Phoenix Suns six-year center Deandre Ayton is at a crossroads.
One route leads to team triumph and success, while the other leads to personal glory. A fine line to walk in the NBA, we’ve witnessed instances in which you can have both. When the talent and execution is so unique, so fine tuned, and so unstoppable, both of these roads intersect. Two-time MVP and now NBA Champion Nikola Jokic is one of these players. His personal glory has led to team success, and vice versa. It is a rare trait to possess, especially as a big man.
Just look at Joel Embiid. The reigning NBA MVP has felt slighted in the past when he was passed over for the award he won in 2023. “I’m not mad,” he stated in 2022, “Last year I campaigned about it. This year I answered questions when asked, and the next few years until I retire, it’s almost like…I don’t know. Like I said, I don’t know what else I have to do to win it.”
This year he won his coveted award. This year his team lost in the Second Round for the third consecutive season.
Deandre Ayton is at a crossroads because he hears you. He hears us. He hears me. I wouldn’t classify myself as an ‘Ayton Hater’, as I’ve always maintained that I am an ‘Ayton Realist’. As with all issues, I attempt to see a topic from all points-of-view and make my determination based on the information at hand. Opinionated, sure, but not blind hate or love predicated on bias.
Earlier this week he commented on how he feels, saying that, “I can feel the whole world hating me in a way.” He added, “I feel like I have no fans out there and I can feel it because the whole world is saying it.”
These are statements of someone who doesn’t understand why his fan base is frustrated. Some might see this as a ‘he can’t see the forest for the trees’ situation, but if you pause and use empathy for the 24-year old, you might understand why he doesn’t get it. He’s not watching Suns’ basketball through our eyes. He’s playing it from a team-first perspective. He isn’t stat chasing. He’s a mild-mannered guy from the Bahamas who doesn’t possess the aggression we feel he must.
Ayton has sacrificed personal glory for team success in his career, but it hasn’t been enough to silence the critics. A former #1 overall pick, he could have been someone who selfishly demanded the ball, increased touches, and an offense to run through him. He could’ve demanded to be traded to a team that would allow him to statistically flourish. But he hasn’t. That’s not Ayton’s way. Which, to be honest, is what frustrates the fan base. We wanted a second coming of David Robinson. We got the first Deandre Ayton.
He is a career 59.7% shooter, averaged 16.7 points and 10.4 rebounds. Last season, the year after having his maximum contract matched after the Indiana Pacers made a run at him in restricted free agency, he put together an 18 point/10 rebound season on 58.9% shooting.
In games in which Ayton has played in his career, the team is 167-136 (.551 winning percentage). The guy helps the Suns win, it’s just not how we’d prefer him to do so. Jump hooks, spinning away from the basket, finesse versus physicality. Again, the team is winning and has put together a solid run in his five years. But we want more. And he doesn’t know how to give more, although he vows to, “change the narrative. Unlock whatever it is.”
It wasn’t unlocked in the postseason, where he went for 13.4 points and 9.7 rebounds on 55%. The fact of the matter is, there must be an intersection of his personal production and the team’s success. He needs to be a reason why the team is winning, rather than simply a contributing factor. He’s an expensive role player, and that is what he will be in 2023-24 with the three-headed scoring monster of Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, and Kevin Durant.
The big man is at a crossroads.
In an interview with The Arizona Republic’s Duane Rankin, James Jones acknowledged his starting center’s statements. “I think what gets lost is his desire to be great and how much winning matters to him,” Jones told Rankin. “He’s six years into his NBA career. He’s an 18 and 10 player and if you were to ask the game’s greatest players how easy it is to do that, they’ll tell you it’s extremely difficult, but even that bar isn’t high enough for him and others.”
Ayton is searching for how to raise the bar, but the bar has risen around him. He has had the benefit in his career to play with a Hall of Fame bound point guard in Chris Paul, Hall of Fame bound one-of-a-kind forward in Kevin Durant, and perhaps the greatest player in the history of the franchise in Devin Booker. And now Bradley Beal is on the team.
Is Deandre Ayton the best fourth-option on any team in the NBA?— John Voita (@DarthVoita) July 4, 2023
The offense will surely change around him, but part of him needs to change as well. He knows it. He feels it.
“Rightfully or unrightfully,” Jones added, “he senses and he feels, but the outside opinion, I think, and I know internally, that he has change the narrative because if you look at the impact that he’s had on this team over the last three or four years is undeniable and without him playing at the level that he’s playing at, we’re not nearly as good as we’ve been.”
“If he can take it to a level that I know he wants to, he makes us special and I think that’s the driver for him. The internal, external motivations will always be there and I think he’s just trying to harness that now.”
Ayton is struggling internally with how he can change the narrative. Behind him will be a coach who is drooling at the opportunity to coach him, the best trio on paper in Suns’ history, and an intrigued fan base. What could sway the pendulum in favor of Phoenix and bring a championship to the Valley is Ayton. That is a ton of pressure. As Jones stated, he’s attempting to harness it now.
We all want DA to do just that, to harness his motivations. We want nothing but success for him and this team. We want him to live up to his maximum contract, be the dominant big man he can be. After five years, despite the winning that has followed, the time has come to navigate those crossroads. He must find a way to be a productive and consistent member of the team, playing with the energy that equates to success and is not the cause of defeat.
And we must temper our expectations. What do you expect from the fourth option on offense and the first option on defense? Are you simply box score watching or are you looking for the attitude and effort on the court? We’ll always have this frustratingly unique relationship with our Ayton expectations.
Maybe it’s time for us to change our narrative as well.