With the game set up and ready to go, just before they broke their scrum, the final message from Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams to his team was simple.
“Do it,” he said. “If he throws it, DA, you have to try, for example, to immerse it.
Williams spoke to Deandre Ayton and told his third year old man that this piece, which the host Suns had never played as often as practiced, was for him. It was a game that would decide Tuesday’s second game of Western Conference one way or another, the kind of game you put in the hands of your franchisee.
For the suns, it’s usually Devin Booker – or Chris Paul when available. But it was fitting that on a night that about three hours before the final chaotic moments of Game 2 ping-pong balls were pulled out of a funnel and the 2021 draft lottery made official, former No. 1 overall pick Ayton had the most important of the Suns Game in his hands in a decade.
Ayton’s place in draft history is an unusual one, far from any consideration of failure or bad choice, but neither boy finished two or four places behind him either. Luka Doncic and Trae Young have risen to superstar since the Suns put him in first place in the overall standings in 2018. Most post-mortem design analysis has focused on the Doncic and Young swaps, but Ayton’s choice of suns has remained a casual what-if whisper.
It crashed to a climax last season when Ayton was banned from 25 games for using a banned substance called a diuretic. It came a day after a dominant opening night performance in which Ayton had 18 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocks in a win over the Sacramento Kings. The suns looked fine. Ayton too. But after his suspension and a couple of ankle injuries that slowed him down, the Suns never found traction.
Her run in the bubble was the foundation of everything this season, including Ayton. In the past he wasn’t as dedicated to the work as he said he should have been. It’s not that he’s lazy or unmotivated, but there are different levels of achievement and ability, and Ayton admits he wasn’t what he had to be.
“There were times when I couldn’t even get around on days off,” said Ayton. “[Williams] would use a thing called smelling in the gym, at least touch a ball, and he really instilled this into me where I wanted to constantly improve my skills and do my best. “
Ayton spent the off-season changing his approach, renewing his work ethic, and committing to being a dominant tall man. The accountability of seasoned teammates including Paul and Jae Crowder helped with the refreshed mindset.
Deandre Ayton draws the defense’s attention as he emphatically tosses a two-handed dunk at Devin Booker’s alley-oop pass.
“I could go on and on about where he was and where he is now,” said Williams. “He’s becoming a really dominant player on both ends of the floor.”
It was shown this postseason when Ayton was showing off his two-way skills. He’s taken on the challenge of guarding Lakers star Anthony Davis (before his injury), then league MVP Nikola Jokic, and now the little LA Clippers. His versatility created a new dynamic for the Clippers – Ayton’s size, speed, and quickness pose different problems.
And the production was breathtaking. According to research by the Elias Sports Bureau, Ayton is the first player in the shot clock era (since 1954-55) to achieve a field goal percentage of 70% or more in a post-season period of 12 games this postseason. He has played five games with 20 points and 10 rebounds this postseason, most by a Suns player since Amar’e Stoudemire in 2007.
“I’ve never played so hard from the jump ball to the end,” said Ayton. “One hundred and fifty percent. It’s usually 110, but that’s 150%. And it’s also 150% mental. Just the focus and the things that you really have to pay attention to. It’s really intense, man.”
Ayton may not be the basic superstar that slot # 1 is reserved for. He may not have spent a decade forming all-star teams or winning awards, but he’s a cornerstone for the suns. It’s an example of rostering, an ideal complement to the scheme Williams developed to support Booker, Paul, and the army of riflemen circling the perimeter. Ayton is not trying to achieve his status or validate his site design, he just wants to upgrade the Phoenix Suns.
“He’s starting to understand that a role doesn’t limit you,” Williams said. “Sometimes when you tell a guy that this is your role, they tend to think that there is nothing else I can do. But he just has a big role. “
The 2018 draft cloud does not follow Ayton. He has admitted to being sensitive to perception and criticism in the past, but left everything behind.
“At the end of the day, we’re all different players,” said Ayton of the comparison with Doncic and Young. “I’m a 7-foot tall man and you are two point guards. I don’t know what to compare. But I play as hard as I can. This is my team. I dominate the best.” as I can for this team and try to bring this team as far as possible. Otherwise, I trust my work, I trust my work ethic, I trust my craft. “
Ayton is relentlessly personable and illuminates any availability after the game with humor and a megawatt grin. His answers show a lovable innocence, with refreshing honesty and humility in every answer. He called Crowders Pass the real game winner because it was spot on. He admitted he wasn’t aware of the no-goalkeeping rule that stifled his celebration because he didn’t want to be a slip-up. And he shook off any notion that he was playing for something other than the success of his team. The personal confirmation comes by itself.
His dunk was the first game to win his career, and when he gave himself up to teammates and coaches and basically everyone involved at every level of the Suns organization, he slipped one thing in the direction of how the game came together and allowed himself only that least bit of credit.
“The coach played a great game and I was in the best position,” he said. “My teammates trust me and my coaches trust me.”
“And the rest was just my athleticism. My talent.”