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As trade rumors swirl, Deandre Ayton is playing his best basketball of the season

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Ayton’s two straight double-doubles this week came as reports that the Suns engaged in trade talks came to light.

Phoenix Suns v Houston Rockets Photo by Cato Cataldo/NBAE via Getty Images

It was remarkable mostly because it was the first time anyone had come out and said Deandre Ayton was the subject of trade talks.

When Dave Pasch, who lives in the Valley and calls NBA games for ESPN, appeared as a guest on Doug & Wolf this week, he dropped a blunt report that the Suns “looked into trading” Ayton last summer.

By that, Pasch seemingly meant the summer of 2019, after Ayton’s first season. During the summer of 2020, transactions were frozen across the NBA. Of course, at the start of Ayton’s second season, he was suspended for violating the league’s substance policy after testing positive for a diuretic in his system. That certainly hurt his trade value, and then the pandemic put everything in the NBA behind a trick mirror.

In all fairness, the Suns simply have not seen much from Ayton since that point when you also factor in the ankle injury that sidelined him midway through last season.

While Pasch is a puzzling source for this information in some ways, he has lived here for years and called NBA and college basketball for many years as well. But most importantly, it makes sense. Really: are you surprised?

Of course you aren’t. It’s rare to trade a No. 1 overall pick, with all but Andrew Wiggins and Markelle Fultz finishing out their first contract (at least) with the team that drafted them (plus Anthony Bennett, who was cut). But the Suns’ priorities are a bit different, and centers are more unique these days.

The Suns know they need to start winning soon, as evidenced by the signing of Ricky Rubio as well as the trade for Chris Paul. They can’t necessarily afford to keep focusing on the development of a raw center prospect at the same time, especially considering how precarious the center position is these days and how hard it is to make an impact as a “traditional” center these days.

Let’s be clear on another part of this: In a subsequent interview with Burns & Gambo, general manager James Jones refused to comment on the report from Pasch.

That’s a different thing than denying it, though. Jones basically said he did not want to say anything because whatever he said could be misinterpreted. But flatly denying it would have been pretty unequivocal, and Jones did not do that.

That all leaves us with the first bit of certainty that we’ve had that Ayton has in fact been the subject of some trade talk over the past 18 months or so. And if that’s now part of the narrative around this Suns team, it certainly seems to have found its way to Ayton.

This week, since the Suns returned to the court after the quarantine fallout from the Wizards game, Ayton has played like a fire was lit underneath him. With a double-double on Monday against Memphis and then a huge 26-point, 17-rebound, five-block performance in a win over Houston.

Ayton now faces pressure to keep it up.

Asked what he made of Ayton’s consecutive strong performances, Booker didn’t milk it or smother Ayton with adoration.

“I want to see more,” Booker said.

These games come after a meeting between the Suns’ two young stars that Booker discussed publicly this week, in which he implored Ayton to make a few adjustments to his game, likely centered on playing more aggressively.

With several dunks this week and at least four free-throw attempts in both games to go along with his consistently solid defense, Ayton answered the call.

But the thing about being a star player is doing it every night. Dominating two-way play is the expectation, not anything to necessarily be celebrated. Booker, Monty Williams, even Suns fans all will expect Ayton to follow up with another big game this weekend against Denver and then another after that and every night the rest of the season.

Otherwise, if the Suns determine he can’t do that or pulling it out of him is occupying too much of their time and energy, it’s safe to say they are comfortable going back to the phones for more trade talks. It’s hard to estimate now what his value is considering he is facing extension eligibility and has still played relatively few games in the NBA, but a swap that brings the Suns more perimeter talent and helps them avoid having to pay up on Ayton’s next contract makes sense.

Few would ever come out and say that trade discussions fueled their strong play, because that slices through the narrative that athletes don’t listen to The Noise. But it’s hard to believe that it’s a coincidence that Ayton played two of the better games of his career right as all this spilled out into the open.

Regardless of why or how these performances came out of him, Ayton will have to turn this into positive momentum the rest of the way to cement his place on this team and prove once and for all that he is worth a place in its core long-term.