The Suns are an embarrassment. With a 4-24 record, they’ve been outscored by 11.4 points per 100 possessions, worse than any team this century except for the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, who got walloped by 15.1 points per 100 possessions during the lockout-shortened season. The Suns must look back on those Bobcats with envy: at least they had to play only 66 games. Phoenix will have to play out the rest of this 82-game slog in turmoil. Owner Robert Sarver fired the team’s general manager just days before the season, and is now reportedly threatening to move the team if the city doesn’t give public funding to upgrade the team’s decades-old arena. The team’s best player, Devin Booker, has been sidelined by one injury or another for much of the season. And rookie head coach Igor Kokoskov is tasked with navigating his young team through all the madness.
It’s all fed into the perception that Phoenix made a franchise-altering mistake by selecting center Deandre Ayton on the night of June 21, 2018. If only the Suns had gone instead with Luka Doncic, who is currently helping the Mavericks make an unexpected playoff push. Dallas is 15-11 and holds the 7-seed in the West. Doncic is the leading contender for NBA Rookie of the Year while posting 18 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 4.4 assists a game. NBA fans are swooning over Doncic, a playmaking forward with a knack for the spectacular. The Suns faced two roads diverging in the 2018 NBA draft, and went with the road well traveled by choosing a classic cornerstone center, Ayton, instead of the modern, positionless playmaker, Doncic. Ayton’s physical profile and blend of scoring, passing, and defensive agility drew comparisons to Patrick Ewing. Both prospects had flaws: Doncic’s lack of eye-popping athleticism raised questions about his defense and go-to scoring upside; Ayton’s waning focus and intensity often left him floating on offense and lost on defense, resembling less of a potential Hall of Famer and more of a Karl-Anthony Towns at his most frustrating. NBA scouts and executives had Doncic and Ayton rated about the same, though the Suns obviously felt that Ayton was the better prospect.
Their destinies will forever be intertwined in what looks like a class littered with success stories—both Doncic and Ayton included. Ayton is averaging 15.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.5 assists—the only players in the past 25 players to post a line of at least 15-10-2 as a rookie are Blake Griffin and Tim Duncan, according to Basketball-Reference. But with the Suns struggling, and Ayton lacking the same intangible impact of Doncic, Ayton’s numbers feel empty.
It’s too soon to make final judgments about players drafted less than six months ago, now almost one-third of the way through their rookie seasons. And consider the circumstances: Doncic fell into a dream scenario with an experienced head coach in Rick Carlisle, and supporting veterans that enhance and complement his current skill set. The last thing Ayton has is support.
The truth is that each player is exactly who we thought they were. Doncic is scoring only 0.88 points per possession in the half court, about the same as Lance Stephenson. Defenses may soon get a handle on his trademark stepback 3, and perhaps playoff-caliber offenses will begin targeting him as the season develops. Luka looks like he will be a special player, but he hasn’t silenced doubts about his scoring upside and defensive ability. Doncic seems to succeed in spite of himself. He’s not noticeably quick, and he generally doesn’t get by defenders on his first step. Yet he finds ways, using his feel and footwork, to score or create opportunities for others. When Doncic scored 11 straight points to lead the Mavericks to a victory over the Rockets earlier this month, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Doncic has done it before overseas; magic is the expectation with him, even at 19.
Ayton is an efficient scoring machine, but his tentative nature and the lapses he’s shown on defense were on display at the lower levels, too. Earlier this month, following a game in which the Suns trailed 36-9 to the Kings after the first quarter, Ayton told reporters, “You down that much, especially that early, there’s no way you’re getting back into the game.” It was an honest comment, and you know what: He’s probably right. But it’s a window into his mind-set, a defeatism that correlates with some of the half-hearted elements in his game.
NBA scouts and executives have long questioned Ayton’s competitive spirit, and those questions have all carried into the NBA. Ayton’s focus and effort are underwhelming, and he’s had a habit of complaining on the court. Ayton too often he gets beat up the floor in transition, and outmuscled in the half court, like he does in the clip above by Clippers center Boban Marjanovic. Even when Ayton contests jump shots, he turns his head to watch the flight of the ball instead of following through with his contest. Watching Ayton, it seems like he’s more worried about the results than he is channeling all his energy into the process (which can, of course, influence the results). On offense, he also still settles for too many jumpers, and lacks toughness fighting for positioning inside. He regularly goes through the motions running sets on offense: It’s common to see him failing to roll hard out of the pick-and-roll, mishandling a dribble handoff, or having trouble sealing his man off on the post. Ayton has a chiseled body that looks more CGI than human, yet his heart and hustle doesn’t match his physical presence.
So far, that’s been something of a disappointment for the Suns, because this team has needed a heartbeat. Given all the issues in Phoenix, it’s been easy for fans to look over on the other side of the fence in Dallas and wonder what could’ve been. Doncic could’ve been the playmaking complement that Booker needs, the Stephen Curry to his Klay Thompson. One could just as easily view them as the jumbo-sized Blazers backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, with pizzazz on offense but not enough defense to win deep into the playoffs. But there’s no use in even thinking about the path they didn’t take; the Suns must march forward with what they have. And what they have in Ayton could still be special.
