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Will Deandre Ayton Get His Moment in the Sun?

The self-proclaimed “freestyle big” has pared down his game to give Phoenix what it needs in the paint, even after the sacrifice wasn’t rewarded with a max extension last fall. Now, with Devin Booker on the mend and the top-seeded Suns fighting to stave off the scrappy Pelicans, the former no. 1 pick finally has an opportunity to showcase the game he’s built over four eventful seasons.

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Deandre Ayton was here, but now he’s gone. Phoenix Suns communications director Cole Mickelson just wrangled Ayton away from the court. But in the time it takes to dial a phone, the springy defensive anchor hops from the sideline back to the court.

Now he’s shooting 3-pointers at the top of the key while assistant coach Mark Bryant rebounds. Bryant, a former NBA journeyman turned big-man whisperer, was hired in 2019 to guide the supremely talented center. “The man knows me,” Ayton says. “He knows my game. He knows what I like. I’m not a normal big. I’m a freestyle big, and he lets me rock out.”

Ayton has been working on his jumper since he was a 14-year-old on the California prep circuit, rising up for fadeaways on offense and blocks on defense, inspiring comparisons to Kevin Garnett. In college at Arizona, Ayton averaged one 3-point attempt per game. The night before we talk, Ayton hit a triple against the Pacers from the same spot on the court he’s shooting from now. But it’s only his second 3 of his fourth NBA season.

The former no. 1 pick has gone from Swiss Army knife to battering ram under the tutelage of Suns coach Monty Williams and pick-and-roll maestro Chris Paul. After Paul arrived last season, Ayton screened more, crashed the paint harder, and rose for more lobs. Now, he mostly saves his outside shot for the confines of a practice court in Detroit.

Five minutes later, Ayton is ready to chat. At one point, he reflects on his evolution as a leader, recalling a passage that former Suns assistant Riccardo Fois read to him from Endurance by Alfred Lansing.

“The guy on the boat was lost with his crew at sea,” Ayton says, “and he emphasized the leadership on how much shit he had to take.” The unflappable resolve of Ernest Shackleton, expedition leader for the ship Endurance, reminded Fois of Ayton. The Suns big man defines his version of leadership as “stepping up to the plate, taking the bullshit, turning the negativity into a positive.”

His attitude has come in handy this season. Even though Ayton anchored the Suns defense en route to last year’s NBA Finals, contract negotiations between Ayton’s camp and Phoenix stalled last summer, making him a restricted free agent this summer. Then came the injuries: Minutes into a mid-January game against the Pistons, Ayton sprained his ankle; he would sit out the next seven games. Ahead of the February trade deadline, his name was floated in a potential swap with the Pacers for Domantas Sabonis. While his teammates and coaching staff went to the All-Star Game, Ayton watched from home.

Instead of rebelling, Ayton developed within the role the Suns needed him to play by expanding his range, post-up repertoire, and playmaking skills. Those incremental improvements helped the Suns win a franchise-record 64 games and nab the NBA’s best record this season. They entered the playoffs as the no. 1 overall seed, an upgraded version of the team that lost in last season’s Finals.

But in Game 2 of the Suns’ first-round series against New Orleans, Devin Booker strained his hamstring. Booker may miss or at least be limited for the rest of the series, which Phoenix leads 3-2 heading into Thursday’s Game 6—and maybe longer. The scope of Ayton’s responsibilities has now expanded, giving him a chance to prove he’s worth the maximum deal the Suns never put on the table last year. It’s an opportunity he’s been working toward for a long time.

New Orleans Pelicans v Phoenix Suns - Game Five Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The kid never stopped moving. Growing up in Nassau, Bahamas, Ayton hopped from soccer to tuba, and even burst a few snare drums in between. But nothing stuck. “All of those things,” Ayton says now, “were boring.”

He wanted to play basketball, but his parents worried that he’d find trouble at the playground. Ayton and his father built a hoop and installed it in the sandy driveway outside their two-bedroom home.

