For Deandre Ayton and Suns, NBA Draft night reveals brighter horizons
BROOKLYN – Some draft classes jump off the page. This one looks even better in person.
The Suns turned a 50-year wait for an impact center into a foregone conclusion. Their selection of Deandre Ayton was the worst-kept secret in basketball and still thrilled a starving fan base. And that was before 76ers star Joel Embiid decided to troll the Valley’s newest young star.
“Don’t compare Ayton to me either … I play DEFENSE,” Embiid chirped on Twitter.
Raise a glass. Finally, the Suns have the NBA’s attention. Then things got really strange.
General Manager Ryan McDonough is no stranger to doubling down in the first round.
He acquired both Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss in the first eight picks of the 2016 NBA draft, a sleight-of-hand that was cheered heartily in real time. That was before both players turned out to be paper tigers, figments of our imagination.
This time, he snagged the Villanova star, Mikal Bridges, who was one of the best small forwards in college basketball, not the guy who flashed and sizzled in the NCAA title game, Donte DiVincenzo.
This pairing of first-round acquisitions is far more enlightened and inspiring than his previous effort. The only way the night could’ve gone better is if the Suns’ GM had worked a deal for Ayton and Luka Doncic, giving presents to his Slovenian head coach and the owner who went to college in Tucson.
It might take Bridges a while to reconcile the disappointment of playing basketball in the desert. He was drafted by the 76ers with the 10th overall pick, a franchise that employs his mother as VP of Human Resources. He was a hometown kid who made good, believing his basketball talents were a never-ending gift to Philadelphia. He blissfully completed an entire press conference without knowing he’d been traded to Phoenix.
It was a ruthless twist of fate that made you feel bad for Bridges. Unless you reside on Planet Orange and know about Robert Horry, John Paxson and what it’s like to have your heart ripped out of your chest at the worst possible time.
Good for McDonough.
Still, the biggest story was Ayton, who let his guard down after becoming the first Bahamian player to be selected with the No. 1 pick since Mychal Thompson in 1978. Ayton said his palms were sweating when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver took the stage at the Barclays Center. He was absurdly nervous, asking his mother the same question over and over again:
“Do you think I’m going to go No. 1?”
When Silver announced his name, Ayton acted like he expected nothing less. But he admitted the moment was “mind-blowing.” Like an overworked fuse, his mind immediately went blank. He remembers looking at his mother when time seemed to stand still, when a young man was no longer a famous basketball player with the world on a string, but an eager son pleasing his most treasured ally.
“I saw the reaction on my mom’s face,” he said. “And it was priceless.”
During his pre-draft visit to Phoenix, Ayton made headlines by insisting he was the No. 1 pick in the draft. His confidence was steely and unnerving, almost to the point of suspicion. That façade melted away on Thursday in a manner that should make Suns fans appreciate him even more.
As for the Jeff Rodgers basketball camp in the Bahamas when Ayton reportedly discovered his love for basketball? He said that was a stretch, and that his mother just wanted him out of the house.
Ayton’s emergence as an impact player and future millionaire came with great sacrifice. He lost his childhood to basketball, an island boy who was quickly exported to the U.S. for proper grooming and exposure. It became a nightmare, eventually leading Ayton from surrogate families in San Diego to a new home in Phoenix, and ultimately to Sean Miller’s program in Tucson.
When asked about future priorities, his answer was both inspiring and heartbreaking.
“I want to bring to the Bahamas (the message) that they don’t have to leave home to think they have an opportunity,” he said. “We can bring the opportunity to them. I can help bring the opportunity to them. We can just start schools. We can start better basketball opportunities to really have more exposure, instead of coming to the United States or going overseas. We’ll just be at home and start our own trend.”
Clearly, the kid has already paid a heavy price. And that was before the FBI and ESPN made his college experience far less than he expected.
Maybe that explains Ayton’s personality, his alter egos, and his need to make people laugh. The Valley has a serious shortage of entertaining athletes, and this guy is different. He’s easy to embrace, especially when you get past the bravado. He brings the kind of personality and flavor that our sporting landscape sorely lacks.
But his path has been anything but easy.
“I’m a very easy-going guy,” Ayton said. “I know a lot of people think I’m just a big guy who is mean. And I say ‘Bully Season’ a lot. But it really means, whatever your craft is, you want to be dominant in it. So, yeah, I’m just a really funny guy. A lot of people think I’m just (a bully), but in interviews, I’m very funny. And I make everybody feel welcome and comfortable.”
Hopefully, that doesn’t apply to opponents who wander into the lane at Talking Stick Resort Arena. And hopefully the 2018 NBA draft proves #TheTimeline is a thing of the past, giving way to a real future.
Reach Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.