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Early takeaways from training camp with the Phoenix Suns

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns reacts during the final moments of the NBA game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Talking Stick Resort Arena on March 04, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Bucks 114-105. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – As reporters poured into Northern Arizona University’s Rolle Activity Center Tuesday, Phoenix Suns players toed the baseline and prepared to run.

Those training camp wind sprints are among the first steps in the NBA’s marathon 82-game season.

And there were a lot of new faces strung out along the baseline. Only Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Elie Okobo made the trip up to Flagstaff for last year’s training camp, and Booker didn’t take part after undergoing offseason surgery on his shooting hand only a few weeks before camp.

Coming off of a disastrous 19-win season and last place finish in the Western Conference, changes were predictable. And the Suns underwent a bunch of them. They have a new coach, Monty Williams, and new assistants. There is a new general manager, James Jones, who filled the job on an interim basis last season. Even the team’s medical and performance staff is new.

The Suns view the changes as a new approach and a fresh start, as evidenced by these three quotes from camp:

“I’ve never worked so hard before in the gym in my life. I’ve seen these lines so many times it’s just, I see them in my regular life now. They beat me to the ground this summer.” – Deandre Ayton

As a 20-year-old rookie and the No. 1 overall draft pick last season, Ayton put up more than 16 points and 10 rebounds per game, suggesting a long career of double-doubles lies ahead. However, the 7-foot-1 center also struggled as an interior defender, registering less than one block per game.

It’s clear that Ayton’s strength and conditioning was an offseason priority. Ayton said he was “surrounded” by coaches in the workout room all summer and added that Williams believes he has the potential to defend any position.

Even Ayton was skeptical about that at this point.

“I’m not really trying to go far with that,” he said.

“It’s more than basketball, that’s the feeling I’m getting. Coach Monty is not just telling you … he wants you to be great genuinely, passionately. He sets standards, great standards, you want to abide by.” – Ayton

Ayton embraced the offseason attention from the Suns new coaching staff. He echoed players across the league who have said Williams is a quality coach and an even better person.

He and several of his teammates praised Williams before ever playing a game for him, reflecting the kind of change in culture that Jones sought when he hired Williams. Jones fired former coach Igor Kokoskov after his first season despite the club’s recent history of constantly changing coaches and front-office personnel.

Williams is also set on transforming the Suns culture and spoke Tuesday about first-round draft picks Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome, who both come from winning programs at North Carolina and Virginia respectively. He also praised incoming veteran playmaker Ricky Rubio, whom he called “a natural leader.”

“When you put them in a good culture and atmosphere, they have the chance to do their best work,” Williams said. “When you put them in that value system, you have a good chance to win.”

“I usually lead by example but I think I need to be a little bit more vocal here.” – Ricky Rubio

Rarely has Rubio looked up and found himself as the oldest guy in the room. He rose to prominence as a kid, often schooling adult men in Europe after turning professional as a 14-year-old in Spain.

But it’s something he will need to get used to in Phoenix. Only fellow newcomer Aron Baynes, 32, is older than the 28-year-old Rubio, who is entering his ninth NBA season. Baynes is entering his eighth.

Rubio is known as quiet, even shy, off the court. Ayton joked to reporters Tuesday that teammates have to establish eye contact with Rubio just to say hi to him. But Rubio, fresh off of leading Spain to a FIBA World Cup title and winning the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award, has taken an active leadership role even in his first days with the Suns.

The soft-spoken Rubio isn’t waiting to speak up.

“Right now, the West is so loaded you don’t have time for the first month to figure it out,” he said. “We know we’re young but I don’t want to use that card over and over again … training camp starts today.”

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