When Ayton was 12, his mom told him about the Jeff Rodgers Basketball Camp, the premier youth camp on the island. But if he wanted to go, he would have to earn the registration money himself. “We didn’t have much,” Ayton says. “My mom had to sit us down and teach us the position we’re in. We had to be satisfied and learn from it, and suck it up.”

His father, Alvin, a plumber, agreed to give Ayton $20 a day to work with him. But after five days of getting into the nuts and bolts, registration money in hand, Ayton quit, escaping the boredom of the tool belt for the court’s freedom of movement.

At camp, Ayton air-balled his first free throw, but he was energetic, athletic, and big. “It was new,” he says. “I never had that many people giving me attention or praising me … for no reason.”

But at the time, he “felt like the cool kid, the popular dude.” Word of the raw Bahamian spread to Southern California basketball coach Shaun “Ice” Manning, who helped pluck the big kid out of his small world.

When he was 14, posted a video of him dribbling behind his back in transition with the grace of a guard and dunking with the power of a freight train. The title: “6’10 Deandre Ayton Is The #1 8th Grader In The Nation!”

The praise gave him something to believe in. Then critics gave him something to prove.

He became obsessed with showing opposing guards that he could do anything they could do, hunting switches onto them and testing his lateral quickness against their drives. In time, he learned the guards’ tricks of deception and took advantage of them, shooting his long arms out to fool ball handers into thinking they’d successfully pump-faked him.

Ayton was, in his own words, “stubborn” about maintaining his versatility, “telling every coach I had, ‘Yo, I’m not a regular big. Don’t treat me like a regular big, because I’ll show you with my actions. I’ll do what’s best for the team, but when it comes to me working on myself, I don’t work on the things you see in the game. I work on everything else I need to work on and add to my game.’”

At Arizona, Ayton ventured farther out on the perimeter, playing the 4 full time. His struggles at blitzing and recovering on shooters were exposed when Buffalo, a 13-seed, upset Ayton’s Wildcats, a 4-seed, in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2018. By the time he entered the NBA, Ayton was so focused on being versatile that he was getting away from the advantages his height gave him.

But the Suns were impressed with his quick processing ability and reflexes, and his willingness to improve. “He talked about wanting to learn,” recalls Ryan McDonough, Phoenix’s GM at the time.

In fact, he talked and talked and talked. He was goofy in predraft conversations, bursting with energy. The Suns thought his personality would bode well for a modern defensive anchor, in charge of calling out an opponent’s rapid movements.

McDonough, a former Celtics assistant GM, saw flashes of Garnett. “What we talked about in the Celtics and Suns front office is you want your defensive players, especially your defensive big men, to be early, loud, continuous,” he says.

Ayton fulfilled the promise last postseason. He switched onto Terance Mann and Paul George and boxed out Ivica Zubac against the Clippers. Against the Nuggets, he held league MVP Nikola Jokic to 42 percent shooting; after Denver’s second-round series loss, Jokic credited Ayton’s defense and signed a jersey for him.

But when he first got to the NBA, Ayton had none of the malevolent intensity that Garnett channeled into his terrifying, prideful defense. In the second game of Ayton’s career, Jokic hung a line of 35 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists, with zero turnovers and zero missed shots on Ayton, who played 22 minutes interrupted by constant foul trouble.

Privately, Ayton said he’d never had his ass kicked like that before. He vowed not to let it happen again. But you couldn’t see any defeat on his face. One former staffer recalls a wide-eyed Ayton checking out of the game and exclaiming to the bench, with no hint of anger or frustration, “Damn, that dude is strong!”

Seasoned bigs like Joel Embiid and Steven Adams delivered similar blows, cruel tutorials that enamored the young rookie. “The eyes would get big and shift from side to side,” remembers another former staffer. “He’d have this smile. He’d look around and do a side glance, like: Is anyone else seeing this?”

Ayton explains it this way: “Personally, when I lose, it’s never an L. I always learn from my lessons that people call L’s, and I always get better. That’s what makes me smile. I failed, but it still gives me a chance to hold that L and say, ‘Yo, I can learn.’”

