Deandre Ayton, a restricted free agent of the Phoenix Suns, had not tweeted or grammed anything since the end of the season. He had not agreed to any interviews and basically stayed out of public view entirely.
The former No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 Draft was in big red-light-flashing danger of joining a short, ignominious list of not-good-enough No. 1 picks who’d failed to earn that max-level salary in their second contract. In the last 25 years, only Markelle Fultz (2017), Anthony Bennett (2013), Greg Oden (2007), Andrea Bargnani (2006), Kwame Brown (2001) and Michael Olowokandi (1998) failed to secure a max-level salary beginning in year five.
Ayton’s entire NBA legacy was on the line. Would he have a Karl-Anthony Towns-like legacy, or an Andrea Bargnani-like legacy?
Ayton has easily had the best rookie-contract career of any of those six mentioned above. He’d been mostly healthy (unlike Oden and Fultz), quite productive and a major, starting-level contributor on a contender. Ayton’s 35 playoff starts in four years are more than those six, and many other max-contract former No. 1 picks, amassed all together in their rookie contracts.
But the Suns didn’t see him as a max-max guy of the five-year-with-escalators variety, and now Ayton would have to hope another team would step up to the plate.
Tensions rose, indeed.
He went quiet after Suns lost to the Mavericks, where he and head coach Monty Williams erupted at one point on the sideline (after he’d failed to close out on a corner three point shooter). Williams later declined to discuss the altercation, saying simply “It’s internal”, and declined to mention Ayton in a post-season presser on who needs to get better in support of Devin Booker and Chris Paul next season.
He stayed quiet when the Suns issued him a one-year $16.4 million qualifying offer but declined to offer even a four-year mini-max contract before free agency started that would have matched anything another team could offer (4 years, $133 million).
He stayed quiet when the Suns handed teammate Devin Booker a $224+ million extension the first second they could, two years before Book’s current contract was set to expire. Altogether, that locks Book up for six more years in the Valley while Ayton was left dangling in free agency.
He stayed quiet when his name and contract situation dominated headlines for two weeks as one of the best available free agents. He declined to give a single on-record quote of his preference for how the process would play out.
He stayed quiet when he finally signed a $133 million offer sheet from the Pacers, only to see that offer sheet matched within seconds by the Suns. The same Suns who had never offered him a contract outright.
He stayed quiet for four more days too. Despite knowing he’s back with his drafting team, $133 million richer, and his legacy as a successful former No. 1 overall pick still intact, with a floor no lower than Andrew Wiggins who took eight years to make an All-Star team.
Ayton now becomes one of the 17 former No. 1 overall picks from the 1997-2019 Drafts who got max salaries coming off their rookie contracts.
On Monday night, Ayton finally broke his silence.
He posted to social media alongside the Phoenix Suns, after taking the required physical exam and finalizing the official max contract he’d agreed to (last week’s deal was just an offer sheet with terms in it).
In the formal press release, Ayton said simply: “I’m happy to put free agency behind me and ready to work and compete for a championship with my teammates.”
On social media, he recognized the fans, his American home town of Phoenix (he’s been in Arizona the last eight years, since moving from the Bahamas) and teammates he calls brothers.
And then he shared with Marc Spears of ESPN a little more:
“This is a blessing,” Ayton told ESPN’s Andscape in a phone conversation after signing his contract. “This contract not only has generational impact for my family, but also with the way we are able to work in the Phoenix community and home in the Bahamas. That is the things that we go by ...
“I’ve come to understand that this is a business. So, I was more anxious to know the end of the result so I could focus, move on and just get back to work. I just treated everything like a business. Just keep being professional, approach everything with professionalism and not looking too deep into it.”
He says he’s ready to get back to work.
If only the Suns had made it a little bit easier for him to get that contract done.
The closest comp I can find — a former No. 1 overall pick who was forced to use restricted free agency to get that max contract starting in year five — is Kenyon Martin, who was taken No. 1 overall in 2000.
Martin is actually a better comp than I’d expected. In his first four years, the 6’8” forward had been a vital cog on a two-time Eastern Conference champ with the New Jersey Nets. He did make an All-Star team in year four, but never averaged more than 16.7 points or 9.5 rebounds per game.
The Nets did not extend him before that 4th season despite coming off a Finals appearance (their second in a row), and did not offer him a contract ahead of free agency after year four either. He finally got a max offer from the Denver Nuggets and — the only variation from the Suns here — worked out a sign-and-trade to get him out of Jersey.
