The Phoenix Suns’ offseason has been hectic. In an Oppenheimer-esque fashion, James Jones has nuked the landscape of the roster and reconfigured the vision of what his team will be. As the dust slowly dissipates, what is left looks almost nothing like the team that made a trip to the 2021 NBA Finals just two years ago.
The only remaining pieces from a team that came two games from winning a title are Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. That’s it.
The path of destruction has led to new hope for the franchise. Hope that this offense will be nearly impossible to stop. Hope that Frank Vogel’s defensive strategy will work. Hope that this could be the year. Hope that Deandre Ayton will thrive.
Deandre Ayton has long been a polarizing figure for Phoenix. He checks multiple boxes as a player. He possesses the size, strength, athleticism, and ability to be an All-Star center in the NBA. Frank Vogel believes it, stating that he’s intent on, “restoring him to an All-Star level player”.
On the surface, Ayton is almost there.
He averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds last season. But there is plenty more work to do, especially on the offensive side, to get there. His 18 points-per-game ranked 11th amongst starting centers in the NBA, and his 10 rebounds-per-game put him 13th. You could argue that he played in a guard-centric system that did not utilize him effectively, noting that his 51.9 touches-per-game was 16th amongst starting centers. But his offensive regression appears to be effort based to the naked eye.
Defensively he regressed as well. His defensive rating was 113.2 in 2022-23, a stark difference from the 107.7 rating he posted a season prior. He found himself out of position on both ends of the floor with regularity and his effort was consistently inconsistent. As ESPN’s Michael Schwartz stated on The Lowe Post Podcast, “that’s why he’s frustrating. Because he always should be better than he is”.
You could point to the fact that he wasn’t nearly as engaged as a player last season.
Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro stated on the Hoops Hype Podcast, “As far as Deandre Ayton, Monty didn’t want him either. He wanted them to trade him to Indiana for Myles Turner.” He added, “He didn’t like coaching Ayton. When Ayton signed his maximum contract when the Suns matched his offer sheet, Monty wasn’t even there and didn’t show up when Ayton signed it at the arena or call him to say congratulations.”
Ayton isn’t oblivious to the narratives around his performance. In a recent interview with Eyewitness News Bahamas, Ayton opened up about how he is feeling this offseason.
SPORTS: “I can feel the whole world hating me,” Deandre Ayton.— Eyewitness News Bahamas (@ewnewsbahamas) July 19, 2023
Phoenix Suns Center Deandre Ayton opens up about last season and says he aims to “change the narrative” when he returns to the court in October. pic.twitter.com/2vMbE1tc5E
“I feel the whole world hating me,” Ayton stated. “I think I’m the guy a lot of people point at. I see it, I feel it. Mainly what I’ve been working on five or six days a week since we’ve lost is just motivating myself to change the narrative of what people think about me.”
He added, “I feel like I have no fans out here. And I can feel it because the whole world is saying it. My goal this whole summer is to charge the narrative. Unlock whatever it is.”
These are very candid comments from the former #1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. His vulnerability is a reminder that, at the start and end of every day, he is human. Playing for a coach who doesn’t believe in or what you on the team? Tough. As much as we expect multi-million dollar players to simply play through the obstacles before him, situations do have an affect on them.
His honest remarks seem like those of a 24-year-old who truly desires to be liked and loved but isn’t sure how to get there. He’s lost, as a player and a person. He feels the weight of the world on his shoulders and he’s searching for how to fix it.
Thankfully for Deandre, the roster entering the 2023-24 season is much different than it was a year ago. Last year Jae Crowder was holding out. Robert Sarver was suspended and his comments were made public. Media Day 2022 felt like a funeral.
The offense around Ayton should assist in unlocking him next season, on both ends of the floor. He no longer will be asked to be, or need to be, the second leading scorer on his team. Booker, Durant, and Booker can tend to the points. DA can focus his energy on offensive rebounding, setting hard screens, and being the defensive anchor Vogel wants — and needs — him to be.
As typical with DA, however, we need to see it on the court. He has in the past made statements about his aggression or capabilities, only to not walk the talk. I think back to Media Day last season. He stated, “I’m just trying to be the most dominant person right now and I feel like I can do that.” Sah-wing and a miss in 2022-23.
Will he walk the talk? Will he figure out how to change the narrative? Will the world stop hating him? Questions can only be answered with his performance next season.