Before this season began, the Suns had some objectives to measure a good season: win more games, show progress on offense and defense, establish good pace, take a lot of threes. Become respectable. Become a real NBA team again. You know, easy things.
But none were more important than getting an answer to this question: Can the Suns become a contender with Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton as their top two players?
The Suns spent the summer surrounding those two with playable, but still young, NBA veterans, a veteran playmaker, and a proven quality coaching staff whose whole job was to develop Booker and Ayton into a 1A and 1B on a good team.
The thinking was that, by the end of the season, we would know for sure if Booker and Ayton could be the best players on a good NBA team.
Remember when pundits were skeptical of “looter in a riot” Booker and defensive sieve Ayton as a core? Remember when they suggested a Booker-Ayton pairing might be no better than a Wiggins-Towns pairing?
After just two months of playing together this season, we are much closer to getting a positive answer to that question.
With a competent supporting cast around him, Devin Booker became an All-Star and leading candidate to make the All-NBA team at the end of the season.
And with a season of experience under his belt, Deandre Ayton has become not only a 20/10/2 player, he’s also developing into a truly good defensive anchor in the middle.
Those outside Phoenix are starting to notice. Last week, it was Dan Devine and Zach Lowe commenting on Ayton’s defensive growth. They both mentioned there and other places that Ayton is someone to watch in the second half.
Ayton with the type of defensive play you literally never saw at Arizona - came over from weak side and timed leap to swat Morris drive at the rim. It's a big deal if he does that consistently.— John Hollinger (@johnhollinger) February 27, 2020
John Hollinger is a former ESPN columnist and then Memphis Grizzlies front office member. He now works for TheAthletic.com and is on a West-coast-ish swing, landing in the Valley for the Suns-Clippers game.
This is the play Hollinger reacted to. Watch Ayton rotate as the second defender to block friend-of-the-Valley Marcus Morris.
The weakside block on Morris was terrific, but what the clip doesn't show is Ayton hedging to help Booker on a Paul George post-up. Ayton's improvement on D has been so encouraging this yearpic.twitter.com/HGdYXImX0J— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) February 27, 2020
Can Ayton do this consistently? Over the past two months, the answer is an emphatic yes. I’ve already shared Ayton’s defensive numbers with you a few times, so I won’t repeat them here again.
Ayton had three first-half blocks, keeping possession on two of them for Suns transition opportunities (which is HUGE). After that, the Clippers stopped trying to go at him very much.
Just watch this play. Sure it ended in a Clippers three (of course, because that’s how the game went), but take note of how many times Ayton rotated to stop drives to the rim.
This was chefskiss dot gif. pic.twitter.com/6QzRYB6XIe— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) February 27, 2020
Justin Russo is a huge Clippers fan excited about the passing and the result, while Dave King is a huge Suns fan who got just as excited about Ayton’s defense on the play. He stopped three different drives by All-Stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard on that one play.
“He’s done an extremely good job with that,” Booker said of Ayton’s ability to contest against ball handlers. “One, not fouling. Keeping his hands out, being the second helper. Whoever bumps him, tries to bump and get a shot, he’s right there on him. His rotations are good.
“He’s ahead of the learning curve. He’s taking steps, big steps every game.”
Watch Booker’s whole postgame presser here.
Ayton is developing rapidly on the defensive end, but also on the offensive end as well as a pick-and-roll finisher.
Both he and Rubio shared the story last night that the two began working together in the last two weeks on their two-man game and it’s begun to really show. Check these highlights that are just loaded with Ayton rolling to finish.
“All that started on the plane,” Ayton said of their recent road trip. “I told him we could be the best pick-and-roll offensive duo in the league. He just sat me down with some film, him and coach Darko (Rajokevic), just reading how people guard Ricky. Setting the screen, getting out of the screen, trusting him to throw the ball up for me, just make the right play.”
Rubio agreed, recounting the same recent interaction after the Torono game, heading into the Chicago Bulls game. Ayton has scored 28, 17 (in only 21 foul cramped minutes) and 27 in the three games since.
“We watched some film and it’s getting better but we have a lot of work to do,” Rubio said. “It’s not the same doing it from the beginning of the season or adding that in the middle of the season when you’re already in momentum with (Aron) Baynes or Frank (Kaminsky III) or whoever it was at that moment. You have to change all your approach to the pick-and-roll because (it’s) a different player.
“I got to know his game and he’s got to know my game,” Rubio continued. “We were talking today and he’s going to get better and better. I think the last two games he’s been more effective and I know where he wants the ball, but I got to get better in some of the turnovers that I got tonight, for example.”
Here’s another example of Ayton just scratching the surface of yet another new skill. Ayton made 5 of his first 6 shots before the Clippers changed up their defense to have another defender rotate down between Ayton and the rim on the catch. That makes about three defenders actively committed to defending the Ayton roll. Nash used to feast on that kind of attention. Rubio (and Booker) will develop counter attacks to get the ball to the now-open shooters on the perimeter.
Ayton is having fun, and we all know that he’s best when he’s having fun.
The real joy, for me, is that Ayton likes to play defense. He really does like it.
“This is the league,” he said of needing to be able to guard from the perimeter to the rim. “You can get exposed. That’s how you have to defend. One through five. You see them trying to take the big man out, so I have to show something or I’ll get extinct.”
He’s absolutely right. Teams set up their entire offense on forcing switches to the big man, then taking him to the rim. In that highlight vid above, you can see Ayton track Landry Shamet all the way from the three point line to the rim and easily block Shamet’s shot.
Wednesday’s game was Ayton’s sixth 20/10 performance in nine games in the month of February, averaging 21.9 points on 56.5 FG%, 13.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks this month. Ayton and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the only NBA players averaging 20+ points and 12+ rebounds this month, and Ayton is the only player averaging 1.5+ blocks in addition to 20+ points and 12+ rebounds.
Yes, the Suns lost another game. Yes, they’re now 24-35 on the season, still 4.5 games out of the 8th spot in the West.
But the development of the 21-year old Ayton into one of the league’s best two way players leaves me smiling ear to ear.
Watch Ayton’s whole postgame presser here.