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Are all the Suns unfocused, or is it just Deandre Ayton?

Ayton has produced poorly so far this season, but so have his starting unit teammates

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns (1-2) have started the season slowly, to say the least. They blew out the Los Angeles Lakers, but lost convincingly to the Denver Nuggets on opening night and then got shellacked by a red-hot shooting Portland Trail Blazers who got shellacked two days later by the Clippers.

After just under a week of games, the Suns are one of the worst teams in the league: 20th on offense, 28th on defense and 27th in net rating. As our John Voita wrote today, the Suns are getting killed from three point range. Opponents are hoisting more, making more and the Suns aren’t even trying to match it. Opponents have made 20 more threes than the Suns in only three games!

The starting lineup has been awful across the board — losing their minutes by an average of 12 points in only 20 minutes together per game. This is the same group that started slowly together a year ago, but pulled it together to be one of the best in the league over the last three months and into the playoffs.

One factor has admittedly been scheduling, especially getting Portland on a back-to-back after the emotional win over a jilted Lakers team.

“Thank you NBA, for three-in-four right out the gate,” head coach Monty Williams said, chuckling, at practice yesterday of the Suns playing three games in four nights to open the season.

He said the Suns are still getting in NBA shape to play the way they like to play. After the long playoff run, they have been under-rested and under-trained in order to maximize the time between games that matter.

Regardless of their conditioning, because all teams are trying to get up to speed at this time, the Suns are just not playing like the team that blitzed through the playoffs.

Contributing factors include Devin Booker in particular being out of game shape, especially on a back-to-back after getting COVID-19 right before training camp started, and Jae Crowder missing almost every three pointer he’s launched (missed 13 of 15 attempts over 3 games). The Suns are also testing out swapping Mikal Bridges’ and Devin Booker’s roles at times, having Mikal on-ball with Booker doing more catch-and-shoot. The value here is to confuse the defense, and make the Suns a little less predictable.

Another contributing factor is the relative disengagement of unextended big man Deandre Ayton, and that’s got nothing to do with conditioning. Ayton came to camp in the best shape of his career.

He is once again in a funk, pulling down only 8 rebounds per game (with wild-swing games of 3, 15 and 6) and being generally hesitant to shoot since the first quarter of game one. Ayton poured in 8 points in the first quarter of that game, but since then has only 23 points in the next 11 quarters combined, for an average of 10.3 points per game.

A 10.3 points on 50% shooting plus 8 rebounds line for your starting center is a big drop from the one that posted 14.4 on 62.5% with 10.5 boards per game a year ago.

In part, the Suns have given Ayton a new offensive wrinkle. He is often in more of a decision-making role on the catch, frequently in the mid-post on the move after setting a pick for the ball handler. In that split-second on the catch, Ayton has to decide whether to attack the defender or pass out to a weak side shooter, depending on how the defense reacts to his screen and roll. This is different than 2020-21 Ayton, whose sole offensive job was to roll hard all the way to the rim before catching it and looks a little more like year-two Ayton in terms of the location of the floor he’s catching it, though what he’s expected to do with it is different.

Given that the Suns are putting Ayton in another unfamiliar situation — it took him a good portion of last season to get used to the hard roll all the way to the rim — you can start to understand his hesitancy. On the rim-facing catches, he’s choosing most often to swing a good pass out to the corner or open wing rather than attack a single, smaller defender who rotated in to protect the rim. Over time, he will get better and more confident in this action. But for now, he looks more comfortable taking the easier way out by getting the ball to an open perimeter shooter.

With that in flux, his bread and butter from the playoffs of rim catches and put-backs off misses is lacking a bit of juice. His second-chance points are down a bit (from 3.1 to 2.0 per game), and points in the paint are down a lot (from 11.2 to 7.3 per game). Small sample size, of course, but the eye test tells you Ayton is not scoring as much (yet) on paint shots as he did last year, a stat that jumped to 13.8 per game in the playoffs.

