Recently, 22-year-old Deandre Ayton has been held to standards that range from “needs to get 25 and 15 every night” to “needs to be the best defensive player in the game”... from the same people, depending on what he did in the most recent game.
As little as a week ago, Ayton was mired in an early-season offensive slump that left fans and teammates scratching their heads — or screaming at their TVs — over why he was so hesitant whenever he got the ball. This consternation over Ayton passing up scoring opportunities caused fans to discount his otherwise excellent roll gravity, rebounding and all-around defense to help the Suns to a 6-3 record and top-10 defensive rating.
Then the beast awoke. Or rather, the light turned on for him on how to best score with Chris Paul and Devin Booker feeding him.
Over the last four games, Ayton is averaging 22 points, 14.8 rebounds, two blocks and two assists per game in raw numbers, and held anyone he was guarding — including MVP-candidate center Nikola Jokic — in check.
This is the Ayton everyone wanted — incredibly impactful on both offense and defense. That the Suns only went 1-3 in those four games had nothing to do with Ayton except for fouling out in overtime in Saturday, leaving only Frank Kaminsky on that island with Jokic. Notice the Nuggets stopped worrying so much about screening the Suns center off Jokic before getting into their offense once Ayton fouled out.
Tonight, the Suns take on the Oklahoma City Thunder and then go through Golden State and Dallas (twice) for their next four games. Some or all of which without Devin Booker (hamstring strain), so the pressure will on for Ayton to continue this high production on offense.
I am especially curious how Ayton handles the Thunder because they are relatively small in the middle, and Ayton sometimes checks out when there’s no marquee matchup against him. Al Horford (11.1p, 7.1r) has only played about half the Thunder’s games and is questionable for Wednesday, leaving only Mike Muscala (9.8p, 3.2r) in the middle for the Thunder against a guy like Ayton. It’s up to the Suns to make them pay for smallness.
Then on Friday, Ayton will match up against No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman, similar in size, build and athleticism as Ayton but not as developed (11.9p, 5.9r, 1.4b). Who knows how Ayton will handle that matchup. They have never played against each other. On the down side, Ayton might take this matchup lightly, but on the up side it’s a national TV game (TNT) and Ayton always seems to show up big for national games.
Over the weekend, Ayton will face against the Dallas bigs, who don’t play traditional in any way. Their best big man, the 7’4” Kristaps Porzingis, is truly a stretch big these days (19.7, 8.3r, takes 6.3 threes per game) which will pull Ayton away from the paint on defense and give Luka a lot of bully-ball driving room. Their best backup big is Maxi Kleber, who also plays a stretch role (7.4p, 5.3r, takes 3.8 threes per game). Like the Suns, all their big men behind KP have been out with COVID protocols. Who knows which of either team’s backup bigs will be in action again this weekend.
While we don’t know for sure what we will get against the Thunder and Warriors, Ayton has always played well against the Mavericks so any focus-drop should be a short one.