Since being drafted number one overall in 2018 by the Phoenix Suns, Deandre Ayton has been one of the better centers in the NBA. Not an elite center but a good one. Good enough that nobody is Hayton (see what I did there) on the pick despite clearly not being the best (or second-best) player from his draft class.
Last season the Suns were two games away from winning the championship and along the way Ayton averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds and one block on 66 percent shooting from the field. Solid numbers that are in line with his career averages but these will not be enough to carry the Suns to the finals this time around.
No Devin Booker (for now, due to hamstring injury) combined with the lack of opponent injury luck the Suns had last season means the path to the finals will be even harder than last year.
With the way the Western Conference Playoffs have shaken out, the Suns have one clear advantage. In almost every series, Phoenix will have the best center on the floor. With the Nuggets being down 3-1 and the Jazz struggling to keep up with the Luka-less Mavs, there’s a realistic chance that Ayton is the best center remaining in the west once the second round tips off.
If this is the case Ayton is going to have to take full advantage on both ends. The likes of Steven Adams, Kevon Looney and Dwight Powell can’t keep up with Ayton. It’s easy to look at the Suns and think that Paul and Booker should be doing most of the work since they are the best two players.
But when looking at Memphis, Dallas, Golden State and possibly Utah, their strength all lies in their guard play as well. With players like Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, Steph Curry and Donovan Mitchell, it is much harder for Paul and Booker to keep up with those types of players than it is for Ayton to outplay his matchups.
Basketball is a five-on-five sport, winning individual matchups does not necessarily lead to wins. But NBA championships are often won with size and so if you are able to leverage and use your size to your advantage, the other team has no way to stop it.
After all, you can’t teach height.
So for the Suns to not only get out of this round but the next one, Ayton is going to have to finally live up to his draft pick. While he has been good in his career he hasn’t even sniffed an all-star game and nobody drafts a player at number one to just be good.
They need to be elite. Ayton has the talent to put up 25-12 games on elite efficiency, especially against the crop of centers I mentioned earlier that he will be facing in the next few rounds.
It is much easier for Ayton to take more shots and burden more of the scoring load than it would be for Cam Payne or Cam Johnson as they are streakier players who rely more on hot shooting than consistent low post play.
If Ayton truly wants to earn that five-year max that he desires he is going to have to be more than a reason the Suns make the finals. He needs to be THE reason.