The sunniest surprise of the first full night of the 2019-20 NBA season was Phoenix, which steamrollered Sacramento in a 124-95 win. Devin Booker and new point guard Ricky Rubio tallied double-doubles, and so did center Deandre Ayton, with 18 points and 11 boards, and Phoenix ended Wednesday with the greatest point differential in the league.
And then, because it’s the Phoenix Suns, the team was able to enjoy that start for less than 24 hours: On Thursday night, the NBA announced a 25-game suspension for Ayton, 2018’s no. 1 overall draft pick, for violating the league’s antidrug policy. The 21-year-old tested positive for a diuretic, a class of substance regulated because it can be used as a masking agent, helping the body remove evidence of other banned substances like steroids before testing. In baseball, for instance, Robinson Canó and Michael Pineda were suspended for positive diuretic tests in recent seasons, though Pineda was able to reduce the length of his suspension by successfully arguing he didn’t take the diuretic to hide PED use.
Ayton will attempt the same tactic, according to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Follow-up tests of Ayton revealed no traces of other banned substances, and the players’ association will try to get the suspension reduced under the CBA’s “unintentional ingestion” provision. But in any case, Thursday’s news puts a damper on the Suns’ early-season efforts.
“This was an unintentional mistake and unfortunately I put something in my body that I was completely unaware of,” Ayton said in a statement, adding, “I’m extremely disappointed that I’ve let my team down. I will continue to work with the NBPA to go through arbitration and am hopeful of a positive resolution.”
Ayton’s case represents big news not only because it takes one of the Suns’ best players off the floor, but also because of its rarity in the NBA; suspensions for antidrug policy violations have been issued infrequently, especially among players of Ayton’s stature. Recent suspensions of this length went to players like Wilson Chandler, Jodie Meeks, and an older Joakim Noah—none of them All-Star–caliber talents like the Phoenix center.
The 2019-20 campaign is crucial for a Suns team trying to turn the corner on a long stretch of losing. Booker is already in his fifth season, but his team has never won more than 24 games and has by far the NBA’s worst record in that span. For the first time in years, though, the Suns could lay reasonable claim to a viable NBA starting five: Rubio—a real live point guard!—and Booker in the backcourt, flashy forwards in Kelly Oubre Jr. and Dario Saric, and Ayton in the middle. And after trading for established players in Saric and Aron Baynes over the summer, plus drafting 23-year-old Cam Johnson—himself older than Booker—Phoenix signaled an intention to win now, even amid a crowded Western Conference field.
Last season, Ayton was overshadowed by other members of his impressive rookie class, but there was no shame in not matching Luka Doncic highlight for highlight. The 6-foot-11 Sun turned in a promising season of his own, averaging 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game—numbers that, historically, portend not just a long and successful career, but a Hall of Fame one. And on the defensive end, the once-easily-fooled rookie improved to at least playable by the second half of the season; at the very least, he stopped standing flat-footed or getting spun while defending a basic pick-and-roll.
Ayton’s gains seemed to continue through the first night of the 2019-20 season, as well. He shot a robust 9-for-14 from the field against Sacramento, blocked a career-high four shots, and posted a plus-25 differential while on the court.
Now, Ayton will have to sit, if not for 25 games then for at least some duration of an important developmental period. Ayton is still learning the cadence of an NBA game, particularly on defense, and he is still learning to coexist with Booker and a relatively unfamiliar cast of starters: Oubre played 40 games for Phoenix after a midseason trade last season, while Rubio and Saric are both new to the team.
Even if its length isn’t reduced, the suspension could prove a mere hiccup in Ayton’s developmental timeline. Twenty-five games matter, but they won’t make or break his career. However, for a franchise in dire need of some extended good news, a suspension for the prospective franchise center’s possible consumption of performance-enhancing drugs is just about the opposite. The Suns took one step forward with a resounding opening-night win, only to take one giant step backward the very next night. Such is the state of affairs in Phoenix for a half-decade running.