Deandre Ayton is causing a major reassessment of the value of an old-school basketball center. When Ayton was selected No. 1 overall in the 2018 NBA draft, some internet draft “experts” thought the Phoenix Suns were making a mistake for investing in a 7-footer who doesn’t fit the modern big preferred by analytics.
Now, the 250-pound Bahamian beast is making a believer out of almost everyone in the basketball world — including the analytics nerds.
Ayton made a splashy debut in the NBA Finals, scoring 22 points, grabbing 19 rebounds, shooting 80 percent from the field (making eight of 10 shots) against the Milwaukee Bucks. Only three other players put up those kinds of numbers in the NBA Finals: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“I’m just happy. I get goosebumps. Sometimes I overwhelm myself on the way to the game. I’m having a lot of fun because my guys in here, they keep me level,” said Ayton, who is shooting a Shaq-like 71 percent from the field in the 2021 postseason while averaging 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Chris Paul and Devin Booker grab all the headlines and the SportsCenter highlights, but it’s Ayton who might be the most important player on the Suns.
Ayton gave the L.A. Lakers fits in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, going toe-to-toe with Lakers superstar Anthony Davis. After dispatching the Lakers, Suns swept the Denver Nuggets in the conference semifinals. In that series, Ayton was matched against reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. Ayton basically played Jokic to a draw, which was a win for the Suns.
In the conference finals, Ayton consistently destroyed the L.A. Clippers’ small-ball lineup and forced Clippers coach Ty Lue to go back to a more conventional lineup with 7-footer Ivica Zubac at center.
Jokic, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, and Utah’s Rudy Gobert — the three big men regarding by many experts as 1-2-3 in the pecking order — are all sitting at home while Ayton keeps getting stronger with each round and appears ready to challenge Jokic, Embiid, and Gobert for a spot on the All-NBA teams.
“He’s just locked into the role,” Suns coach Monty Williams said his third-year center. “Sometimes when you tell a player they have a role, they tend to think you’re limiting their ability. I don’t think DA thinks that. I think he understands his role and how he can affect winning, on both sides of the ball.”
Ayton’s role on the Suns is simple. Offensively, when he’s not catching lobs and finishing at the rim, he helps trigger the offense by setting screens, freeing up Paul and Booker on many mid-range forays. Defensively, he protects the paint and secures any defensive rebound he can get his hands on. It’s imperative for him to win the battle of the boards because the Suns are not the biggest team in the league. Ayton doesn’t mind doing all the dirty work.
“He’s just a presence down there,” Williams said of his young center, who turns 23 on July 23. “Sometimes they have to run two guys at him to keep him off the glass, and that allows our wings to pick up some offensive rebounds.”
Williams added: “I think his focus during the playoffs has been something that doesn’t surprise me — I just didn’t expect him, as young as he is, to be locked in,” Williams said. “And he’s been listening to Chris [Paul], all of our older guys when it comes to the experience, the playoff mentality and everything he’s doing in the weight room. I’ll look over in the weight room and he’s doing something in the weight room that I have never seen him do before, and it’s usually something that Chris has in his program.”
Ayton has totally bought into what Williams has been preaching since the day he got hired as Phoenix’s head coach. Williams wanted Ayton to get in better shape and focus on the game plan.
“He’s watching a ton of film on his own, so I just think he’s embracing the experience,” Williams said. “To be as young as he is and his first time going through it, I did not expect him to be where he is right now as far as his focus and attention to detail and the level of force that he’s playing with.”
There was a moment in Game 2 of the NBA Finals involving Williams and Ayton that’ll inspire basketball fans. Ayton was sulking a bit because he wasn’t playing up to his standard. Williams immediately noticed his big man was feeling a little down, so he took the time to pump him up.
“Look at me. You set a high level for yourself. That’s why you’re down. That’s great,” Williams told Ayton. “Now go reach that level. And you can reach it with force. Dominate the game with force.”
Ayton responded with another forceful game.