Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton took a few minutes to meet with local media this week, via a Zoom call, and it felt good to know that the Suns player with possibly the highest ceiling is showing even more awareness than ever of his potential in this game.
This is a glimpse of how media sessions will be conducted from now on, into the foreseeable future. We will have these kinds of sessions all through Orlando, working from our respective homes, while the players sit down with a phone or tablet or laptop after games on on off days.
Ahead of the Suns leaving for the Bubble next week, let’s take a closer look at former No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton with the help of this interview as well as an interview/film-breakdown with Mike Schmitz of ESPN.
Start reading for the three-and-D, stay for the film breakdown with ESPN!
1. Humbled by the drug suspension
Ayton did address the drug suspension, and how that made a big impact on him.
“I could have been stopped a lot, and I didn’t stop,” Ayton said on the Zoom call. “I stayed on the positive path, and I have the Suns community and the Suns organization that kept me taking the right steps to where I am today. …
“It was a humbling experience, and it gave me some humility in a way. That’s why I think I enjoyed my family and them being there for me. I’m just ready to work now, ready to show them that their comforting (me) and support didn’t (get taken) for granted. It really helped me. It helped me get up every day and be consistent.”
After returning from the drug suspension, Ayton wanted to prove his doubters wrong. Especially about his defensive impact.
2. Exaggerated his defensive effort
Ayton knows that’s where he gets the most criticism. He was maligned for his defensive effort as a rookie, and wanted to show the world he could do anything he wants on defense.
On the Zoom call, I asked Ayton about how he made that leap on defense this season. He says that was his main focus this year, with the help of assistant coach Mark Bryant, to the point where he relished really exaggerating that effort.
“I tried to block every shot this season,” Ayton said. “Even on ball switches, I was trying my best to press up no matter what. Every opportunity that I had to really show my defense (I took), because I know everybody’s watching me on defense no matter what.”
He’s right. Even while posting record efficiency as a rookie big and rarified air for productivity as a 20 and 21 year old, it’s the defense that people focus on.
“I just tried to prove everybody wrong coming back,” he said. “It was just a big chip.”
(more on Ayton’s defensive improvements later in the article in the ‘national media’ section, from someone who does a lot better work than me)
3. Warming up to threes
We all know Deandre Ayton loves to take that mid-range shot when the defense sags off him after a catch in the high post. No hesitation, once his passing lanes are blocked. Just rise (or fade) and shoot, heading back down the floor to play defense.
Some of that is Ayton’s lack of aggressiveness, and lack of trust in his playmaking attack. And some of that is the scheme he was given.
As a rookie, Ayton did everything his coaching staff asked and set efficiency records for a rookie big man on the offensive end. But even then, his lack of 3-and-D was still seen as catastrophic.
Coach Igor Kokoskov’s philosophy was both good and bad for rookie Ayton (mostly good).
Ayton’s lone year in college, right down the road at University of Arizona, coach Sean Miller had him playing power forward next to fellow 7-footer Dusan Ristic. Ayton posted a 20/10 stat line, but failed to get any experience at center. In the NBA game, however, there’s little room for a twin tower lineup, so Kokoskov decided to rebuild Ayton.
Kokoskov knew that if Ayton was going to maximize his impact on the NBA, he had to become comfortable as the only true big man on the floor. So he gave Ayton a very small box in which to work: learn to be a true center, defend the opponent’s biggest player on one end, and act as a high post facilitator on offense. That spot in the set offense — generally 15-20 feet from the basket at the beginning of the shot clock — helped Ayton get some assists, but left him in midrange no-man’s land when the other team’s center sagged off him into the paint (cue Jarrett Allen/Nets memories from fall 2018).
Kokoskov did not want Ayton settling for jumpers, including threes, as a young fawn trying to find his footing. Igor even joked once that Ayton could take a three when he gets his 20th rebound in a game. After taking about one three per game in college, Ayton took only four in 70 games as a rookie.
In his second season, he had a whole new coaching staff. Like Igor, they wanted Ayton to grow as a big man, and did not focus on creating three-point shots for the young big man. By now, Ayton has lost faith in his long-range shooting. So while all the backup centers found ample three-point chances in the Suns offense (all of Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric took 4+ threes per game), Ayton never drifted out after a pick like they did.
Maybe he’s ready now.
“I’m shooting the three-ball like a middy,” he said with a big smile in a Zoom call with local media on Thursday.
Maybe it’s like defense for him, where he really just needs to get his mind right to do it. And once he does it, he does it well.
4. Trusts the league, as long as players follow the rules
He says that he has enjoyed the quarantine time the past few months because he doesn’t mind staying home, playing his video games and getting closer to his family. He looks forward to making it work in Orlando the same way, just following the rules laid out by the league.
“I trust the league,” he told us “It is dangerous. It is a thing. I think if we just follow the rules correctly, we will be good.”