Is that the sputtering Suns offense, good defense, or Ayton’s missing aggressiveness? A little of both, I’d guess. Ayton has passed out of a few chances down there, has been ghost-fouled at times that were logged as misses, and a few times has not fought hard enough to show open.

From outside the paint, Ayton delighted many Suns fans when he launched a career-high-tying three three-pointers in the opener but has not even looked at it in the two games since. Head coach Monty Williams has been a bit waffly on his responses to questions about Ayton’s three point shooting and that continued in the media session after the game one loss.

At one point, he said that Ayton is always encouraged to shoot threes. At another, he said that those shots must be within the flow of the offense and that you’re letting their defense off the hook if your big man is launching too many threes. At yet another point, in response to a question about the Suns early focus on Ayton’s shots in the paint, Williams said ‘that was great but it didn’t look like Suns basketball’ with how they were forcing the passes in to Ayton.

The preceding paragraphs are to share reasons why Ayton and the Suns have not played well so far this season. On-the-court reasons. Play-calling reasons. Experimental reasons.

There’s also the contract reasons. It could very well be that Ayton’s head is not quite in the game like last year because he knows all of his teammates have big, shiny new contracts except for him. Mikal Bridges, Chris Paul, Cameron Payne, and Landry Shamet have all signed new long-term contracts — the Suns committed over $300 million to players this offseason — but Ayton and the Suns did not agree on one for him. He will now play out his fourth year on a one-year contract and enter restricted free agency next summer.

“With D.A. and his situation, we talked about it,” Suns point guard Chris Paul told Yahoo Sports. “He knows what he has to do. The goal for everybody is to see everyone getting paid. His situation is what it is, but it’s going to work out for him. We hope it works out for him. The biggest thing we know we can do is go out there and win games.”

Chris Paul went on to share how a guy’s own inner circle can influence their thoughts on a situation.

“Sometimes it can be an outsider, sometimes it can be family members, it can be homies, it can be friends and a lack of communication,” Paul told Yahoo Sports. “When I played for Doc [Rivers], he used to talk about clutter a lot. Monty [Williams] talks about it, too. When you lose a game and you go home, a lot of times everybody in your family thinks it’s everybody else’s fault that you lost. I’ll never forget Doc saying that. It makes sense.

“But when you mature, you start understanding that if that does happen in your house, you check everybody. You have to be like, ‘Nah, that isn’t the reason we lost.’ That’s maturity. And these are things that I’ve learned and things I’ve been able to pass on to some of the other guys. We talk about everything on this team. I’m not worried about any of that stuff here.”

Ayton is only 23 years old, though. He’s got years before he can be fully mature enough to filter out negative thoughts. Their intentions are great — to gas him up — but the execution is often by tearing down others to do it.

At least he doesn’t have a twin brother in the mix, coming to games with, going home with. I still remember the Morrii here in Phoenix. They would gas each other up after every game, after every negative story, and after every level of disrespect they felt from the Suns front office and ownership. Sometimes that gassing was at the expense of teammates and team.

In Ayton’s favor, he’s got a lot more leadership in the locker room than players like Eric Bledsoe or the Morrii had a few years ago.

“Man, this is probably one of the best locker room that I’ve been in my whole career,” Paul told Yahoo Sports. “Because we have young guys that are leaders and everybody leads in their own different ways. We communicate, we talk. It’s a real family over here. You celebrate the guys that got paid this summer.”

Let’s see how Ayton and the Suns handle the coming games.

Next Up

After being given a tough opening week on national TV, they have a good long home stand in front of them now, the first four of which are against unlikely playoff teams (Kings, Cavaliers, Pelicans and Rockets) before hosting the Atlanta Hawks to close out a five-game home stand.

The Suns cannot make any assumptions, though. They have to focus or more losses will pile up. The Kings beat Portland on opening night. The Cavaliers have beaten the Hawks and the Nuggets in their last two games. The Pelicans just beat a hot-starting Wolves team. And the Rockets, also 1-2 like the Suns, have exciting young talent that can have great games at any given moment.

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