Pressure on Deandre Ayton to succeed makes him right pick for Suns
NEW YORK – Fifty years of misfortune ends on Thursday. The Suns will make history while feeling doubly blessed.
They have the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. There is no debate or dilemma among the fan base, meaning Deandre Ayton will be hailed as a franchise savior, a selection the Suns can make without the fear of failure.
The masses will approve. Most everyone will be on board. No one will blame the organization if the player turns out to be a bitter disappointment.
“Let’s start a winning legacy,” Ayton said on Wednesday, when asked what he’d like to say to the city of Phoenix. “Let’s start winning games and be great.”
Ayton is expected to make his own kind of history. He is about to become the first Bahamian player selected No. 1 overall since Mychal Thompson in 1978. He will become a national hero overnight, shouldering far more responsibility than ending the Suns’ playoff drought.
“It would be a big blessing, carrying a nation on your shoulders, representing the Bahamas,” Ayton said. “It’s just a huge opportunity to show the world that we’re coming. The Bahamian people are not only a country of track and field. We’re also a country of basketball.”
After the Lakers selected Thompson with their No. 1 pick, basketball hoops started hanging from coconut trees in the Bahamas. Thompson eventually staged an All-Star exhibition in his native land, spending $20,000 to import an official wooden court to the Bahamas. Magic Johnson showed up, and the locals went bananas.
The same will happen on Thursday if and when Ayton is selected by the Suns.
Much has been made of Ayton’s dynamic, whimsical personality. He’s extremely comfortable around people and loves to induce laughter, making others uncomfortable for comedic purposes.
That matters a lot. The Valley surely leads all major sports markets in humble, reserved athletes who speak like vanilla ice cream. We could use a little more flavor.
But 24 hours before his big moment, Ayton was dialing it down a few notches. Maybe it was the realization that he’s about to become a professional, achieving a rare feat and fulfilling an impossible dream. That he will soon represent Planet Orange and a Caribbean nation.
“I want (Bahamian people) to know that anything is possible,” Ayton said. “And you always have to represent wherever you go. That means being accountable, responsible, humble, and never forgetting where you came from.”
Ayton isn’t without risk. He first emerged as a future star in August 2014 when he showed up in Bahamian gym, shortly before tipoff, joining a patchwork group of locals scheduled to play North Carolina in a meaningless exhibition. Ayton proceeded to dunk all over Roy Williams’ decorated college team, landing on American radar for the first time.
Except Williams never recruited Ayton, claiming his school must’ve had reasons. Ayton ended up in Tucson, but only after his mother ripped him out of San Diego, tired of the exploitation and barnacles that come with growing up as a basketball prodigy. He enrolled at the University of Arizona, where Sean Miller raved about his character and work ethic, where a decorated reporter claimed he was subject of a $100,000 pay-for-play arrangement.
Ayton’s finest moment as a basketball player didn’t come in that exhibition against Williams’ team in the Bahamas. It came after that ESPN report in 2017, when the distractions and damaging allegations only made him stronger, even more focused.
Like most people, I believe the Suns should draft Ayton with their first No. 1 pick in franchise history. But I’m more apprehensive than most.
Luka Doncic could be the best European player in history, athletically challenged but mentally superior to everyone in the draft. Former two-time MVP Steve Nash just called him a “dream prospect,” and that should mean something to Suns fans who know better than to question Nash’s vision.
I also wonder if public opinion would be different if Marvin Bagley III had remained rooted at one Valley high school, and not ending up in California. Would he be the chosen Sun instead of Ayton?
“I want to be the greatest player to ever play the game of basketball, and I mean that in the most humble way possible,” Bagley said on Wednesday. “Not too sound too cocky or come off as arrogant, but that’s just the mindset that I have.”
For those who call Ayton a generational talent, just remember that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called Bagley “the most unique player we’ve had here at Duke in my 38 years.”
That’s proof there are no guarantees or sure things in the NBA draft, outside of LeBron James and a few others. But when the Suns arrive at their moment of truth, on the clock and in possession of the No. 1 pick, I’m still siding with Ayton.
Not because he played in Tucson and tormented Sun Devils fans. Not because his body is already NBA-ready, accelerating his learning curve.
It’s because he’s representing an entire country. Those guys rarely take anything for granted, and rarely take a day off.
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.