From the moment Ayton was selected, the team’s focus became clear: the Suns wanted to build an inside-out system around a perimeter scoring machine in Booker, and an interior presence in Ayton. There’s a blueprint to be followed, and the Suns, despite how things look, are staying the course. Their draft-night trade for wing Mikal Bridges and signing of Trevor Ariza suggests there’s an understanding that Ayton and Booker can be optimized if surrounded by 3-and-D wings. The Suns need Josh Jackson to remember how to play basketball, and they need T.J. Warren’s improved 3-point jumper to be for real, but they have some appealing pieces nonetheless with upcoming cap space to add more talent.
Though the team is on the hunt for a point guard who can stabilize its offense, league sources suggested this summer that the plan was always to empower Booker with a James Harden–esque playmaking role. There have been a few setbacks due to Booker’s hand injury, which required surgery and caused him to miss all of training camp and preseason, but Point Booker has excelled in the role when he’s been able to grace the floor. The early returns are encouraging, particularly his chemistry with Ayton.
Booker is an established scorer who’s still mastering his craft, and Ayton needs to extend his shooting range and clean up some fundamentals when screening, but already they are a potent duo. Ayton can score with power or finesse, and Booker can get buckets from anywhere. If the talent around them improves, Booker-Ayton pick-and-rolls will be a Phoenix staple.
Ayton is scoring an excellent 1.07 points per possession in the half court, which is comparable to the always efficient Steven Adams. Ayton is far more skilled, of course, though he hasn’t always had opportunities to show it. Phoenix’s point guard problem is apparent in its inability to feed Ayton, but the rookie should also be fighting harder to demand touches. Ayton should do more of this:
Even here, Ayton looks tentative with an irresolute pump fake. Ayton needs to make a quicker read and just attack, instead of pausing and giving his defender more time to recover. Over time, perhaps, Ayton will make these calculations at a quicker rate. Already, he’s having success because he’s so bouncy when finishing around the rim, and can comfortably score with touch using either hand. If Ayton can extend his reliable short midrange jumper deeper, his game off the dribble should become even more of a weapon.
Ayton looks to pass so often because he knows he can make them. Whether it’s a kick-out from the post or an outlet following a defensive rebound, Ayton knows how to deliver an accurate ball with some zip. He freezes too much when pressured, but he handled double-teams well at Arizona; it may just take time to adjust to NBA pace, like it does for any other young player.
The season is young, and Ayton’s offensive tools have already impressed. The flaws are there, but it’s unreasonable to expect them to disappear so soon. The good part is everything that scouts lauded about his game in college has translated. The bad part is the same can be said about the concerns with his defense. Ayton makes slow reads in the pick-and-roll, but that’s to be expected for any young big man—especially one on this horrific Suns team that doesn’t play a lick of perimeter defense. The encouraging part is that, just like in college, Ayton is effective altering shots without fouling. I’ve been impressed with Ayton’s lateral movements; he seems to understand that his 7-foot-5 wingspan automatically makes him a deterrent. And over his past 10 games, while averaging 28.6 minutes, Ayton has begun getting his hands on more shots, too, logging 1.5 blocks per game.
Ayton was dropped into an unforgiving situation, and has already excelled on offense while having his moments on defense. With the season all but over in spirit, what the team will be looking for is how Ayton adapts. Executives said all last season that there were questions about Ayton’s maturity, and that’s still true today: During his first matchup against the Clippers, Ayton got destroyed by Marjanovic, a mountain of a man. After the game, Ayton admitted that he felt like a rookie and was thrown off by him. “No way I’m backing him down,” Ayton told reporters. “Who’s gonna back him down?” The next time they played, Ayton did: He built on his stinker and outperformed Boban in Round 2. If he keeps growing in other areas, maybe eventually, instead of compounding mistakes by making careless errors, he’ll follow up his mishaps with high-effort moments that raise the spirits of his teammates, and fuel his own confidence.
Ayton should bring this energy more consistently; he can be a culture changer for the Suns rather than a reflection of the chaos, if he chooses. A winning mentality is a skill like any other; it needs to be honed over time on the floor. Doncic had a head start in that regard playing in Spain at Real Madrid, earning the respect of his veteran teammates and accruing the individual and team accolades to back it all up. All of that is showing up in his rookie season with the Mavs. Ayton isn’t there yet, on or off the court. Ayton’s offensive upside is still only theoretical, and he’s yet to be a consistent defender at any level. There’s time for Ayton to change his approach, but skeptics likely won’t be holding their breath: One of the only truly consistent things about Ayton’s entire career has been his bouts with inconsistency. It’s on the Suns to maximize his environment to nurture his development, and on Ayton to put the extra work in. It will take two to prove the Suns were right to take this path.