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Another career stretch for Ayton raises expectations once again

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton posted his third career 20/20 game against the Jazz on Saturday night.

Utah Jazz v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

On Saturday night against the Utah Jazz (12-10), in a thriller the Phoenix Suns (13-6) won by a single point, Suns center Deandre Ayton posted his third career 20/20 game to once again remind the world just how high his ceiling is.

Ayton sealed the 113-112 victory with an offensive rebound off a Booker miss, his 9th on the offensive end and 21st overall, as time expired to snuff out any Jazz hopes to steal the game.

The 29 points, 21 rebounds, 2 blocks effort came on the second night of a back-to-back where he had just posted 28 points, 12 rebounds and 2 blocks in a win over the Detroit Pistons on Friday.

“I want to be a great player,” Ayton said of his back to back exploits. “And you have to be willing to put up numbers and win games night in, night out. I think I’m to that point where this should be a norm. This is how I’m supposed to play.”

“Stellar performance, back-to-back nights for him,” All-Star guard Devin Booker said. “We gotta keep it going.”

“I mean, he’ll say something to you guys about how I am on him all the time,” head coach Monty Williams said. “But this is why. You know what guys are capable of.”

Ayton attributes his outburst, at least in part, from trying to set a high-energy tone among his teammates who were dragging after Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday.

“From shootaround you could tell everyone was still recovering from Thanksgiving in a way,” Ayton said after Friday’s game. “I just tried my best to keep the energy alive from this morning to tonight. Just to make sure my guys are there and activated.”

The Suns beat the Pistons on Friday and Jazz on Saturday despite making only 25% of their three-point shots, a staple in the offense, across the two games.

“Even though we didn’t make the shots we wanted to make,” Ayton said, “The defense and awareness was still there. That is what put us into position to win the game.”

The 24 year old, fifth-year center had previously posted 20/20 games in years two and three of his career, his age-21 and age-22 years. And after each of those, Devin Booker, Monty Williams, Ayton himself, or all three, would say that should be expected on a regular basis. But each time, he’d settle back to his 16/10 self soon after.

The former No. 1 overall pick has been a career double-double machine since his first NBA game, anchoring one of the league’s best defenses, and scoring better around the rim than most anyone in the league. He helped the Suns make the NBA Finals in year three of his career, and posted record-setting production numbers in the 22-game run that almost brought the Suns their first championship. This past summer, he earned a $133+ million, four year contract that places him among the top 35 salaries in the league this season.

Yet, his 16.3 points and 10.5 rebounds career marks have always been underwhelming to fans, coaches and teammates because they know he can do so much more. He often defers to teammates offensively, and doesn’t consistently put out the maximum effort on the boards. Combined with his island-vibe demeanor — he’s from the Bahamas after all — that stat line comes across at times like a bare minimum.

He leaves you feeling like he could be posting a 24/12 career stat line if he’d just apply himself. Of course, the reality is that no player dating back to 1979-80, per, has ever put up 24/12 career stat line, and only 10 players have posted more than one individual 24/12 season at any point in their entire careers. Six other players posted a single 24/12 season.

Still, despite that feat being so rare, some feel like Ayton could join that group if he’d only try harder.

On Saturday night against the Utah Jazz (12-10), Ayton gave us that glimpse again. He posted 29 points and grabbed 21 rebounds, including the game-clinching offensive rebound as time expired after Devin Booker missed a jumper. The Suns (13-6) won by a single point, 113-112, with Ayton fighting through two defenders for the rebound as time expired.

“It’s just good to see the work pay off,” Williams said in praise of Ayton. “And it’s good to see him have monster games against a really good team on a back-to-back. That’s pretty impressive.”

Over his last seven games, Ayton has six double-doubles and is averaging 18.7 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.0 blocks per game as the Suns are 5-2 with their only losses coming by a combined total of two points.

Saturday night’s game was only the third 20/20 game of his career, though he did put up stat lines of 19/22 in the Western Conference Finals and 22/19 in the 2021 NBA Finals.