But not everyone saw it his way. “He’s loud,” says the first former staffer. “That’s good and bad.” McDonough was fired suddenly in the preseason of Ayton’s first season, in 2018-19, putting a new coaching staff, headed by Igor Kokoskov, on edge when the Suns got off to a 1-7 start. “I remember several times we landed, it’s early in the morning and we just took a hard loss, and he’s acting like a kid at a candy store,” the former staffer says.

Ayton bristled when his mistakes were called out in film sessions or when he felt uncomfortable learning a new move. “You’ve got to surrender,” the staffer says. “Players will definitely try to resist. That’s pretty natural. They have to surrender to the system, to the coach, because if you never do, you’re just in a constant struggle.”

As losses piled up, tension heightened and accountability withered. Veterans got lax about the Suns’ strict routine. Ayton followed suit. He skipped the boring work of pregame medical check-ins and ended lifting sessions early to hit the court. Ayton recalls he “just felt lost. We were losing dudes, coming in with bad habits. Everyone’s moping. Dudes wanna leave. I’m hearing all types of shit. I didn’t know what the hell was right and what the hell was wrong.”

The job instability put the staff in survival mode, too worried about their own situation to step back and take a long-term approach to help the 20-year-old. “It’s top-down,” the first staffer said. “You need to be preaching patience.” The coaching staff was fired at the end of the season. “Right now,” the staffer says, “I think they have a really nice situation with [James Jones] and Monty [Williams].”

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

When Williams was fired by the New Orleans Pelicans in 2015, he surveyed former players, who told him they felt like they couldn’t make mistakes in front of him. He vowed that if he got another chance to coach in the NBA, he would listen to his players more. “That made me feel like an idiot,” he said. “To have any one of our players not feeling like they can be themselves. It was something I hope I’ve learned from.”

He eventually worked in San Antonio’s front office. There, he internalized a Gregg Popovich mantra about flexibility: “If the rules stifle talent, change the rule.”

Before San Antonio, Williams spent a season in Oklahoma City, where he met 6-foot-9 Mark Bryant, a former NBA big man turned assistant. Bryant plotted the long-term strategy that slowly morphed Adams into one of the NBA’s most intimidating strongmen. When Williams took over as head coach in Phoenix in 2019, he tapped Bryant to impart the dark arts of the big man trade to Ayton.

Before devising a plan for Ayton, the new Suns staff wanted to understand his history and unearthed a trajectory full of stops and starts. The first school Ayton went to in San Diego didn’t initially have a basketball team. He transferred twice, settling in Phoenix for his senior year when his mom moved to the States. He spent one year of college at Arizona before being drafted no. 1. Ayton still oozed potential, but he never had the blueprint to achieve it.

“He wasn’t exposed to what winning at a high level really looked like,” says Fois, who spent two years on Williams’s staff. “That was the main challenge for him.

“These young players, you are kind of looked at as a piece of meat by everyone. You’re like the trendy thing of the moment. And then if you don’t make it, everybody leaves you. If you make it, everybody wants a piece of you.”

Before they got to work, Bryant and Ayton had several conversations about his game.

“There’s always gonna be this talk of, ‘He’s so big, he should be this, he should be that,’” Bryant says. “He’s extremely athletic, guards 1 through 5, shoots 15 to 17 feet well. He’s talented. I don’t think anybody can really say, ‘He should be this, he should be that.’ Deandre’s gonna dictate what he’s gonna be.”

Ayton maintained aspirations of being an all-around player. So on the practice court, the two worked on everything. “Fadeaways, jabs, dribbling, passing, shooting, rebounding, defense, 1-through-5 defense,” Ayton says. In games, though, the Suns wanted Ayton to pare down his perimeter attempts and set screens and roll hard. The goal was to establish dominance, create easy baskets, and suck up gravity down low in a manner only a nimble, explosive 6-foot-11 center could.

