Deandre Ayton might not listen to it, but the noise is always ringing through his ears.
Ayton is the Phoenix Suns’ most criticized starter. He has very high expectations given he was selected No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft, but those ideas have become excessive to some degree.
Ayton has averaged a double-double in each of his five NBA seasons, but some fans are still screaming at him to turn into the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson, who he was compared to once he left Arizona after one college season.
Ayton may not be perfect, but he is important. The Suns prioritized him often in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series, and it led to engagement from Ayton that fans certainly crave.
Phoenix won the game, 112-100, at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles to take a 3-1 series lead over the Clippers. Most fans will remember superstar duo Kevin Durant and Devin Booker combining for 61 points. Even Chris Paul’s 12-point fourth quarter that included a trick shot from the corner will be laughed at before the Suns take the floor Tuesday for Game 5.
Ayton’s performance will not receive a lot of credit, but it should. He had his third straight double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds, four of which came on the offensive glass. He was engaged, which the Suns need him to be, and focused. If they get that from him nightly, it should be enough on his part to contribute to their first-ever championship.
Suns coach Monty Williams praised Ayton before Game 4 for finding ways to impact winning. Every fan won’t give him credit for it, but Ayton ranked No. 5 in defensive rebounds and No. 12 in offensive rebounds this postseason entering Saturday’s game. It may not be with the force of Joel Embiid, but it was enough to help the Suns take a 2-1 series lead.
Ayton was criticized in Game 3. He was the Suns’ only starter who had a negative plus/minus (minus-5) and made just 4-of-9 shots. Without Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles employed a five-guard lineup but Phoenix could not find its big, who bobbled a pass here and there and did not get extensive chances to assert himself.
This is the stuff with Deandre Ayton that I know drives Suns fans nuts. I know the pass was a bit off target, but once you get a handle on it and gather, go up strong with it. Get to the rim. Use a pump fake, whatever. Put Batum in the basket. Don't do a 2 foot hook shot. pic.twitter.com/048LZLeUfu— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) April 21, 2023
After Booker’s 45-point performance in Game 3 and through a need to continue to integrate Durant, the Suns could have spammed the ball to their starters early. Instead, they made Ayton a priority.
He took the team’s first shot and had four of their first seven. Ayton missed his first two attempts but made his next pair, including a tip shot that helped give the Suns an early lead.
Those four possessions won’t mean much for the entirety of the game but they probably did for Ayton’s confidence. Remember: He is just 24 years old.
The Suns had an early edge on the glass and Ayton was a huge part of it. He had three offensive rebounds that led to points for his team in the first quarter. Phoenix fell behind quick but Ayton did not let up.
He had a pair of dunks in the second quarter, including one that showed some force in a pick-and-roll with Paul. Ayton had 11 points and seven rebounds at halftime on 5-of-10 shooting.
Great two-man action with Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton. This is the Ayton fans want to see. pic.twitter.com/0EyG57d2vF— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) April 22, 2023
Even better? He was plus-4, the second-best mark of Phoenix’s starters (Paul was a plus-10) to that point.
The rest of the game played out as it should for the Suns in close games. Durant and Booker combined for 23 points in the third quarter and Paul iced the game with 12 in the fourth. The Clippers rallied but did not have the personnel to match the Suns, who Paul said have the most talent he’s ever been with as a player in his 18 NBA seasons.
Ayton won’t have the most points to prove it, but he sure was impactful in his minutes. He was a plus-9 in the game, which was second behind Paul again (+15).
The noise won’t leave Ayton as the postseason continues. Two years ago, he had a terrific playoff run in which he set records for his field-goal percentage and double-digit rebounding games. A year ago Saturday, he set his playoff career-high with 28 points against the New Orleans Pelicans in Game 3 of the Suns’ first-round series in 2022, something fans hope to see nightly.
Ayton is yet to assert himself like that. But that game might be coming.
At the very least, Suns fans should be proud of Ayton Saturday and quiet down on some criticism.