat with his teammates, and sticking around in Phoenix all fall to keep working on his game.
“Every day you don’t touch the court, you cheat yourself,” Jones said. “If you cheat yourself, you cheat the game, and if you cheat the game, you cheat your teammates. Our guys aren’t cheaters. Our guys are winners.”
With a new training facility coming along that should bolster the Suns’ program overall and help his young players grow as well as attract free agents, Jones spoke confidently.
“Development and growth is never-ending,” Jones added. “Just being able to call (the practice facility) the lab, anyone who steps into the lab is going to come out better. I don’t think there’s a better tool for recruitment than a place where somebody can say, ‘I come out of there better every day.’”
It was also promising to hear the more subdued version of Ayton hype up the way he and his teammates have grown on and off the court because of how it spoke to many of the qualities Jones praised in the team. In particular, it spoke to Ayton’s character, which was questioned by many fans over the course of the year, dating back to his suspension all the way through his missed COVID test in the Bubble.
Jones went out of his way to praise Ayton’s character and that of the rest of the roster.
“You don’t sacrifice character for anything,” Jones said. “In sports, a lot of people love to talk about, ‘talent matters,’ it’s usually (true) until you have a problem.
“We don’t have guys who have character problems. When they leave (our facility), we don’t worry whether or not they’ll cause trouble. When they come, they come to work, they come to build with us, and when they leave, they protect the team at all costs by keeping themselves and their teammates out of harm’s way.”
On the style side, Jones was excited to see his team play fast, control possessions, and shoot the ball well. Jones admitted the pre-draft process has been a challenge but said he hopes to double down on those qualities come Nov. 18.
That means a heavy dose of shooting.
“The more space we can have on the floor, the better opportunities for guys like Ricky and Devin to create,” he said.
Add in the Bubble breakout, the practice facility, the high character and the budding culture, and Jones has one thing to say to prospective free agents and draft picks:
“Come to Phoenix, and you can be part of the future.”