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Suns face tough task with Ayton out

Portland Trail Blazers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

All season, the Phoenix Suns have been lauded for their depth at center in a highly successful scheme designed to make centers look good on offense while putting a ton of responsibility on them as the defensive anchor on defense.

  • Starting center Deandre Ayton, averaging 17 points and 11 rebounds, has been so good on both ends he might just be named to his first All-Star game this year (write the check, Bob!).
  • JaVale McGee averages almost a double-double in 16 minutes per game as Ayton’s backup
  • When Ayton missed six games earlier this year, Frank Kaminsky was a force of nature as McGee’s backup, averaging about 13 and 5 in 23 minutes per game off the bench
  • Heck, even seldom-used Jalen Smith nearly posted a double-double in a game Ayton missed with the flu

But now that Ayton is set to miss some games for the third time already this year, the Suns center depth is suddenly being tested... and questioned.

Ayton was put on the COVID list yesterday, just hours before the Suns-Memphis game, and if he is truly sick with the virus he could miss a couple of weeks. This is the third time Ayton has been on the shelf this season — he missed six games with a knee bruise and then two games with a non-COVID illness that, he says, caused him to lose 10 pounds in three days.

The Suns went 7-1 in those games, mostly thanks to All-Stars Chris Paul and Devin Booker, but also thanks to the stellar play of Ayton’s backups.

In one game, versus the Portland Trail Blazers, McGee and Kaminsky combined for 45 points and 15 rebounds in a big Suns win, prompting some fans to question Ayton’s long term value to the Suns if he’s making $25+ million a year. Could the old adage that you could get 80% of Ayton’s production for a fraction of the cost (McGee and Kaminsky combine to make $7 million this year) be true after all?

Now, Ayton is one of a handful of Suns who tested positive for COVID over the holiday weekend and has been placed in the ‘health and safety protocols’. Ayton is vaccinated, so he likely is not feeling too many symptoms, but a positive test is a positive test.

How long Ayton remains out is a real question.

Elfrid Payton was placed in protocols on Sunday and then suddenly removed and activated on Monday — meaning he likely got a false-positive on Sunday, followed immediately by a pair of negative tests at least 24 hours apart, all before the Grizzlies game on Monday.

Jae Crowder and head coach Monty Williams remain out, meaning they are consistently testing positive and will need to follow the protocols — either back-to-back negative results at least 24 hours apart OR, as vaccinated people, six days out from testing positive and a viral load that is so low that it is ‘no longer transmissible’.

Now Ayton was added to the list on Monday. I guess there’s a remote chance he’s like Elfrid, with the false positive. But the bigger chance is that Ayton, and possibly more teammates to come, will remain out at least 6 days if not longer.

This time, Ayton’s absence is being felt. Heavily.

His absence in Monday’s game was profound, and exposed a sudden weakness at a position once considered a strength.

McGee is a foul magnet, which makes it highly likely he simply cannot play many more than 20 minutes in a game, and likely cannot be very aggressive in fourth quarters because he’s almost certainly trying to survive foul trouble.

With Ayton out, JaVale McGee started his 9th game of the season but was quickly in foul trouble and ineffective. He had only 6 points and 4 rebounds in 22 minutes — only 8 of those minutes in the second half.

He collected his fourth foul just three minutes into the 3rd quarter and didn’t play again until the 7-minute mark of the 4th quarter. In that five minute 4th-quarter stint, he recorded no stats — no shots, no rebounds, no blocks — except his last two fouls, and left the game for good with two minutes left.

Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric are out indefinitely, and with Jae Crowder (COVID) and Ish Wainright (back soreness) also on the shelf, the only remaining big man on the roster is former 10th overall pick, Jalen “Stix” Smith.

Jalen Smith is just too skinny to handle big centers.

In his 29 minutes on Monday, he played as well as you could hope — 15 points (career high), 9 rebounds and 1 steal — but watching him trying to battle for boards with Steven Adams, the Aquaman lookalike, and Jaren Jackson Jr. put his weaknesses into stark contrast. He got that ‘Stix’ nickname for a reason, reminding me more of a Bol than I want.

On the good side, Smith looks like an NBA player. He can grab boards if hasn’t been boxed out engulfed by a behemoth. He can shoot and score. He’s quick. He’s got a soft touch. And he’s aggressive on the move.

But a rotation of McGee and Smith is not going to strike fear in any opponent. Rather, that will have them licking their chops.

The duo will probably survive the Thunder game, but they play Boston (Al Horford, Robert Williams), Charlotte (Mason Plumlee) and the Pelicans (Jonas Valenciunas) in the games after that.

This brings us back to Deandre Ayton. You know, that guy who can be replaced for a fraction of the future cost?

Ayton can hang with and reduce the effectiveness of the likes of Nikola Jokic, Steven Adams and Jonas Valanciunas, while also checking guys like Anthony Davis and other smaller bigs, switch out onto the perimeter onto All-Star guards, while also scoring at an extremely high rate and rebounding with the best of them.

Ayton is all the big man profiles you need in today’s game all wrapped up into one player, while being mostly healthy and available when you need him. He’s missed 9 of 33 games so far this year with minor issues, but only 3 of 92 games a year ago (including playoffs).

He’s a star in the making, and the Suns need him.

Get well soon, DA.