Bryant also convinced Ayton to work on his floater to counter defenders who stop his rolls to the rim before he can punish them from point-blank range. At first, Ayton was reluctant, uncomfortable. “But I just tried to explain to him, ‘Hey, this is the reason why you do the floater,’” Bryant says. “Because now teams are in the drop. If you work on this touch shot around the basket, it’s going to help you out tremendously.”

In a hotel room in Denver before the second game of the 2019-20 season, Ayton got a call from the league office. “Bada boom bada bing,” he recounts. “‘At this time, we’re letting the world know you are done.’” Ayton tested positive for a diuretic, a banned substance used to mask PEDs. He was suspended for 25 games.

The first thing Ayton did was walk to Williams’s hotel room. “I just knew I had to be honest and make sure I tell my front office and coach what was up before it got to the media, just to show my respect,” Ayton says.

Williams sat Ayton down next to him, hugged him, and told him, “D.A., you did what you did. These are the consequences. Now, it’s just time for the right next step,” Ayton recalls.

Ayton planned to appeal the suspension, but the team convinced him not to. “It’s one of the things you have no control over, and we really don’t know everything,” Fois says. “And we really didn’t want to know everything.” They wanted to move on. So they devised a plan that allowed Ayton to work as closely with the team as possible without violating the terms of his suspension.

Outside the team, Ayton felt the world turning against him. Even some Suns fans said that Aron Baynes, the brawny backup who kept up with opposing centers during Ayton’s suspension, was a better fit.

“You see how the world really is when they see people like me fall. It ain’t … a good look,” he says. “But it’s how you bounce back from all that negativity and change that vision of yourself. Because you can’t blame them. You’re the one to blame.”

Ayton bought a new phone and saved contacts only for his family, his team, and his group chats. “That was the only people I was seeing and talking to. Everybody else, I was so scared there would be somebody throwing the 25-game suspension in my face or just asking me some dumb shit. I just blocked myself away from the world, put my head down, and kept working,” he says.

Every once in a while, his new phone buzzed with a text from Williams to check in on him.

“He’s more than just a coach,” Ayton says. “He can be a friend, a father figure, everything. I call him a man of wisdom, because he always gives you some advice that will let you lock in and carry for longevity. That’s rare to have a relationship with a coach who really, really, really cares.”

Fois, who comes from Sardinia, an Italian island, noticed that the more Ayton trusted the staff the more he was willing to listen. “I think islanders are big family people,” he says. “I know everybody is big family people, but if you really look at the societies, there is a history of islanders, maybe because they were so isolated in the past, that you come to rely so much on the people around you.”

Later that season, inside the NBA bubble at Disney World, the Suns surprised Ayton on his birthday at a seafood restaurant. Fois remembers the look in Ayton’s eyes when the cake came out, and the team started singing. “It was a moment where he was like, ‘Man, you guys really care about me,’” Fois says.

During the games, he embraced his role as a defensive linchpin and interior sledgehammer. The result, an 8-0 record, gave him proof of how much value he could provide if he was consistent. “The bubble gave me a chance to really redeem myself,” he says.

Phoenix Suns v Washington Wizards Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

When Ayton found out that Paul was being traded to the Suns in the fall of 2020, he wanted to “do a backflip.” He’d seen the easy buckets and paydays that Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan earned after the Point God arrived in Los Angeles. Paul’s constant stream of directives also wore out past teammates, but Ayton welcomed the secrets of screen angles and roll timing. “I want to know where he wants me,” Ayton said heading into training camp. “He’s our leader, he’s our vet. Wherever he wants me I’m locked in. If he says jump, you bet.”

There wasn’t much freestyling with Paul directing the offense, but Ayton thrived in a more traditional role, finishing fourth in the league in field goal percentage and third in screen assists while anchoring a top-10 defense.

“There was a lot of things that was expected from him to be where we wanted to be, and he was OK with it,” Fois says. “He was listening to Chris and [Booker] and the coaches. A lot of people could have struggled with it, could have quit, but he responded every time and he stood up to the challenge.”

