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Ayton or no Ayton? That is DA question

Deandre Ayton has been benched in the fourth quarter in three of the Suns last four games.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

What’s it like to be the No. 1 overall pick in a loaded draft, average a double-double for three years, but then watch your team sit you in the most intense minutes in their growing playoff run?

Such is recent life for former No. 1 overall pick, Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton.

While he is struggling lately to maintain consistency and focus, his backup Dario Saric has been absolutely thriving in crunch time. Saric leads the league in plus-minus, an indicator of team success while a player is on the court.

Saric does not have the physical gifts of Ayton (few players in the NBA do), but he’s fully developed into his own body and uses his basketball IQ to make a huge difference on both ends when he’s on the court. Saric, 27 years old, has been playing basketball at the pro level for more than a decade, and been in high-pressure situations the majority of the time both overseas and in the NBA.

Saric is simply playing the best ball of his life at the NBA level while the 22-year old Ayton is plateauing under the pressure.

When the name of the game was player development, regardless of wins or losses, Deandre Ayton was the clear second-most important player on the team behind only Devin Booker. As a rookie in 2018-19, he was second in field goal attempts, tops in rebounds two times over and second in blocks. The Suns won only 23% of their games (19-63 record), but wins did not matter that year. It was all about developing the skills of their prospects: Booker, Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr., Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender, De’Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo.

In year two, they won 47% of their games (34-39 record), focusing a bit more on winning than simply player development. Half the prospects were replaced by young vets, and Ayton was still the second most important player on the team. He was second in shots per game, lapped them in rebounds, and led in blocks.

Now in year three, they are winning a whopping 67% of their games (25-11) and are focused entirely on winning in every minute of every game. If a player needs development, it’s got to be in practice or in early parts of games. This year, Ayton’s field goal attempts have dropped to third (behind the two All-Stars Devin Booker and Chris Paul). Though he still laps the team in rebounds and leads in blocks, his minutes are much more angst-ful than ever before because he’s been more and more indecisive on offense when the Suns need a bucket.

An objective observer would have tabbed Ayton as the Suns second-most impactful player in year one (behind Booker), 3rd or 4th most impactful in year two (behind Booker, Rubio, Oubre, and maybe even Bridges) and now one of a handful of players who on any night could be 3rd or 4th most impactful behind Chris Paul and Booker.

“We’re a team full of hoopers,” Booker said after Thursday’s win. He went on to say that any player could lead the team on any given night, and that all 15 players are in that conversation.

Any of Saric, Cameron Johnson or Ayton could be the team’s third best player one night, and to a lesser extent Jae Crowder, Frank Kaminsky, Abdel Nader, Cameron Payne, E’Twaun Moore and others can contribute big too.

That’s the mark of a good team (they’ve won 17 of their last 20 games!), but also a source of worry for the former No. 1 overall pick.

Head coach Monty Williams wants to win as much as his players do. And when Ayton is struggling with focus, he would rather finish with the hyper-focused Saric.

Saric has closed out three of the last four games for the Suns while Ayton has watched — to his credit, cheered and encouraged hard — from the sideline.

After Saturday’s game, which didn’t make a difference as the Suns lost by 11 points, Monty said he just felt that Saric gave them the best chance to win that night. Williams added that he hoped this wouldn’t be a consistent thing, with Saric finishing games instead of Ayton.

But hear me out: I don’t care who finishes games as long as the Suns win most of them.

Better yet, I don’t care who finishes games as long as that lineup was successful and very likely the best possible lineup to have out there.

Winning cures all.

Winning means you made the right decisions.

If the Suns were mired in another losing season, then the benching of Ayton in the 4th quarter for a meaningless chance at a win would be horrendous.

But these Suns want to go all the way. And if going all the way means benching your inconsistent 22 year old for a scrappy, highly effective vet then by all means you go ahead and do it.

Yes, Ayton is the team’s most naturally talented player. He’s got the body, moves, and natural touch to someday make it into a league MVP conversation.

But right now he’s got the mentality of a role player. He’s telling media, coaches and teammates over and over again that he’s happy being their defensive anchor (Suns are 5th in the league on defense with Ayton playing the 3rd most minutes on the team) and getting whatever comes on offense. He worries less about his offensive touches than you do. And he cheers like crazy on the sideline, just like Langston Galloway and Jevon Carter who haven’t played in weeks because of the team’s depth.

I’m a Suns fan, not a player fan.

The Suns have the 2nd best record in the West and 3rd best record in the whole league. I’m okay with a little benching to get the best right-now players on the court to win the most possible games.

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