On a stale Monday morning in a room with subpar acoustics, local and national media gathered to hear what the 2022-23 Phoenix Suns had to say. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Marc Spears were on hand as the Suns’ brass and Statement Edition clothed players answered questions about quite the interesting summer of 2022.
Phoenix has not been short of storylines since we last saw them play. An embarrassing Game 7 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, an embarrassing and unacceptable ownership situation that has led to the selling of the team, and, as of yesterday, the news that their starting power forward would not be present for training camp as they mutually explored his trade.
Quite the offseason indeed.
It was the longest off-season the Phoenix Suns have had since they prepared to start the 2019-20 season. The pandemic shortened the off-season leading into 2020-21 and, following an NBA Finals appearance that summer, the Suns rushed the 2021-22 season as the NBA tried to get back on schedule. This means that the team, for the first time since Monty Williams has taken the reins, has had an opportunity to have a full length off-season.
Although Monty Williams noted that it was a longer summer than he had wanted.
Monty: “Summer was longer than I wanted it.”— John Voita (@DarthVoita) September 26, 2022
A subplot that gets lost within the whirlwind of Suns’ related news is that of fifth-year center Deandre Ayton.
Ayton’s future with the organization that declined to extend his rookie deal prior to the 2021-22 season was one of the primary stories last year. Game-to-game we would watch to see if it would effect his play. It didn’t. Ayton did what was asked of him, sacrificing his personal statistics and accolades for the betterment of the team.
He posted 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds on 63.4% shooting in 2021-22, hardly “max-contract numbers”. But it was his willingness to be a part of the offense — rather than be the offense — and do his part to help his team that garnered respect. At least in my book.
Deandre is a former #1 overall pick, after all. Many players could (and have) whined and groaned about not be the focal point of the offense. Ayton, however, did his part and helped the Suns win the most games in the their 54-year history.
He did all of this without the Suns investing in him financially.
This was all put to rest on July 14 — which feels like years ago — as the Suns matched the maximum offer sheet that the Indiana Pacers had sent Ayton’s way. Ultimately he earned a 4 year, $133M contract that will have him in Phoenix until 2025-26 when he is 27.
James Jones stated on Monday that, “We were clear since day one that we wanted Deandre Ayton. We were very proactive matching and making sure that he stayed here in Phoenix. We were consistent and we will continue to be consistent.”
Some could see what Jones stated and respond with, “actions speak louder than words.” If Jones believed in Ayton so much, why did he wait until the Pacers provided an offer sheet to give DA a max? When didn’t he sign him to a rookie-max extension the year prior, thus avoiding speculation and putting doubt in his young center's head?
Jones noted that social media is a “noise box” and that is what plenty of the noise was last season. When you dig deeper and examine the designated rookie rule, you find that an organization can only have two designated rookies on their roster at a time. If James Jones had signed Ayton to that deal, it would have handicapped the Suns’ future endeavors until at least the end of the 2023-24 season, when Booker’s rookie max deal expired.
Ayton appeared from the left side of the room wearing a large smile as he joked with a staff member. I was standing close to him when he turned, looked at the room, and I viewed his disposition change from carefree 24 year-old to a calculated man on a mission to get this thing over with.
His first question from Duane Rankin: What was your initial reaction once the Suns matched the Pacers offer?
His answer? In true Belichick-at-the-end-of-a-game-or-in-any-interview fashion, he replied, “I was happy it was all done, I guess.”
Deandre Ayton seems thrilled to be back in Phoenix pic.twitter.com/Mn4Lkh6pP5— SB Nation (@SBNation) September 26, 2022
The series of Q and A with Ayton continued and he so too did the monotone and disengaged responses. It was hard to get a read on DA, and perhaps that was by design.
Let’s start with everything stated above. Phoenix is entering a season in which they have plenty to prove, and even more to overcome relative to organizational issues. A disgraced owner and a player in Jae Crowder who, modeling Eric Bledsoe, doesn’t want to be here. Who is going to be jubilant in that situation?
Factor in Ayton’s personal situation for the Suns. Can you blame him? Phoenix didn’t treat him with the tact that he expected, or even earned. If they informed him behind closed doors about their intentions, it’s a moot point. Devin Booker was cheered when he was given his deal. The fan base was thrilled when Mikal Bridges was given his extension.
He has always been the subject of discussion, straddling the line between being admired and respected for his finesse, flexibility, and current NBA switchability or being criticized for his lack of aggression, his inconsistency, and his value for the money spent. While Jones avoids the “noise box” that is social media, Ayton surely has paid attention to his narrative.
So, Succinct Ayton is who we received on Monday morning, and with it comes questions the bear asking. Is this another sign of his immaturity? Is this the focused version of DA? Is he locked in or is he still unhappy?
While All-Star guard Devin Booker observed that, “he got his max and now, he can just go out there and play and not have to think about it,” it is something we will have to see.
Monty Williams is aware that there is opportunity for Deandre Ayton to grow, and Monty knows that he plays a role in this.
“I think there’s some wrinkles in what we do that will allow for some of his talents to show a little more,” Williams noted. “I think that one of the things that I did not do a good job of last year is allow for other guys to grow in their abilities to initiate offense, which gets a lot of pressure off Chris, which allows him to be fresher I think there’s some wrinkles that we can explore to try to take advantage of DA’s ability to score in the mid-range, taking three’s from the top of the key, corner threes. Those are things that I’ve watch him work on this summer.”
Expanding the range of Deandre Ayton, a player who is a career 25% three-point shooter (36.8% last season, 14-of-56 in his career, and 1-of-2 from the corner) is a value tool that both he and the Suns can use to spread the floor, disrupt the defense, and help expand the offense for Phoenix as they enter the new season.
Ayton is ready for it, stating that “I’ve been working on everything. I’m just trying to be the most dominant person right now. And I feel like I can do that.”
Again we find ourselves asking the eternal Ayton question: will he? We know he can. We know he has talent that can lead to All NBA teams and All-Star selections. The only thing that has stood in his way is DA.
You have to remind yourself that, at the end of the day, he is 24. Perhaps the experiences he had this past offseason, navigating the emotions of being in limbo with the organization that drafted him and the only one he has known, assisted in his maturity. As Mikal Bridges said when asked about Ayton, “he’s a dad,” which is something he does not share with the members of the Suns’ young core.
Was it immaturity or focus on Suns Media Day 2022, we’ll never know. What we will know is very shortly is what max-level DA means to the Suns. Are we reading too much into his presser? Probably.
No conspiracy theories from me regarding Deandre Ayton. He simply looks more mature and locked in. People suggesting he's upset or not happy to be here because of the way he handled his press conference is a reach in my opinion. The young man is simply growing up. Good for him!— FLEX From Jersey (@FlexFromJersey) September 26, 2022
To watch the entire Media Day interview, please watch below: