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Suns GM James Jones: Center Aron Baynes ‘enjoys the combat’

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - OCTOBER 28: Aron Baynes #46 of the Phoenix Suns high fives Ricky Rubio #11 during the second half of the NBA game against the Utah Jazz at Talking Stick Resort Arena on October 28, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Jazz defeated the Suns 96-95. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Phoenix Suns center Aron Baynes is sending guys to the floor just as much as he’s on the floor himself.

Through 12 games of a young Suns season, it’s clear that through Baynes’ mentality of interior defense that he’s willing to take a bump to make a play, whether that’s a charge or verticality at the rim.

Baynes had his worst tumble of the season yet in Monday’s loss to the Boston Celtics. The 32-year-old went up straight in front of the basket against former teammate Jaylen Brown, and the Celtics wing had a knee out to greet Baynes as they collided.

Baynes uncharacteristically spent a good 15 seconds on the ground in pain before shooting back up for one transition possession, only to go back down again as the team called timeout.

After the break, he of course returned, as he always does.

Prior to Tuesday’s game in Sacramento against the Kings, Baynes was listed as questionable due to a right hip contusion.

“He’s a tough guy,” Suns general manager James Jones said Tuesday on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Burns & Gambo. “He took a shot, he’s been taking shots the last 3 or 4 games. Last night he took a good little clip to the hip but he’ll see how he feels.”

Because of the way Baynes plays, that’s not too uncommon. Jones joked that Baynes always has ice on him and one of the team’s ice machines is reserved for Baynes.

“That guy is always sore so we can’t tell whether or not it’s something that is going to keep him out of the game,” Jones said. “We need him. Hopefully, he’s there tonight, because we’re a different team with him in the middle. He provides so much stability and force for us.”

Baynes does that through a lot of different phases, whether it’s setting screens on and off the ball, jostling for rebounding position or protecting the rim like that specific play.

“He enjoys the combat,” Jones said. “I think that’s the best way you can phrase it. Some guys are always shying away from it. It seems that he’s always in the middle of it. If there’s a collision, if there’s some contact … any action that requires force, Aron’s always in there, and for our team that’s something that has to become a part of our identity.”

That is what has made Baynes one of the best reserve big men in the NBA the past few seasons but he’s pushed his game over the top into being one of the league’s best big men period early on because of his offense.

Baynes is shooting 44.2% from three-point range, something that was a “functioning tool” in his game but has exponentially grown in Phoenix. His attempts per 36 minutes are up from 2.7 last year to 6.5, and he’s made 23 total shots from deep this season, two more already than the year before.

That has naturally brought more space to the floor for the likes of Ricky Rubio and Devin Booker to not only make plays around the basket but find cutters with room as well.

There’s no one underneath here because Baynes is going to pop out after his screen, which Dario Saric uses to his advantage by quickly slipping by Brooklyn’s defense.

While the jump in the shooting efficiency and scoring from 5.6 points per game to 14.5 is rather absurd, Baynes’ passing has been the biggest revelation.

In order to keep everything flowing and to get the best results, centers who regularly set screens are often asked to touch the ball once or twice within that set as they create space.

Bigs that can provide for others keep the defense honest or flat-out exploit them through those routine sets, and who knew Baynes was one of those guys. Because of the way the Suns preach ball movement, it encourages Baynes to be used as a passer, and he’s thriving in that role.

He’s averaging a personal-best 3.1 assists per game after posting 0.8 over his career, a dramatic rise. Prior to Tuesday’s action, Baynes is tied for third in the percentage of his team’s baskets he assists at 20.5%, trailing only Nikola Jokic and Bam Adebayo and tied with Karl-Anthony Towns, per Basketball-Reference.

And when you factor in turnover percentage, Baynes is taking care of the ball, having the best turnover percentage of those four by far at 9.2%.

When the offense is churning, it’s “simple” passes like this that a whole lot of centers 1) can’t make and 2) aren’t confident enough to try.

That’s a tight window to clear for a guy who, again, takes care of the ball very well.

To bring everything full circle, when Baynes is setting his screens everywhere and also spacing the floor for cutters, he himself can use that playmaking on the fly. Monty Williams has wisely often trusted Baynes and Saric with the ball in their hands at either the high post or the top of the key. Again, that’s an extra element that can make an offense more dangerous.

Watch Booker at the top of the screen here point back at Rubio once an action has stalled. He wants the reset, but Baynes audibles to a dribble-handoff with Kelly Oubre Jr., who improvises himself to a back-cut on a pass he knows Baynes can make.

Imagine you’re Kyrie Irving bracing for a punishing Baynes screen and then your man is gonezo.

That’s the special sauce helping the Suns reinvent their offense through team-friendly play and Baynes is at the heart of it, despite being the ginormous human being known for bashing into dudes who you can seriously say “enjoys the combat,” as Jones put it.

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