5. Wants the media on his side
Other young players — like Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Jaren Jackson Jr. and even teammate Devin Booker — have fans and media stanning for them despite their flaws. But Ayton has been aggressively maligned since being taken No. 1 overall in 2018, labeled as a throwback to the 90s who can’t keep up with today’s NBA.
A year later, Ayton is now beginning to get some recognition for his two-way game from those in the national media.
“I’ve been in the dirt in the media,” Ayton said on the Zoom call. “Me, I think I’m on my way on closing the media’s mouth shut completely in a way for them to rock with me. Not that I want them to rock with me but that’s just the right thing to do.”
Here is Mike Schmitz on Ayton’s progress, as well as an interview with Ayton as they watched film together posted just today on ESPN.com and YouTube.
This section of Schmitz’s article shows what Ayton learned after his first bad game.
Ayton recalled his welcome-to-the-NBA moment. In the second game of his career, he was tasked with checking wildly skilled Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.
Jokic went for 35 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in a 28-point rout of the Suns. In 23 minutes, Ayton finished with just five points and eight boards. After a late-game and-1 that resulted in Ayton’s fifth foul, Jokic turned to Phoenix’s prized rookie and yelled, “You can’t guard me.”
“Yeah, it scarred me in a way,” said Ayton, who called Jokic a superstar and now looks forward to every one of their matchups. “I was like, ‘OK, he’s in the West, huh.’ I said, ‘I got something for this. He’s going to see me for the rest of his career.’”
I remember that game very well. The 20-year old Ayton appeared shell-shocked in his second start in the NBA as Jokic, a league MVP candidate, just bodied him at every turn.
Ayton had just posted his rookie debut of 18 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists and a steal and a block in the Suns 21-point opening-night win over the Dallas Mavericks and Luka Doncic. A game Ayton called the most fun of his life. Then the dud. In the three games immediately following the dud, Ayton averaged 22 points, 11 rebounds and 4.3 assists versus the Warriors, Lakers and Grizzlies.
In Ayton’s next game against Jokic and the Nuggets, he posted 33 points and 14 rebounds in a narrow 4-point loss, but the score was closer than the game. Jokic had 23/9/8 in a win that looked inevitable from the start.
Ayton didn’t play Jokic again until this spring, where Ayton pumped in 28 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in a game the Suns should/could have won if not for Jamal Murray going nuts.
“He’s a monster down there,” Jokic told AZ Central after the game. “He’s a big guy, he knows how to use his body. He just needs a little bit more experience and he’s going to be great. He’s going to be a really, really great player.”
Ayton often credits assistant coach Mark Bryant for his growth on the defensive end, showing him footwork and helping him with the mentality to play tough and smart at the same time.
Ayton is an always has been refreshingly honest, especially to himself. When Schmitz showed him some failures on defense as a rookie Ayton simply agreed.
“Just look at my stance,” he said to Schmitz. “I don’t even look intimidating down there. I look terrible. I would dunk on myself.”
Ayton talked about his defensive growth.
“Just learning the fundamentals of how to see both sides, how to use my peripheral vision correctly, how to use the outer hand to block shots, how to wall up correctly, how to not turn in the air when you’re walling up, how to anticipate it before they even think about it,” Ayton said. “When I wasn’t playing, I was just working on so many things I never knew of about the game and things that I could do.”
And finally, when asked if he should have been better prepared as a rookie big in the NBA, Ayton just laid it out there.
“Ain’t no wake-up call; I didn’t know,” Ayton said. “I can sit here and watch film all day, but that experience is something else. ... I already learned my lesson, now I’m back out here. Let’s go.”
Let’s go, indeed.
6. Excited for Orlando
Ayton and the Suns leave next Tuesday for Orlando for the 22-team Bubble Games, and will begin five-on-five workouts for the first time since March on July 13. They will have a training camp, which includes up to three scrimmages against bubble friends, and then start their 8-game mid-summer league on July 30.
The Suns are 3.5 games back of a chance at a pair of play-in games for the 8th seed. Overcoming four other teams in a similar position in only 8 games will be next to impossible, but when there’s a chance there’s a chance.
“It’s a little window to make the playoffs and make some history,” Ayton said. “That’s all that’s on our mind. We’re young and hungry, and we’re ready to play.”
What if Ayton just keeps adding layers to his game? He’s already become a force on the defensive end, is a great rebounder and has excellent touch around the basket. Only he and Shaquille O’Neal have ever averaged 19/12/1.5 at age 21 or younger.
What if he adds foul-drawing and three-point launching to the repertoire in the next year or so?
For now, I’d just be happy with proof that the January-March Ayton is his new floor. That he can continue being a defensive force, inside and out, and stays near the rim for dunks, blocks and rebounds.
But what if? What if he DID add something to his game...
Deandre Ayton 2.5 is ready for takeoff.