The 29 points are three off his career high, and he’s only topped the 21 rebounds that one time in the 2021 playoffs.

Before Saturday, no Phoenix Suns player had posted a line of at least 29/21 since Amare Stoudemire did it in 2007 against the Sacramento Kings.

“Amar’e (Stoudemire) took over, that man ran Phoenix,” Ayton said of ‘STAT’. “He definitely dunked a lot more than me, but I am trying. I am trying to dunk the ball as much as Amar’e, but just hearing that it is definitely an honor. It tells me I am doing something pretty good. I just have to keep going and back up these stats with dubs.”

To be sure, while Ayton and STAT are arguably the two of the three best big men in Suns history (props to the Chuckster; apologies and respect to guys like Tom Chambers and Alvan Adams), they are completely different players.

Amare played the game — at least on the offensive end — with an unmatched ferocity, constantly working the pick-and-roll with Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash to dunk over anyone at any time. Ayton doesn’t do that. He doesn’t roll as hard as Amare and rarely tomahawk’s a dunk over a defender. Amare initiated contact on every roll, trying not only to get the dunk but also get to the line for the and-one in the process.

But Amare rarely applied that ferocity or relentlessness on the defensive end. In fact, he was often a liability, never anchored the defense from the back line and was underwhelming on the boards (7.8 career average) despite often being the only big man in the Suns lineup. Ayton’s whole foundation is to be that anchor on the defensive end first, rebound second, score third.

Amare did everything loudly, while DA prefers to do everything much more quietly. Even when he’s asked about a massive rolling dunk he made in the first quarter of Friday’s game that got the crowd to their feet, he deflected.

“That’s good for them,” DA said with a smile, referring to the fans. “I am glad it brought momentum to the gym. Make it exciting a little bit. Other than that, it was a great pass from Mikal (Bridges). Him setting up the play the right way, giving me a tight pocket pass. You know Mikal really set that up well for me.”

Ayton has always brought the conversation of his game back to the basics — his whole identity in the NBA is being the anchor on both ends — as the screen-setter on offense and back-line enforcer on defense. He takes pride in that, and if you look across his career that’s the part that almost never wanes, never regresses.

“It is just about setting the screens and tone, seeing how the refs are officiating if I am setting hard screens or not,” Ayton says. “We go from there. Other than that, it starts on the defensive end for us. All about how we get this first stop and we are gone, we get rolling.”

The Suns have ranked among the top six (of 30 teams) in defensive rating for the past three seasons, employing a lineup where the 6’11”, 250 pound Ayton is often the only player taller than 6’6” or heavier than 220 pounds. The Suns would struggle if Ayton got into foul trouble, but he’s not only been solid defensively he does it with the discipline to only average 2.1 fouls per game for his career.

Numbers are great, but Ayton would rather get the wins than post gaudy stat lines. He constantly talks about scoring in the flow of the game, doing the right things, and being a part of the offense rather than the focus of it.

“I just have to keep going and back up these stats with [wins],” he says.

“The league is full of guys that can put up numbers,” Suns coach Williams said. “But can you put up those kinds of numbers and they effectively help you win a game, that’s a standard that we want to hold our guys accountable for and we try to call them up to that level all the time so it’s just good to see him play that way on a back-to-back.”

Keep an eye on Ayton’s stat lines, but don’t forget it’s the wins that matter most.

Even without three of their top six players (Chris Paul, Jae Crowder, Cameron Johnson) for at least half the season so far, they still lead the West with a 13-6 record and have the best point differential in the league (+6.9, tied with the Boston Celtics).

As of today, about one quarter of the way through the season, the Suns boast the league’s 3rd-ranked offense and 5th-ranked defense. The Suns are one of only three teams (Cavaliers, Pelicans) who rank among the Top 10 in both categories.

You can imagine they’ll only improve when Paul and Johnson come back. Meanwhile, Ayton has finally joined teammates Mikal Bridges, Devin Booker and Cameron Payne in putting up career-best numbers to buoy the short-handed Suns.

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