Deandre Ayton changing his game, impressing Suns teammates
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Whenever a freakish athlete and next-level talent makes a big play and his teammates are asked about it, we usually get a repetitive answer.
“That’s just (fill in the blank). He does that all the time in practice.”
That’s what we will be hearing about Phoenix Suns No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton in due time, but right now his teammates are getting their first impressions playing on the court with him, and they are blown away.
“He’s so skilled,” power forward Ryan Anderson said at the team’s media day on Monday. “Fundamentally, physically, he can run the court well, his touch is amazing.”
Anderson would know a great young big when he sees one after his time in New Orleans.
“Anthony Davis — I remember Anthony coming in very raw,” Anderson said. “He had raw talent but it was there.
“Man, DA is advanced. Obviously, his size is there but his ability to handle the ball, shoot, score down low but also he’s very smart. He’s a very mature player. He’s got a bright future.”
Center Tyson Chandler was quite the freakish athlete himself coming into the league, but even he is taken aback by Ayton.
“You don’t see a guy that size move like that, that has a touch like that — they don’t come around often,” Chandler said Monday. “Especially with the way the game is changing.
“There aren’t too many big guys, honestly, who are going to be able to play in this style of basketball and he possesses those gifts that he can play in this era, but not only that, he can be scary in this era.”
Those veterans glowing about Ayton are also the ones that can help him more than most as a rookie.
“Those guys — they’re full of wisdom,” Ayton said Wednesday. “They help us a lot on the court, too, when we’re confused and it’s like they know where we’re lost on the floor. They come over and talk to us and tell us about it, make us more comfortable.”
That communication, along with how different his role will be in the NBA, add up to a good landing spot for Ayton in Phoenix.
“Ryan (Anderson) won’t ever come in the paint unless he has a blow-by or a mismatch,” Ayton said Tuesday. “The spacing is amazing. I have a lot more time and room to myself. I draw a lot more attention when it comes to pick-and-rolls.”
Anderson likes what he has seen on the court as far as Ayton recognizing how their frontcourt partnership can thrive.
“I know we are going to have a really good dynamic in that way,” he said Tuesday. “He’s done a great job implementing.”
Shooting and space adds up to what Ayton wants no more of what he saw all year down in Tucson: doubles.
“Trust me, there won’t be any double-team, I can tell you that,” Ayton said Tuesday. “That’s good. It’s going to be fun this year.”
Ayton is honest about how he is progressing along, and he isn’t afraid to admit when he’s overwhelmed or caught off-guard.
“Today was a hello, it wasn’t that bad,” Ayton said Tuesday after the team’s first training camp practice in Flagstaff. “It’s a lot of details, they are throwing a lot of stuff at you. Lot of defense. Lot of sets and plays. You just gotta stay dialed-in today.”
A few times on Monday Ayton brought up how “serious” the NBA work and job really are.
That might rub some the wrong way, but the thing to understand about Ayton is his willingness to adapt and be coachable.
That’s what has stood out to the franchise’s star player.
“Just a willingness to learn, picking things up quick,” shooting guard Devin Booker said of Ayton. “Coach tells him one thing, then I watch him the next five plays, he does exactly how coach says.
“Being able to pick things up like that, young and being a big — usually bigs can’t pick up on things like that from my experiences, but he’s really intelligent, really smart. That’s important for him.”
That much can be shown from how Ayton evaluates himself from the summer league in early July to training camp now in late September.
“I’m a whole new person now,” Ayton said. “Summer league — I was still Deandre from U of A. Now, I’m changed, like, now I think my game upgraded a lot more.”
Even hearing Ayton 48 hours later from Monday to Wednesday — you can tell the comfort level is rising.
That includes big-time challenges, such as playing a key role in the team’s defense.
“He’s gotta be our defensive coordinator,” head coach Igor Kokoskov said Wednesday. “That’s his job description.”
Ayton is up for it.
“Dudes that (are) down low really have to be the general,” Ayton said Wednesday. “I’m my point guards and wings’ eyes. I gotta be vocal when I’m tired — that’s what I’m learning now.”
The message coming from Kokoskov is clear, as well as what comes after once the guidance is executed.
“I [told] him last night we have to sacrifice,” Kokoskov said. “Camp is a big sacrifice, putting five hours, six hours yesterday — sacrifice, but then you start dominating and that’s a beautiful [feeling].”