The Phoenix Suns are cooking right now. After a 115-111 win in San Antonio on Monday night, the team has won 13 consecutive games.
It is one of the best stretches the franchise has seen in a decade-and-a-half and, despite defeating teams that are either at the bottom of the standings or without their stars, it is something that should be valued and appreciated. It’s not as if the opposition isn’t trying to beat the Suns. They are fielding rosters with talent that is dangerous for they have something to prove.
I’m not here to justify the Suns recent success. Wins in November count just the same as wins in April and if you are trying to secure home court advantage in the NBA playoffs, you have to win these games. Imagine the meltdown on Suns Twitter if Phoenix was losing these games.
One aspect of the team that has emerged through the November run by the Phoenix Suns is production from the area that was the team’s weakest last season: backup center. I do not need to remind you of the Suns’ struggles in the NBA Finals when Deandre Ayton rested. With the injury to Dario Saric, a small backup center in his own right, the team lacked any depth at the position and the interior was open for business.
The Milwaukee Bucks, a team that was +5.7 relative to points in the paint during the regular season, saw that number balloon to +7.7 in the NBA Finals. They averaged 7.3 more rebounds than the Suns, including 6.2 more on the offensive glass.
Size was an issue. Without Saric, the Suns went without a backup center at all, just sliding Jae Crowder and Torrey Craig into the middle. Monty Williams knew this, and upon losing in the Finals last season he stated, “That’s going to bother me all summer that I didn’t give [Frank Kaminsky] a shot in the last game. Not to say that he would have done the same thing, but he played his tail off tonight.”
James Jones responded in the offseason by acquiring 3-time NBA Champion JaVale McGee via free agency. The 7’0” center signed for 1 year and $5M after splitting time with the Denver Nuggets and Cleveland Cavaliers in 2020-21. The addition has added much needed depth to the five, but also has infused the second unit with an energy that rivals Cameron Payne, productivity, and attitude.
Since joining the Phoenix Suns, JaVale has been a shot of energy for the second team unit. He spelled Deandre Ayton, absorbing his starting minutes when Ayton was out with a knee contusion for 6 games. Gone are the days of undersized Dario Saric, who has become a distant memory.
Ayton has flourished with the guidance of McGee and Kaminsky’s influence. JaVale displays an aggressiveness and willingness to take the ball to the rim, using his long strides to get there and length to finish over the opposition. You are now starting to see the Ayton evolution as he begins to do the same.
You saw this on Monday night against the San Antonio Spurs. Booker fed Ayton the ball and, in true JaVale McGee fashion, he attacked.
“Three g*dd*mn years” were the words Booker said to Ayton after he took a high post pass and drove it right to rim for an and-one with Jakob Poeltl draped all over him.
“That’s what my man told me out loud,” Ayton said of Booker, with a chuckle. “Said I been waiting— while I was shooting the free throw too. He was like ‘man I’ve been waiting for you to do that for three years’.”
He says that’s a move Book has always been trying to teach him since he joined the Suns, but it simply wasn’t in Ayton’s comfort zone. Maybe until now.
“I love it,” Ayton said of the overall interest in getting him more shots at the rim, in different sets, on the move. “Because now I’m aggressive, like I said at the beginning of the season, man. I’m trying to be more of a threat.”
“I’ve seen the flaws and the mistakes and stuff that I should have done in the playoffs and Finals, especially the Finals,” Ayton continued. “I didn’t like the way I performed in the Finals. I’m trying to make a mark, trying to get used to certain things that I wasn’t used to doing. I used to do them, because that’s my play style, but just get my memory back on scoring the ball in many different ways.”
The parallels to JaVale are apparent. Ayton is reacting rather than thinking, choosing aggressiveness rather than complacency. McGee’s influence is creating a constant and consistent force in the middle throughout the game.
Monty acknowledged this after the win on Monday, recalling McGee’s contributions in the Denver game that night before. “He came in like it was the first quarter, and all of us were like ‘holy smokes’. It said a lot about his heart and spirit.”
“His spirit is so important to us. He’s been in a numbers of situations and that helps us.” McGee has been a revelation coming off the bench. He averages a +4.8 when on the floor nightly, which is good for 9th amongst centers in the NBA.
This translates to Ayton’s growth. Monty observed, “He’s much better at playing in the pocket (short roll). He’s a worker. He’s still growing and understanding. He’s had a lot thrown on his plate for such a young player. In those particular spaces on the floor, he’s getting more and more comfortable.”
Ayton has been absolutely killing it lately and all without changing a single play, just by adding a few more skills and being incredibly disciplined off ball. Fantastic stuff. I cannot praise his last few games enough.— Mike Vigil (@protectedpick) November 23, 2021
The DJ Duo, Deandre and JaVale, have combined for 26.3 points, 18.8 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks on 65.2% shooting. Are those the best numbers from a center duo in the league? Certainly not. Top heavy numbers from starters like Nikola Jokic skew the metrics.
But the Suns keep coming at you, forcing the issue on the interior. Ayton has posted a 111.2 offensive rating this season; McGee is right there at 111.3. Perhaps this is why the Suns lead the league in field goal percentage (47.6%), have the second most two-pointers made (31.1 per game), and second most made field goals (42.5).
In a year that began with questions surrounding Deandre Ayton’s contract extension, whether or not he merited a maximum extension, he has answered the call.
No, he’s not putting up the numbers other max contract centers are in the league. Jokic is averaging 26.4 points and 13.6 rebounds. Embiid is dropping 21.4 points and 9.6 rebounds. But Jokic has a usage rate of 30.5%. Embiid is at 32.8%. Ayton? 20.1%. He is maximizing his efforts within the confines of the offense. He is dominating without the ball and, when he does get it, he is playing with aggressiveness and finesse.
Imagine if the Suns relied on Ayton the way the Nuggets relied on Jokic or the 76ers relied on Embiid. He’d have the numbers. But would the Suns have the wins? That’s what the end goal is after all, correct? To win basketball games?
That’s what the Suns are doing, and doing so in an impressive manner. They are doing it in a plethora of different ways. The growth of Deandre Ayton under the tutelage of JaVale McGee is another James Jones special. Short term, it makes this team better. Long term, if he chooses to pay Ayton, it makes this team better for years to come.