Once derided and demeaned, Deandre Ayton delivers for Suns in a big way in NBA Finals debut
On the day he became the No. 1 selection in the NBA Draft, Deandre Ayton stood slightly taller than 7-0, weighed 261 pounds, had been measured at 84 inches from the tip of his outstretched right hand to the tip of his left and tested at 44 inches in the vertical jump. He had averaged 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds for a team that claimed the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament championships and was named a consensus first-team All-American.
Had that day arrived in 1998 or 2008 rather than 2018, there would have general managers offering their least-favorite children to the Suns in exchange for Ayton’s draft rights. He would have been viewed as the next in a line of franchise-foundation big men, a succession traveling through time from George Mikan to Bill Russell to Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan.
Instead, in the modern era of basketball analysis, he had internet draft experts fussing about his “block rate.” When Ayton was not quite midway through his rookie season, still 20 years old, a writer at the blog “Valley of the Suns” declared, “Deandre Ayton was not the right pick for the Phoenix Suns at first overall” because the modern game is oriented toward shooting and ballhandling. Ayton was averaging 15.5 points and 10 rebounds at the time.
Now 17 games into his first NBA Playoffs run – and three victories removed from a championship – Ayton’s brilliance is causing a reassessment of the value of the 7-footer, especially one who can jump, move, rebound and finish at the rim as adeptly as Ayton. If there are any others.
“He’s just locked into the role,” Suns coach Monty Williams said following his team’s 118-105 victory over the Bucks in Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals. “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 announced his entry into the Finals with 22 points and 19 rebounds. He shot 8-of-10 from the field and 6-of-6 from the foul line. He grabbed 17 defensive rebounds – that’s more than a third of all the shots the Bucks missed – and committed only three fouls. He didn’t register a single blocked shot. It did not seem to matter to the Bucks, who converted only 46.2 percent of their 2-point attempts.
Nothing that happened in his first Finals game was a surprise to those who’ve watched Ayton throughout the Suns’ 51-21 season, and particularly the four playoff series in which they have compiled a 13-4 record.
“Chris (Paul) whispered to me as he was walking out, ‘We’ve been on his ass.’ And that’s why Chris can say it’s who he’s most proud of, and I feel the same way,” superstar guard Devin Booker said. “Sometimes you’re walking on the court and Chris’ll be waiting right there. ‘You done Chris? All right, now let me tell him something.’ We’re all in his ear, we’re all on him, and for him to retain all that information and come perform at the level that he’s been performing, it’s hard to put words to it.
“He has gone through his phases in his NBA career, but since these playoffs started you have seen his maturity and his growth go to a whole ‘nother level. He’s continued to get better. And his willingness to learn – now, instead of me coming up to him, he might come to me and be like, ‘What should I do when this happens?’
“He still has even more in the tank that he’s going to show soon.”
Ayton’s scoring average declined this season, his third in the league, because the arrival of superstar point guard Chris Paul meant Ayton carrying less offensive responsibility. Ayton took five fewer shots per game, but his accuracy soared from 54.6 percent to 62.6 percent.
As the consequences have grown in the playoffs, his numbers have looked like something from a Marvel movie: 16.5 points per game, 12.2 rebounds, 71.1 percent shooting.
“It certainly helps to have Chris and Book creating opportunities for him, but he’s done a really good job of understanding the angles and screens and where to be in the pocket to finish around the basket,” Williams said. “And he’s just a presence down there. 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.”
Ever since the first NBA Draft lottery in 1985 delivered Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing to the Knicks, seeing those ping-pong balls pop properly has been an obsession for fans seeking deliverance from the depths of the league. But if Ayton is able to help the Suns to finish this championship, he will be only the third No. 1 overall pick of the lottery era to win a title within his first five seasons with the team that selected him. And the other two both had another No. 1 overall pick on the roster: the Spurs’ Tim Duncan had David Robinson, the Cavs’ Kyrie Irving had LeBron James.
So the player presumed to be literally too big for the game is proving to be an ideal fit with the Suns.
“I’m happy that he’s playing well. I’m happy that he has an effect on the game in different ways. It’s not just offense. There are games where, defensively, he impacts the game and covers up a lot of mistakes that we make. It usually takes younger bigs a lot longer, but again I think playing with Chris, playing with Devin and the work that DA puts in with coach Mark Bryant has really helped him.
“He is a talented player. His ability to rebound and finish around the basket, and then to have a big that can step up and make free throws is something we don’t take for granted. He’d be the first one to tell you … it’s one game and we have a lot more work to do.”
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