Here’s an article where Martin talks about it:
Kenyon Martin, who was drafted first overall by the Nets in 2000, became a restricted free agent in the summer of 2004 and told Brandon “Scoop B” Robinson on Scoop B Radio on Thursday that New Jersey never made an attempt to keep the All-Star power forward.
Martin wound up signing a seven-year, $92.5 million max deal with the Nets as part of a sign-and-trade arrangement with the Denver Nuggets.
Martin said the Nets sort of made the decision for him:
“Yeah, it wasn’t up to me, man. They didn’t offer me a contract and that is what people don’t know. Like those people didn’t offer me a contract, you know what I’m saying? They didn’t even call me to offer me a contract. So I waited around and I waited around and they never called.
“I had to do what we best for me and my family.”
Martin made only that one All-Star appearance in his career. He wasn’t big enough to be a true power forward, he couldn’t shoot from any distance, and he couldn’t create his own shot too well either. He was very effective on both ends, but would never be any team’s No. 1 option on offense.
Sounds familiar, huh?
Ayton ended up doing the same thing Martin did: got that max contract from another team. But the Suns matched it, and now Ayton will stay with the Suns for at least six more months but possibly for the next four full years.
In the press release announcing the re-signing, the Suns said more definitively positive things about Ayton in one quote than they’d said in the prior four years put together (or so it seems, at least).
“Deandre is a force on both ends of the floor, who has elevated his game every year and will continue to do so,” said General Manager James Jones. “DA is so important to what we do and without him we could not have reached our recent levels of success. We are excited to keep Deandre at home in the Valley where he belongs.”
Jones was later even more emphatic, when talking with Marc Spears:
“We wanted Deandre here,” Jones said in a phone interview. “He’s vital to what we do, at the core of everything that we do. And throughout this whole process it was, it rang true. We wanted to keep him here, and the moment we can come to an agreement, we would. So, waiting 24 hours, 48 hours, that wasn’t something we needed to do because going into it, we knew this is where he wanted to be and where we wanted him to be.
“I’m one to just be direct. And if you’re convicted, if you know what you want to do, you do it. But if there’s any doubt from anyone that we wanted him, I think that the matching did that. It was urgent for us. It was important. It was critical for us. So, we just wanted to make sure that we handled our business quickly.”
Whatever the reality behind the scenes, considering if it was really that critical then why force the offer sheet from another team, now is the time to move forward.
Arizona has been Ayton’s home since moving from the Bahamas as a high school aged teen.
DA is a solid four-year starter for a Suns team that rocketed from NBA’s worst to one of its best by his third season, helping the Suns make their first NBA Finals appearance in almost 30 years.
A good player but not a great one.
At least now Ayton is being paid like he should. He’s better than those six mentioned earlier in the article, and could be better than several of the others by the time he’s done. Here’s a full list of No. 1 picks since 1997.
*Note: I just arbitrarily stopped at 1997. The further you go back into the 90s the crazier the contracts were for rookies. Going back to 1997 makes the point of the article enough.
Ayton is not a perennial All-Star, but he is definitely one of the best 40 players in the NBA — top 10% in the league — and now will be paid the 34th-highest contract in 2022-23, tied with two other classmates from the 2018 Draft.
Contract and performance are now in-line.
The Suns can mend the fences on hard feeling around the business side of basketball, but the question is whether they can mend the fences around Ayton’s sense of belonging with the team. And whether they can get the most out of Ayton going forward.
His commitment to the Suns franchise certainly diminished a bit in the wake of these difficult negotiations. If the Suns truly believed their own quote above, why was this so hard to get done?
Now Ayton has the rest of the summer — two months or so — to get his mind right. And the Suns coaching staff has that same time to figure out how important Ayton really is to their small window of contention.
Lots of things could change for the Suns — incoming Kevin Durant? worsening Chris Paul? Six expiring contracts playing for their stats? — but Ayton is one of only two guaranteed constants, along with Book, sure to remain in purple and orange for the next year.
Since the Ayton re-signing, DraftKings Sportsbook gives the Suns the 4th-best odds to win the title next June — behind only the Celtics, Clippers and Warriors. That may be assuming Kevin Durant ends up with the Suns, but the same DraftKings has the Suns with only the 2nd best chance to have Durant in their uniform next season, behind the Nets.
The Suns will need the very best of Booker and Ayton to reach that goal. No matter what happens on the trade front around them, DA and Book will need to be leaders on and off the court to help the team overcome that 2022 playoff collapse.
Those two pillars are the key to the Suns returning to that hardworking contender mentality they lost since early April.
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