Ayton’s suspension puts Suns in bad place as Monty Williams era begins

Oct 24, 2019, 7:20 PM | Updated: Oct 25, 2019, 10:37 am
PHOENIX, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 04:  Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns walks down court during the ...
PHOENIX, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 04: Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns walks down court during the second half of the NBA game against the Houston Rockets at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 04, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Rockets defeated the Suns 118-110. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Well, that didn’t take long.

Last year, the euphoria of the Suns’ opening-night victory ended with a 28-point loss to the Nuggets on the road. And six more lopsided losses after that.

This year, it’s a 25-game suspension handed down to Suns center Deandre Ayton for violating the NBA’s Anti-Drug policy.

How do you like him now?

The second-year center tested positive for a diuretic, and the team was informed of the results on Thursday, less than 24 hours after their resounding opening-night victory in downtown Phoenix.

Ayton says he ingested the substance accidentally, without forethought or malice. Very possible. He’s goofy that way. And a diuretic in one’s system doesn’t sound like a big deal, until you realize it’s also a masking agent to shroud other stuff in your system. A way to skirt the rules.

Conceivably, the hefty suspension could be reduced or rescinded. Either way, Ayton has put his team in a bad place just as the Suns launch a new era of professional basketball, with the emphasis on “professional.”

Ayton is no stranger to controversy. As a college athlete, he was a central figure in the pay-for-play allegations levied against the University of Arizona. He denied all wrongdoing.

He has already become a polarizing figure on Planet Orange. Blessed with great size and skill, he produces impressive statistical performances that are laced with saccharine. There’s a lot of sweet and not a lot of substance.

He is a finesse player who will not attack the rim, and as a result, does not get to the foul line. He didn’t attempt a free throw in three consecutive preseason games, a streak that continued in Game 1 of the NBA’s regular season. By all appearances, he did nothing to bulk up in the offseason, to add a level of physicality to his game.

There was a hope that the hiring of Monty Williams would bring some structure and discipline. The Suns head coach was seen working one-on-one with Ayton during Thursday’s practice, on big-man behavior in the paint.

And now this.

Some believe Ayton faces suffocating standards that come with being the No. 1 pick overall in the 2018 NBA draft. Too bad. Those are the rules. Especially when Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Atlanta’s Trae Young bring far more sizzle and impact to a basketball court.

Others believe his fire burns too low. That he thinks he’s working much harder than he’s actually working. It’s a recurring observation I’ve heard from a variety of professions, from sporting to medical. And those types of players rarely become monsters.

Ayton seems like a great kid with a vibrant personality. He makes his teammates laugh. He makes great sound bites and fills reporters’ notebooks. He’s a positive force and a welcome addition to any NBA team. But you expect more from a No. 1 pick. From a seven-foot athlete gifted with such enormous talent. And this 25-game suspension raises the stakes, along with the decibel level of his critics.

Ayton issued an apology on Thursday and it sounded sincere. But they all do when they get caught. And the last thing the Suns needed was for Ayton to derail a Phoenix uprising, a season of elevation and substantive change, just as it was getting started.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

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