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Deandre Ayton flashes two-way potential in Suns preseason debut

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) dunks over Sacramento Kings forward Harry Giles (20) during the second half of a preseason NBA basketball game Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — Phoenix Suns fans got their first impression of No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton in Las Vegas for NBA Summer League, and it was a mixed bag.

Monday night was anything but that.

In the team’s preseason opener against the Sacramento Kings, Ayton was extremely impressive, finishing with 24 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in 30 minutes of a 106-102 loss.

Ayton credited how full his tank of energy was, something he struggled with in Las Vegas.

“I had a lot of fun, especially when you work so hard in the offseason to get yourself in NBA-ready shape,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun when you’re not fatigued.”

On multiple occasions, Ayton showed why he was the Suns’ guy at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft. From bullying three-year veteran Willie Cauley-Stein for a bucket around the rim to his speed on rolls to the hoop, his athleticism was all over the place offensively.

Most notably, though, it showed on defense, where Ayton had three shot rejections and was incredibly active.

In one stretch of play, Ayton covered the space behind the Kings’ ball-handler in case his on-ball defender needed help. When the ball-handler shot, he quickly tagged and located Cauley-Stein under the hoop on the other side of the basket to box him out and grab the rebound.

That might not sound like much, but it’s what Ayton will have to do every night and struggled to do, at times, as a defender at Arizona for Sean Miller. The essential fundamentals of his defensive role were all there.

Add it all together and you’ve got a two-play sequence like we had in the late fourth quarter.

With the Suns down two and under 1:30 to go, Ayton worked hard and denied Kings big and second overall pick Marvin Bagley III post position on defense. That killed the Kings’ possession and forced a miss.

On the other end, Ayton hustled down the court to seal off Bagley in the post in semi-transition, and after the post entry, Bagley had no choice but to wrap up Ayton and foul him.

That’s changing the game on both ends, which is what makes Ayton so tantalizing as a center prospect.

His two-man game with wing Josh Jackson flourished. Jackson and Ayton have a clear connection on the court that has already developed, with Jackson providing a few alley-oop passes to the big man.

“When I’m coming down the lane and I know he’s on the side rolling to the basket, it’s a pretty easy decision for me,” Jackson said. “I can just see whether his man is gonna take me or take him and whichever his man takes, the other guy gets the shot.”

Ayton spoke highly of Jackson’s ability to find him.

“As soon as I screen, the ball is in the air and I just gotta go get it,” he said. “That’s just Josh. He will find you every time.”

Jackson finished with 17 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals, putting up one of the best performances of the night. He flashed some of his playmaking with those team-high six assists, a part of his game he got away from in his rookie year.

“Naturally, when I decide to drive to the basket I draw a lot of defenders, I have a lot of eyes and attention on me so whenever I see an open guy I’m going to give him the ball,” he said. “That’s just how I play.”

As for the whole game, the Suns had some issues. They shot 3-of-22 from three-point range, which wasn’t a good enough percentage, but also didn’t meet head coach Igor Kokoskov’s threshold of at least 30 attempts a game.

The coach also mentioned the team’s poor assist-to-turnover ratio, with Phoenix managing 19 assists and 17 turnovers.

With that in mind, it was the first preseason game after all, and he knows the progress will come.

“You can tell there’s a lot of thinking, getting to spots, and we don’t have that flow that we would have,” he said. “You can tell it requires some time.”

NOTES

— Point guard Isaiah Canaan is dealing with a minor thumb injury and did not play. The 27-year-old is far and away the most experienced point guard on the roster, making him a legitimate candidate to start.

— Forward Darrell Arthur was not at training camp in Flagstaff and is not with the team.

— Shooting guard Devin Booker was seen at halftime getting shots up with his right hand, something he wasn’t doing at training camp.

Booker still had the splint on from his hand surgery.

UP NEXT

The Suns are back at home on Wednesday taking on the New Zealand Breakers. The action starts at 7:00 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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