Ayton made 75 percent of his shots in the restricted area last season, none more important than the alley-oop hammer he threw down to win Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against the Clippers.

After the game, he opened the biggest press conference of his career by calling the dunk “Jae’s game-winner,” crediting Jae Crowder for throwing a perfect pass, his coach for drawing up a perfect play, and Booker for setting a perfect screen to open him up.

Ayton loves the interconnected nature of basketball. He doesn’t always get credit for the invisible but seismic ripples his movement creates, but he believes in the team-first vision the coaching staff has sold him.

“The message was always to him,” a former staffer says, “if you perfect these things, you’ll make 100 million dollars, you’ll make 200 million dollars, you’ll make 600 million dollars.”

But Ayton wasn’t rewarded for his effor​​ts last offseason. He watched Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Michael Porter Jr., and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander ink max deals well before the October deadline to extend 2018 draftees. Memphis big man Jaren Jackson Jr. also signed a four-year, $105 million agreement coming off an injury. According to ESPN, Ayton had “no intention” of signing for less than the max, while Suns owner Robert Sarver, historically reluctant to pay the luxury tax, believed he didn’t deserve the full five-year, $173 million deal.

“We were two wins from a championship and I just really want to be respected, to be honest,” Ayton said in October. “Be respected like my peers are being respected by their teams.”

Bam Adebayo had signed a max in 2020 after anchoring the Heat’s defense on their Finals run. The difference, some concluded, was the Suns’ unwillingness to pay. One executive told HoopsHype that Sarver was “cheap, and he’ll get killed for it again.”

But Phoenix’s 18-6 record without Ayton this regular season created rumblings that the front office may have a point. Perhaps cheaper, league-average replacements like JaVale McGee (signed in the offseason) and Bismack Biyombo (signed midseason) could replace Ayton’s production as long as Paul and Booker were setting them up. Ayton had pared down his game to give the Suns what they needed. In doing so, he risked being seen as one-dimensional.

“I feel like that’s true more with backup bigs,” said one front office executive. “There’s a high replacement level for that tier. But I think there is a group of high-quality bigs that aren’t easily replaceable. So I’m not sure I totally agree with that general stereotype.”

With teams prioritizing shooting in the pace-and-space era, athletic bigs come by the dozen. And even some of the best can be game-planned out of a playoff series. Before meeting the Suns in the West finals, the Clippers spaced the floor against the Jazz to punish center Rudy Gobert, the three-time Defensive Player of Year who months earlier had agreed to a five-year, $205 million extension. But Ayton’s floater game and his ability to switch onto speedy guards like Mann neutralized the Clippers in ways the Jazz couldn’t.

The Suns can tell Ayton, a restricted free agent, to get the best deal he can in a relatively dry market this summer. But Ayton’s youth, the exec points out, should open him up to more suitors. “Rebuilding teams aren’t interested in signing a 29-year-old to a big max contract,” the exec says. “But someone like Ayton, who’s very young, any team would be interested.” The Pistons reportedly have interest. The Hornets, in need of a defensive anchor, have cap space. Phoenix could match any offer. The downside to that approach for the Suns, says the exec, is that Ayton could agree to a player option in his fourth year, which would allow him to opt out at 26, right when he’d be entering his prime.

For now, Ayton has what he needs. While some may view Biyombo and McGee as competition, he sees two big men who could have helped him navigate the physicality of Giannis Antetokounmpo last year. In the Finals, the Suns outscored the Bucks by two points per 100 possessions when Ayton was on the floor. But Phoenix lacked interior depth behind him after Dario Saric tore his ACL, getting outscored by 16.5 points per 100 possessions when Ayton sat.

Hours after the trade deadline, the Suns won their first rematch against the Bucks. Biyombo and Ayton even shared the floor for a stretch. “Man, I wish this was last season,” Ayton said afterward. “We needed it. I’m glad we got it now. Me being the only big last year, and now I got pieces where if I get in foul trouble early or if I’m just not having that game, I’ve got dudes that can back me up.”

