With their win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night the Phoenix Suns are going to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993, becoming the first team in NBA history to snap a 10-year playoff drought with a run all the way to the Finals.
So many in the franchise waited these 28 years, including a 10-year run as the self-inflicted laughingstock of the league, for this moment.
Chris Paul waited 16 years, including 13 failed playoff runs with five different teams. for this moment.
Devin Booker waited 6 years, suffering the ridicule of his franchise openly tanking for four of them, for this moment.
Cameron Payne waited 6 years too, suffering the ridicule of playing himself out of the league two years ago.
The list goes on.
One guy who didn’t have to wait much at all is 22-year old Deandre Ayton.
Sure, DA suffered through a losing rookie season after being drafted No. 1 overall in 2018 and then getting slapped with a 25-game suspension in year two for taking a banned diuretic right before training camp. But that second year was capped off by the Bubble run and now year three he is in the NBA Finals.
When is that last time a No. 1 overall pick made the NBA Finals so fast after being drafted? You might not believe it, but that player is Kenyon Martin, taken with the top pick by the New Jersey Nets in 2000 and made the NBA Finals in 2002.
A fitting parallel, isn’t it? Martin was also never the top scoring option on his team. His Finals run was also his first taste of the NBA playoffs, also thanks to his team adding a future Hall of Fame point guard to carry them all the way to the championship round (Jason Kidd), and also thanks to his front office building a complete team around him so he wouldn’t have too much burden to carry the team at such a young age.
ESPN’s Bobby Marks was in the Nets front office at that time, and was the first two call the 2021 Phoenix Suns a reincarnation of that Nets team. Check out this interview as a guest on a mid-season Solar Panel, in fact.
In between Martin and Ayton, it took (big air quotes around the word took) Dwight Howard, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving a whole four seasons to make the NBA Finals after being taken No. 1 overall. Irving’s trek was turbo-boosted by James’ return to Cleveland. The only other No. 1 picks in that 18-year span to make the Finals at any point in their careers to date are Anthony Davis (8 years) and Andrew Bogut (10 years).
Now 22 year old Deandre Ayton will be the Phoenix Suns starting center, their third most important player, and arguably their most consistently great player in the 2021 NBA Finals. Chris Paul openly calls DA the Suns most valuable player of the playoffs. Indeed, DA is the only player in NBA history to make at least 70% of his shots (70.6%) in at least 500 minutes of playing time (576) in a single postseason run. He averaged 18/13 in the Co
When he sat down in the media room, next to the Western Conference trophy, after celebrating with his teammates and cleaning up, he let out a big long happy sigh.
On what he’s feeling right now, just two years removed from a 19-win rookie season
“It’s actually crazy. The dancing was just, we finally made it through the series. I’m not gonna lie, that was a tough series man. It’s only my third year, just seeing the reaction of (Chris Paul) made me appreciate it even more. I know people say ‘live in the moment’ but that moment was too long man. I was like is this too good to be true, I’m in this for too long now. That’s life, and we just got to enjoy this night. Get back in the lab, and get ready for the Finals.”
On watching Chris Paul take over the game (31 points on 16 shots in the second half)
“We kinda knew it was coming. He started feeling it. Just making sure he get to his spots, giving him the right angles to get to his jumper. He was in rhythm. He was in rhythm. He took over. He was on us. I think it was five minutes (left in the game) and I think Jae Crowder asked him can he smell it and he was like ‘hell no I ain’t smell it’ and Jae was like okay we gotta keep staying locked in till the end. Just shows how serious he was, and much of a competitor, how much he want it. He way older than us and he’s been in the game for so long, that’s his passion.”
On Jae Crowder saying the young guys are fearless
“Jae Crowder is tough. He’s one of the guys who’s big on sacrifices. You don’t have be the guy to score to feel like you did something for a win. He’s that type of dude. And it’s contagious because all our guys are like that. We just want to win. We don’t care who drops 30 to be honest. We just want to win, and win the right way. The coach and the coaching staff really instill something, the culture, we compete, we share the ball, play defense man.”
On embracing his mom at the end of the game
“I can’t really explain family love. it’s something you just need to embrace and hold on and hug it. You know it’s real love, you’re just smiling and doing it for them. It’s bigger than that Pac-12 tournament in Vegas. It’s bigger than that. I flunked the March Madness one against Buffalo, so it’s like this is a whole new ballgame. This is the level I dreamt of, I’ve seen on TV and I was craving for it. Just sharing that with (my mom) and he seeing all the lights and finally embracing positivity was a little breath of fresh air.
“But we ain’t done. I told her your stress level’s gonna go up even higher now. You think it’s up there but it can go up even further.”
“Being a Phoenix Sun is amazing, man. Because you know the type of fan and city you got behind you, in a way. First of all, the organization and your teammates is lit. They all show the same love, they all feel like family. But when the city got you, yeah, I’ve been feeling that all year. When the city got you, that’s when you’re really locked in and playing more than just for your family and your organization and your teammates. You’re playing for the fans and put on a show for them. Give them something to talk about and have a little step when they walk. Just being a Phoenix Sun, I’ve been here since I was 16 and I’ve seen everything, I’ve seen the organization, I’ve seen Book when he first got to Phoenix I was in the 11th grade. And just being for high school, college and now the NBA and making some noise and bringing some type of light to Phoenix, it means a lot. I’m glad to be a Phoenix Sun. This is the type of moments right here, you know like Book saying ‘Be Legendary’ this right here, this is just one step.”
On Chris Paul getting on his case every day this season
“I told him, I think he was having a moment on the court, I just started talking to him I say ‘C, we been through it all huh? Getting on my behind, getting on my tail every day, it turned out well huh? it worked out in the end, huh?’. We was just embracing. All we went through, and the learning, and the training camps, and just competing every day. Butting heads. It all worked out, man. It was all for a good purpose. Everything with C telling me what to do, it’s from the heart. That dude loves to compete man, and if you’re a real competitor you’re not just listening to how somebody’s saying it you’re just getting the message and we gonna get this dub. That’s the kind of relationship we have. I ain’t gonna take it no way. If it’s business it’s business. Let’s handle it.”