Suns GM James Jones open to playing Deandre Ayton at PF

Sep 18, 2019, 3:29 PM | Updated: Sep 19, 2019, 6:57 pm

It’s a new regime in Phoenix with James Jones as general manager in a permanent role, Jeff Bower as vice president of basketball operations and Monty Williams as their first head coaching hire.

With that is going to come a change in what we’ve seen from the Suns when it comes to basketball philosophies and such.

One of those under former head coach Igor Kokoskov was a refusal to play No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton at power forward.

A critique of Ayton coming out of the NBA Draft was his tendency to stay outside of the key and not play as physical as he should. That, of course, is going with the fact that Ayton is supremely talented for his size and has perimeter skills and athleticism at 7-foot-1. Ayton notably shot 3-pointers for the Wildcats in his lone year at Arizona.

Kokoskov, though, repeatedly stated throughout the 2018-19 season that Ayton would grow from the inside first before expanding his game out. Ayton did not shoot from deep as a rookie but Kokoskov said that and other more expansive parts of Ayton’s game would come in the future.

“I think we all have to be more patient when it comes to expectations [for] Deandre,” Kokoskov said in November. “He’s gonna be a hell of a player. He’s extremely talented but he’s going through something every young player goes through. He’s playing against elite big guys, elite centers in this league, and it’s not easy.

“We put so much on his shoulders that I don’t want him to feel pressure but just enjoy, be aggressive and learn from mistakes but I also don’t want to basically paralyze [him].”

The message over and over again was that they were keeping it simple for Ayton, rightfully so. Before looking into his potential positional versatility, he was strictly played as a center.

Ayton played only seven of his 2,183 minutes with the team’s backup five Richaun Holmes last season.

But it sounds like that outright refusal is trending more towards some open-mindedness to the idea and that seven minutes will rise next season.

While joining the Suns’ Lindsey Smith on “The Outlet”, Jones was asked about the team’s offseason and addressing needs at point guard and power forward.

“This year we have — from Frank (Kaminsky), Dario (Saric), Cheick (Diallo) — we can play Deandre at power forward if we need to with Aron Baynes as our center,” Jones said. “We have a lot of depth at that position.”

The change in that belief could come with the fact that Baynes will be one of the team’s better players and finding more ways for him to get on the court. The Australian is one of the league’s most well-respected veteran bigs, known for his toughness and reliability after a successful stint with the Boston Celtics.

Jones even entertaining the idea, unlike Kokoskov, certainly points towards changes.

Ayton began incorporating a set of 3-point shots in his pregame warmups and post-practice drills in the second half of the season and stated a desire to become a playmaker off the bounce this upcoming season.

“Taking the ball at the rim and pushing it,” he said in late March. “That’s what I’m gonna be doing next year.”

When asked about that, Kokoskov admitted the talent is there for Ayton to do much more than a traditional center.

“He’s a basketball player. He’s not necessarily a five-man,” he said in late March. “He’s not a center — he’s a modern center.

“Many, many times you guys ask me when he’s gonna be able to shoot threes, now playmaking on the break, and then post catches, we’re switching a lot and he can guard LeBron … but the point is he’s a versatile basketball player. He’s not an old-school center.”

If he begins really handling the ball, as former Sun Jamal Crawford put it at that same time, makes Ayton unique.

“If he does that progression in his game he’ll be one of five guys that big that can do that?” Crawford asked.

There’s a balancing act at hand for the Suns in developing Ayton the right way, and it looks like in year two they are going to at least take the training wheels off.

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