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Three Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Near the end of a March matchup with the Timberwolves, Ayton slips a screen, digs his heels to the ground, and posts up. Paul is on the bench, nursing a right thumb fracture. So instead of kicking the ball back out, Ayton nails a baseline fadeaway through contact over Wolves big Karl-Anthony Towns. But then he slaps his arms against his thighs emphatically, glaring at the ref and earning a technical foul.

Negatives used to come “in threes” for Ayton, according to a former staffer: frustration over missed calls, which boil into blown transition layups, which lead to lackluster rolls off soft screens. But here, Crowder runs across half court to bear-hug Ayton and direct him away from the ref.

“They know how to talk with me and say, ‘D.A.! You know we got this, man,’ and just making me not do the dumbest thing when I’m mad, you know what I’m saying? ‘We know you’re angry but we can channel it respectfully,’” Ayton told me in January.

Ayton stays the course, notching a career-high 35 points, ending with a 3-pointer—the rare exclamation point in a steady night of hard screens, closeouts, boxouts, and floaters.

Before Ayton leaves the court, Williams stops Ayton and asks, with a serious face, “What did you just do?” Ayton explained after the game that Williams was referencing “the things he’s been asking me to do. Not just score the ball, but the way I handle myself—the technical foul, playing through all that nonsense.”

The game was physical, the emotions heightened and the whistles few and far between. Patrick Beverley and Towns were showboating. But Ayton didn’t get derailed. He accepted the tight whistle, stopped complaining, and kept playing hard.

Ayton has endured his fair share of nonsense over his four-year career—coaching changes, the PED suspension, trade rumors, contract drama. About a month after extension negotiations fell apart, ESPN published an investigation into the Suns organization that revealed a toxic work environment and racist and sexist behavior by Sarver. Ayton has chosen to block it all out, focusing on what he can control.

When asked about the Sarver investigation in November, Ayton said he’d follow the leads of Paul and Booker. “They’re two of the most famous athletes in the NBA,” he said. “If they can block it out, I can block it out too. At the end of the day, you can pick and choose what you look at.”

Following that path led Ayton to perhaps his best season yet: He set a new career high in field goal percentage with an offensive repertoire that deftly blended the physicality that his coaches have instilled in him with his natural touch and athleticism. His shot attempts rose only slightly, but he made the most of his opportunities.

He likely would have kept picking his spots in the playoffs—until Booker went down in last week’s Game 2. The hamstring injury put the NBA’s best regular-season team in a precarious position: tied 1-1 in the series against a scrappy Pelicans team. After the Game 2 loss, Williams kicked himself for not getting Ayton involved more. Screening and rolling would no longer suffice.

In the first half of Game 3, Ayton flashed his offensive repertoire. He put up 21 points, nailing multiple variations of the floater he has now mastered: a pump fake and driving runner over big man Jonas Valanciunas, a catch-and-shoot off the short roll. He also hit one of only four triples Phoenix had in the game.

At halftime, Booker demanded more. “Book was just telling me, ‘Don’t get tired of shooting the ball. Change your mindset. Don’t think you need to move it. We need you to score,’” Ayton said afterward.

But Ayton saw that the Suns needed something different from him. Valanciunas’s contests were no match for Ayton’s touch, so the Pelicans took out the center and went small. Ayton switched onto the Pelicans’ perimeter guards and hopped back to the paint to gobble up boards, helping to hold New Orleans to just one second-half offensive rebound. Eavesdropping on the Pelicans’ defensive communication, Ayton heard their terminology shift and alerted the Point God. “I’m telling C, ‘They’re back to normal coverage, I’ma need you to shoot the ball. I’ma give a clean hit,’” Ayton said.

“He told me to stop passing and to shoot the ball,” Paul said.

Ayton shelved his offense on his own accord. He scored just seven points in the second half, but the attention he drew rolling on those clean hits helped Paul ice the game with a steady barrage of midrange jumpers. Ayton finished the Suns victory with a playoff career-high 28 points and 17 rebounds, moving fast enough to do a little bit of everything.

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