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Deandre Ayton has always excelled when challenged, and these playoffs prove it

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The Suns big man is externally motivated in the best way.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Back in his rookie season, I remember watching as Deandre Ayton was moved nearly to tears from his frustration over his own poor performance in some random mid-season matchup. Suns VP of Communications Julie Fie had to talk him up, help him get through the media’s (relatively harmless) questioning, and leave the arena for the night without breaking down. It killed Ayton that he had played so poorly, that the Suns had lost, and that he had looked like a boy among men on the court.

Whether it was Steven Adams, Hassan Whiteside, Jonas Valanciunas, whoever, Ayton frequently looked overmatched physically by the opponent in his first NBA season. The disappointment he showed afterward would be palpable. But when he wasn’t so frustrated, it was common to hear Ayton praise those bigger, faster and stronger matchups and for him to talk up how much he’d learned competing against them. Playing against the best seemed to inspire him to be better.

Knowing this, the Suns paired him with other big men on the roster who they hoped would bring the best out of him. That’s why you saw them spend on proven commodities like Richaun Holmes and Aron Baynes even with Ayton soaking up most of the minutes.

It helped. Having to compete for minutes was a nice carrot to hold in front of him, but more importantly, we constantly heard Ayton rave about those two, just as he did his opponents. Ayton loved how Holmes was a tenacious and relentless spark plug, someone who ran the floor all the time and played as hard as anyone in the league. From Baynes, the young big man learned how to communicate, how to read an offense and be in positions, and how to be useful offensively without the ball. While not always true, the idea of veteran leadership really worked when it came to developing Ayton as a pro. Being able to watch them truly made him better.

With their sights set on a deep run in 2021, the Suns chose to stack their roster with perimeter players rather than bigs this season, leaving Ayton without that mentor or challenger in the frontcourt. That, coupled with the enormous responsibility that their scheme placed on him on both ends, made Ayton a major x-factor for the season. Of course, he’s answered in every single way throughout eight postseason games.

The vacuum that Baynes left was largely filled by Paul, meaning Ayton was not without a teacher this year. From basically the start of training camp, tales of their companionship seeped from the team. Paul would show up early to watch film with the young center, and even this week, Ayton told us how much Paul’s constant work in the weight room pushes him to keep working on his body and conditioning. It was seen as a risk (reasonably so) to bring Paul in considering the level of work and consistency that he demands of his teammates, but Paul’s tireless activity seemed to actually be best for Ayton.

The payoff has come this postseason, as we’ve seen Ayton rise to the moment and become what Paul called the team’s MVP through a round and a half. In 35 minutes per night, Ayton is putting up 16.5 points and 10.4 rebounds. The Suns’ defense has been an astounding 5.3 points tighter per 100 possessions with Ayton on the floor.

It makes sense that the Ayton who was so fed up with the losing and the pain inflicted upon him when he was a smaller, less focused and inexperienced player would rise to the occasion against Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic in the playoffs. Not to be a revisionist or act as if Ayton’s incredible performance was a given, but perhaps we should have expected it more than we did.

Aside from the question of whether he could stay on the floor when teams went small (a legitimate one), it should probably surprise us less that he has played to the level of his MVP-caliber competition. It’s what he’s always done.

At times over the past three seasons, it has felt as if Ayton did not fit into the competitive environment that James Jones and Monty Williams have cultivated in Phoenix. Between the suspension in 2019, the missed Covid test in the Bubble and some boneheaded plays on the court, it was easy to paint a picture of a player who wasn’t fully dedicated. During his recovery from an ankle sprain that came right as he returned from the suspension, I watched as he dangerously traipsed the staircase that used to lead from the Suns’ below-ground practice court up to the event level. Trainers and coaches called him down, but Ayton scaled the side of the steep staircase and vaulted the handrail as we all looked on, petrified that he would reinjure himself and jeopardize his well-being. The guy I’ve seen in these playoffs is unrecognizable compared to that risk-taker.

This Ayton has been poised and assertive. He is dunking on weaker players and flexing on them afterward. He is everywhere on defense, no matter who’s coming at him. It’s been incredible to watch. While the looser part of his personality may always be there, when it comes to playing at a high level, Ayton brings it when he needs to.

As the Suns move forward in the playoffs, Ayton may not face individual players as good as Davis or Jokic, but the collective job of this team will only get harder the closer they get to a title. At 22, Ayton has shown he rises up when the challenge is greatest, an unexpected and necessary aspect of his game that should serve him and the team well the rest of the way.