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For the Suns, the Orlando season is all about Deandre Ayton

The second-year big man needs this more than anybody.

Phoenix Suns v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

One hundred and one games. That’s all the NBA action to Deandre Ayton’s name since he was drafted first overall by the Suns in 2018.

One hundred and one games. That’s all it took for Ayton to turn the expectations about his defensive upside on their head and prove he could produce consistently as a pro.

There are always two sides of the discussion when it comes to Ayton. Those who believed that his physical attributes would transfer into game-changing ability as an NBA big man, versus those who believed he’d have to make threes and be a dominating defender to be an All-Star center. Those who believed he’d put the work in, versus those who worried that his first public comments about his goals as an NBA star centered on his second contract.

A hundred games isn’t enough to prove the folks on either side right. Which brings us to Orlando.

When the Suns disembark the plane at Walt Disney World in July, they’ll have a lot in front of them. Not only mighty long odds for winning their way back into the Western Conference playoffs, but the opportunity for progress for many individuals up and down the roster.

But none more important than Ayton. Sure, Suns coaches and front office executives will want to see more from Ty Jerome or from Frank Kaminsky. And what to make of the legitimacy of the team’s small-ball success? All important.

Nothing, though, compares to the opportunity ahead for Ayton. The big man played heavy minutes in the spring for the Suns after coming back from a second ankle sprain, and was part of some of the NBA’s best lineups during that time. At the same time, it’s hard to tell exactly the status of his trust among teammates and the organization, just 30 games removed from a substance-related suspension.

None of us have any reason to question Ayton’s bond with his teammates. Ayton is a rah-rah guy, someone who will always stand up for and praise his fellow Suns. He and Devin Booker have developed solid chemistry through two seasons. He and Kelly Oubre Jr. discuss clothes and culture in the locker room often. He learned a lot from Ricky Rubio. And no one is a bigger fan of Ayton than Mikal Bridges.

But the reality remains that Ayton has not been able to stay on the court consistently this season. He made a bad mistake in the fall that ruined his sophomore campaign, and lower-body injuries have plagued him. Teammates have to trust that you will always be there, giving your all.

During this hiatus, apart from becoming an NBA 2K maven, Ayton has been hard at work. From the looks of his Instagram feed, he’s been training with former Arizona teammate Allonzo Trier and is still in great physical shape.

This is all important. For Ayton to make the most of his time in Orlando, he can’t miss a beat. The Suns are being afforded a luxury among NBA teams right now, even if the majority are indeed going to Orlando. They are getting prolonged, organized basketball at a time when many other young, building squads are not. Ayton has to make the most of it, and the team needs to put him in position to succeed.

It can be easy to forget amidst all the other, bigger questions swirling around the NBA right now, but a shortened 2020-21 season would mean Ayton is less than a year away from being eligible for a maximum contract extension and the big pay day he said he dreamed about.

So not only are there still lessons to be learned as Ayton finishes Year Two in the NBA, but preparations have to be made toward Year Three and beyond already.

Can Ayton become an All-Defense center in the NBA? Can he become a fixture for the Suns who complements Booker? Can he prove, definitively, his dedication to basketball and this franchise and his body? Everything is leaning toward yes, but the coming weeks are vital in Ayton’s maturation.

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