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Phoenix Suns v Portland Trail Blazers

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Suns centers flying high, from Ayton to Stix

The Phoenix Suns offense is geared to make centers look good, and to use center gravity to open up shots all over the court.

Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

In his first game back from an illness that cost him ten pounds of body mass, young Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton gave his team a huge lift with one of his best performances of his career.

“If we have any issues,” a happy Chris Paul said afterward, of Ayton’s up and down focus on the offensive end through his career. “I’m going to show him tape of this game.”

The Suns, still missing All-Star Devin Booker and a few other rotation pieces, needed every one of Ayton’s season-high 28 points to secure a thrilling overtime win over a proud and driven Blazers team on TNT on Tuesday night.

“It felt like a playoff game,” Ayton said. “I’m not gonna lie.”

Ayton started the game with a block (not credited somehow), a steal and nine aggressive points on pick-and-rolls with Chris Paul. It ended with him playing his 45th minute, capping off a great 28 point, 13-rebound game in a 111-107 win over Portland.

He finished pick-and-rolls aggressively, showing an added awareness on the short roll with a head of steam in the paint that’s taken more than a year to develop with the point God Chris Paul.

Watch him here.

The more Ayton gets the feel for the hard-pass short roll, the more dangerous the Phoenix Suns offense is going to be. He’s already drawing double and triple teams on rolls anyway — show him driving into the defense and he can pull those defenders off the corners even sooner.

34-year old backup center JaVale McGee, who is averaging 10+ points per game for only the second time in 10 years, talked about how fun it is to play in the Suns system. McGee has played for eight different teams in 14 years, capping off his illustrious backup-center career with picking winning environments (3 championships, 1 Olympic Gold Medal). This year, he’s playing for a Suns team fresh off a Finals run and carrying the second-best record in the league (22-5).

“A lot of the things we do are good for the center position,” McGee said, crediting Monty Williams for his scheme.

What’s the most important thing about the Suns scheme?

“I mean, Chris Paul.”

McGee himself has had games of 19 points/14 rebounds and 21 points/15 rebounds filling in as starter for Ayton at points this season. McGee has limitations, including age and mobility on defense, but rolling hard for pick-and-roll finishes around the rim are his specialty. And feeding the ball to a hard roller is Chris Paul’s specialty.

He said the beauty of Monty’s scheme, executed so well by All-Star ball handlers Chris Paul and Devin Booker, is that the big man rolls into the paint are even more dangerous as a decoy — drawing defenders from the corners, opening up skip passes over his head to open shooters for high-percentage threes.

“You can’t get discouraged,” he said, about not getting the ball on every hard roll.

The Suns have done a good job of bringing in backups for Ayton throughout his career who could help him elevate his game.

The former No. 1 overall pick is oozing with talent but coming out of college the only skills in his bag were a supremely good touch around the basket and nose for great rebounding in traffic. He had a highly efficient year-20 rookie campaign — 16.3 points on 58.5% shooting, 10.3 rebounds and .9 blocks per game — but was a sieve on defense and spent way too much time shooting jumpers from high-post catches.

In three years since, he’s learned so much from Aron Baynes (loudly captaining the defense from the paint), Dario Saric (being a point-five connector on offense rather than hesitating and settling for jumpers), Frank Kaminsky (aggressively playmaking on the short roll) and now JaVale McGee (aggressively finishing on the short roll).

Today, Ayton’s surface numbers look a lot like that rookie campaign — 16.9 points on 62% shooting, 11.2 rebounds and .7 blocks per game — but his impact at the rim on both ends is light years ahead of that doe-eyed rookie. He’s already anchored the defense on a team that made the NBA Finals and is the league’s second-best defense this year. He doesn’t swing wildly for blocks, but plays defense with mobility and verticality all over the court to force low shooting percentages or pass-outs whenever he matches up with you.

The most recent skill Ayton needs to learn, in order to make the Suns even more dangerous, is to aggressively score or playmake on the move on the short roll from outside the paint. He needs to either pass on the move to the open shooter, finish at the rim or toss up a short floater. Look at those highlights above — he did all that on Tuesday night.

The Suns offense is indeed geared toward getting great touches for the center. Just this season, thanks in part to Ayton’s ankle and flu issues, four different Suns centers have had huge games to impact winning.

Filling in for Ayton, we’ve seen:

  • JaVale McGee: 19 and 14 vs. Rockets, then 21 and 15 vs. Celtics (10 and 7 averages)
  • Frank Kaminsky: 31 and 7 vs. Blazers (10.6 and 4.6 averages)
  • Jalen Smith: 7 and 9 in 22 minutes vs. Celtics (less than 0 averages) — his best per-minute effort ever

Does that mean Ayton is unnecessary?

Heck no. In his two ‘return from injury’ games this season, Monty Williams has played Ayton every single minute he could, despite those great games by the backups. When I asked Monty about that, he explained how Ayton is their best two-way threat and simply shrugged off any idea that another center would earn minutes over him.

I can understand your concern over maxing out Ayton on his next contract (likely $30 million per year, just behind Booker and Paul), but those other centers are not the guys you want to trust on a Finals run.

McGee is 34 now, has not played more than 22 minutes per game in a decade, gets into foul trouble every other game, and just doesn’t have the recovery tools to perform every night anymore. Kaminsky is in his prime, but that prime is a negative on defense and the boards. And of course, Jalen ‘Stix’ Smith is just unreliable, and even at his best he struggles in space on defense and in the post.

For now, let’s just appreciate the best center depth the Suns have had in a long while.

And appreciate Ayton for constantly adding to his skillset while already being one of the best two-way threats in the game.

“I’m back tomorrow,” Ayton told his teammates on the plane after the Suns struggled in a loss to the Clippers, who he’d dominated in the 2021 playoffs. Ayton had missed two games from his illness — a flu that cost him 10 pounds — but was so frustrated at not being there for his team in a rare loss (only their 2nd loss in 22 games) that he immediately promised his return.

His 45 minutes played on Tuesday were a career high, and the 28 points scored — many of them against Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic, one of those ‘75% of Ayton for a fraction of the future cost — were a season-high.

DominAyton, indeed.

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