GM: Deandre Ayton’s ankle sprain history has Suns being proactive

Mar 6, 2020, 11:08 AM

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)...

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

A 25-game suspension for a positive diuretics test and multiple ankle sprains have been disappointments of Deandre Ayton’s first two NBA seasons.

The Phoenix Suns center showing bouts of disappearing was expected as he developed. So were the waves of defensive lapses followed by others of aggressive, assertive play.

The team can hope Ayton’s suspension is a one-off. And like the Suns believing he grows from raw prospect to dominant, modern center, they think the five known ankle injuries can also be past history with some preventative work.

“We talked about it yesterday. It’s a gift and a curse,” Phoenix general manager James Jones told Doug & Wolf on Arizona Sports. “When you have a big guy like Deandre who plays on his toes, who’s athletic, who moves, that’s a lot of force you put on his ankle.

“If he were a big plodder, a guy clanking his heels and running up and down the floor at a snail’s pace, we wouldn’t have to worry about it. I know our guys have done a great job of getting him to learn how to move better, how to absorb and land. It’s been a process, but he’s doing well.”

The 2019 draft’s top pick missed stretches of five games and two games after suffering ankle injuries this year. A tweak Tuesday that took him out of an outing against the Toronto Raptors after playing 39 minutes marks his third known sprained ankle in 2019-20.

Last year, Ayton missed six games in mid-January with an ankle twist and returned before sitting out the last five games of the season after another.

Ayton’s latest scare came when he posted up Raptors forward O.G. Onunoby and spun awkwardly as Onunoby fell.

The Suns center went through portions of practice Thursday with a Friday matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers on deck. Ayton will be reevaluated before the game, head coach Monty Williams told reporters after shootaround Friday.

“He’s day-to-day. I think we dodged a bullet,” Jones said. “I think his injury looked a lot worse in real time when O.G. fell on his foot. Got some imaging done. Ankle looks really good, it’s just a sprain. We’ll try to get him back up to full speed.”

The frequency of the ankle twists might be concerning, however.

It’s easy to wonder if the injuries are related to Ayton’s shoes. In the 2018 NBA Summer League during his rookie year, the No. 1 pick wore Nike shoes with tape over the logos because his Puma shoes weren’t deemed ready.

He and the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2019, Marvin Bagley, are the most prominent faces of Puma.

They debuted the shoes last preseason, but both have been hit with foot and leg injuries since. So too was DeMarcus Cousins, who signed with the shoe company in 2018 as it reentered the basketball space. Cousins suffered a torn quad as a member of the Warriors in April and then a torn ACL after signing with the Lakers in August.

Bagley has only appeared in 13 of 62 games for the Sacramento Kings this year. A mid-foot sprain took him out of eight games in December and January before the big man returned for four games and reinjured it. He also missed 22 games with a fractured thumb this year and had multiple knee injuries as a rookie in 2018-19.

It might be a matter of coincidence that the three Puma-sponsored NBA big men have all dealt with multiple injuries. Puma, it should be mentioned, also equips players like Rudy Gay, Danny Green, Derrick Jones Jr., Terry Rozier and Kyle Kuzma.

With regard to Ayton in Phoenix, the relatively minor ankle twists are being treated as a symptom of the big man’s unique athletic abilities.

And when he’s been healthy, Ayton has progressed over his two seasons despite the inconsistencies.

He’s defending 6.4 shot attempts per game at the rim and holding opponents to 54.4% shooting there this year. Both numbers are up from 5.7 attempts per game and 64.9% opponent accuracy as a rookie, and the improvement is simply about awareness.

In more basic terms, he’s averaging 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes this season compared to 1.1 as a rookie.

“I know there were concerns for him … coming out of college, defensively he wasn’t a rim protector, he didn’t have the instincts,” Jones told Doug & Wolf. “I think that our staff and particularly with (assistant coach) Mark Bryant, the work he’s done with D.A., you watch him, he’s the anchor of our defense. He’s been pretty special as far as blocked shots, altering shots and guarding on the perimeter.

“I think it’s a sign that D.A. is a pretty good defender considering that all these guards — these quick guys that are dynamic scorers — they settle for jumpers over D.A. versus attacking the paint like they do against other bigs.”

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GM: Deandre Ayton’s ankle sprain history has Suns being proactive