The Phoenix Suns kicked off their training camp for the 2021-22 season this year looking a little different than just two months ago when they nearly won the NBA Championship.
Not a lot different, but a little different. For one thing, Devin Booker has been absent due to COVID. He will return soon enough, but for now he’s MIA. For another, we have barely seen anything of last year’s MVP-candidate Chris Paul so far. He’s still there, but for now he’s out of the limelight.
The biggest and more long-lasting change is that we appear to have met a new and improved Deandre Ayton. He appears to be taking full ownership of his role as defensive anchor and team veteran, despite only being 23 years old.
Ayton is definitely a Suns veteran: No player in training camp has worn Suns colors longer than Ayton (Booker is home in quarantine, and Ayton has a one-hour lead on Mikal Bridges!).
And he’s definitely the team’s defensive anchor. He’s excited about having big man JaVale McGee around to finally practice against someone bigger and taller than him.
Now, he wants to be a bigger offensive weapon too.
He rolled all that up into one interview response with SiriusXM radio earlier this week.
"I feel like I'm the most wanted big man in the league"@Suns Center @DeandreAyton tells @TermineRadio & @Jumpshot8 what his mindset is heading into the 2021-22 season #ValleyProud pic.twitter.com/sK4aSvzIZu— SiriusXM NBA Radio (@SiriusXMNBA) September 28, 2021
“I’ve set a foundation for myself and team to where, they can depend on me. My requirement is to protect the paint, is to block shots, is to rebound,” he said.
“But now I want to add more. I already figured out that part of what I can do, on a night to night basis, playing hard and competing, but I want to get to the line now. I want to push that ball. I want to playmake better. I want to be more of an offensive threat.”
He went on to say that watching himself, he hated the way he played, hated watching himself, and still does. The interviewer didn’t follow up on what Ayton hated about it, but we can hope the hated the lack of contact at the rim for and-ones, and his indecisiveness on good shot attempts.
Whatever it is, he’s ready to roll now. And he’s still got defense at the top of his list of things he needs to do.
“Defense wins championships,” he said, when asked why he thinks he’s the most wanted big man in the league. “And that’s what this team is all about. We play defense, man. I think I’m the anchor to that, and I take pride in that.”
Deandre Ayton looks a little different in training camp this year. He’s in the best pre-camp shape of his career, thanks to many different reasons but one of which was head coach Monty Williams’ text to make sure he shows up in game shape.
See, Monty has seen how a young Ayton usually arrives after an off-season in the Bahamas. This will be Ayton’s third official training camp with Monty — fourth if you count the pre-Bubble camp — and never has Ayton showed up in game shape. Heck, the whole suspension in year two was because DA had not fully prepared and used something still unknown to get himself ready for camp unnaturally.
So Monty texted him, and Ayton took it seriously this time. I don’t have access to Monty’s text history, but I still can guarantee you this isn’t the first time Monty has asked Ayton to show up in great shape at camp. Finally, at the ripe old age of 23, Ayton knew what to do with that request.
“I definitely knew the task at hand,” Ayton says of his reaction to the text after the initial shock that his vacation needed to be cut short. “I knew the responsibility for me coming into camp in shape and ready to go.”
“He’s lived up to it,” Williams said at training camp this week. “His body looks great. His cardio is at an unreal level.”
That’s a sign of maturity. The Ayton we knew from his age-20, 21 and 22 season was an awe-struck Ayton just enjoying the ride. He often gave an air of childish wonderment, not taking anything too seriously or too personally. The song ‘Don’t worry be happy’ could have been written about our young center.
This is a new Ayton now. He knows he has built a foundation of excellence, based on all the things no one else wants to do but have to be done to win basketball games. Body up the opposing 7-foot MVP, rebound in traffic without help, set dozens of screens and dribble handoffs each game to let the guard to have their own fun and generally make sure no one scores easily in your area no matter how close to the basket you are. Your only fun? Dive to the rim for contested layups, lobs and dunks against an often-rolling triple team defense.
Being good-to-great at all those things helped the Suns push their way through the playoffs all the way to the Finals, all while cutting his own shot attempts by a third without once complaining about it.
This year, he’s ready to repeat all that again — he knows and accepts his role — but he also wants to have some of his own fun this year.
Last year, he said he didn’t care about his own offense, that he just wanted to be the anchor of the defense. And that’s exactly what he did.
This year, he still wants to be the anchor of the defense, but he also wants to get those shot attempts back. And he wants to handle the ball a bit too.
“I put a lot of work behind it this offseason,” Ayton said at training camp. “Me and coach been talking and I’ve been telling him the things I want to do. That’s a step for me, where I’m telling the coaches what I want to do now, and being more of a threat on this offensive end to help my team win.”
In what ways does he want to be more of a threat? “Everything. Every single thing, man. The game has completely changed. Mainly, just being a force down low and getting to that line, pushing that ball and just being more swift in our offense.”
Is this a good thing or a bad thing for the Suns, for Ayton to start vocally wanting more of an offensive roll on one of the league’s best offenses?
It’s a good thing IF he continues to be that defensive anchor he was in the playoffs and most of last year AND his new shot attempts are high efficiency shots that fit within the offense.
It’s a bad thing if he gets into his head and lets other good parts of his game suffer unless and until those shot attempts come back full force.
So far, he sure seems like he’s taking leadership seriously. He’s not regressing in his defensive leadership role. Rather, he’s stepping up even more on a vocal level.
“I’m the one usually, the person everybody is telling to do everything,” Ayton said with a smile. “Now I’m the one, ‘Listen here, you gotta go set that screen, man.’”
“He’s a part of the program in a different way now,” Williams says of Ayton. “Because he’s leading conversations, talking about things that matter as opposed to guessing or thinking. He’s taking the work seriously, and he always did, but now he understands the importance of it and the details that go into being a really good team and an All-Star-caliber player and he’s come in with a big-time focus.”
A bigger, faster, more focused Ayton may be on the horizon for these Suns, and in my mind that can only be a good thing.
Now he just needs that contract extension talk behind him to have the clearest head possible for the biggest season of his career. The Suns have until October 18 to sign Ayton to a 4-5 year extension beyond this season, or they face his restricted free agency next summer.
The Denver Nuggets just gave the $207 million super max (with injury protections) to Michael Porter Jr. who profiles as the exact opposite of Ayton in that MPJ does little more than shoot the ball and made little difference in the playoffs to date, while Ayton does everything BUT shoot and made a huge difference in last year’s playoff run.
So you can imagine why Ayton might be frustrated with sacrificing his offensive role for the good of the team if that costs him any level of personal fortune in the future.