The 5: Suns GM James Jones sees growth in Deandre Ayton, culture
Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones can say “I told ya so” for quite a few reasons.
The offseason overhaul that included the T.J. Warren trade, the Cam Johnson draft pick and the no-rush roster building have culminated to make Phoenix one of the hottest teams in the NBA bubble.
After his team pulled off its fourth win in a row since the league’s restart in Orlando, Jones joined Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta and talked about the team’s perception, center Deandre Ayton and more.
Here are five standout topics from Jones when he joined the show on Friday.
Deandre Ayton’s ceiling still up there
Deandre Ayton remains a fascinating player to watch as Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have had their moments in Orlando.
There are still moments of inaction or indecision that stand out for the second-year center.
In the Suns’ 114-99 win over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday, he tried to force two high-low entry passes into the post from atop the three-point arc but got picked off.
As usual, there were a couple obvious mistakes in defensive coverage, where the fear of leaving his man for too long left a teammate exposed. Here, he’s worried too much about Myles Turner and doesn’t commit to contesting a reverse by Malcolm Brogdon.
Then, down the stretch, Ayton decisively comes back against a similar drive to swallow up Brogdon like below, leading to an easy alley-oop score on an assist from Booker.
Altogether, you can take this as crapping on the Suns’ highest moment in years or take it another way: There’s so more more refinement for the big man to reach in the future, all while he’s being awfully productive in the present.
What is the nuanced evaluation? Jones sees the mistakes, but the growth is in how Ayton responds to them.
“He’s bouncing back from play to play,” Jones said. “You can see he has some tough stretches and he bounces back. He had some great defensive possessions and he turns that into a great offensive possession. He’s building on the, I say, basketball instances. A read or a coverage, he’s quarterbacking the backside of the defense.
“I think yesterday he maybe had four blocks but more than that he was active and a deterrent in the paint and setting great screens. I’ve seen a lot of growth in Deandre, remembering that he missed 25 games earlier in the season, came back, had to jump back into the mix, into the fold, and had to hit the ground running. He’s starting to really progress.”
Ayton’s box score looks outstanding. Twenty-three points, 10 rebounds, four blocks, two steals and an assist.
Against the Clippers on Tuesday, he posted four assists, a testament to his playmaking. Ayton struggled with foul trouble against the Dallas Mavericks and against the Washington Wizards to open the Orlando schedule posted 24 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two block while going 11-of-14 from the floor.
He’s mostly been great! He’s in pretty darn good shape to play heavy minutes, screen for Booker and Rubio, defend the rim and hit jumpers while drawing gravity at the hoop.
How good can he be if he shaves off those five- to-six plays where he’s either thinking too much or just not locked in?
“You have to train and you have to practice and you have to develop consistency,” Jones said of being patient with Ayton. “We always want more. People always want more because you see his ceiling, you see his potential. If you take the long approach, every day, every game, every practice, getting him to be consistent, it’ll take care of itself.
“He’s learning how to pick his spots offensively and defensively. That’s something tough for big guys, because we ask the big guys to do the dirty work. We ask them to screen, we ask them to roll, we ask them to collapse the paint. We ask them to sacrifice and not touch the ball.”
Mikal Bridges gets his due
ESPN’s Zach Lowe in his Friday column called Bridges a “black hole.”
The wing has tended to locking up Luka Doncic, Kawhi Leonard and T.J. Warren in Disney World, succeeding in ways most in the NBA can’t. His added strength has showed well, but it’s his stringy length that not only helps him avoid fouls but trick opponents into thinking they can get off buckets or passes.
Doncic had a big day against the Suns over the weekend but passed up a 4-footer with Bridges on him late in that game after having been stuffed earlier on. Bridges has learned how to retreat on drives to keep in front of his opponent and then extend his arms, blocking shots despite taking contact.
Opponents in the bubble are shooting 36.4% against Bridges, per NBA.com, right with elite defenders like Paul George and Anthony Davis. The number is sixth-best of players who defend more than 10 shots per game (Sun Devil product Lu Dort leads the bubble by holding folks to 28 freaking percent!).
Bridges has flashed off-the-bounce potential as a scorer in Orlando, too.
“Mikal is the ultimate team player,” Jones said. “I don’t want to demean his skillset and what he brings to the team. I think Mikal is an elite team player. Whatever you ask him to do, whatever you need him can do, he can do it.
“That’s the baseline of our culture,” Jones added. “I think he more than anyone else has been able to show everyone what we valued when we drafted him on draft night.”
Oubre’s and Baynes’ statuses still TBD
Jones would not say whether Kelly Oubre Jr. or Aron Baynes will join their team on the court any time soon.
“We’re hopeful,” the GM said. “Every guy on this team wants to play and help the squad, and those guys have been great with their teammates. It’s a different environment … and to have two of your better players there cheering you on, it means a lot.
“It represents and it shows well in those tough moments. I hope we can get them to the point where they can play. Our focus is one game at a time and if we are fortunate enough to continue to have some success, we’re going to need them.”
Team culture on the ascent
Regardless of the last four games’ results, the trip to the bubble has already proven wildly valuable for Phoenix’s culture-building project.
“I’m humble and grateful of the support that we’ve gotten from our fan base,” Jones said. “The Suns franchise has always been a franchise that people followed and believed in. To be able to see the growth and have the players — ’cause it’s all about the players — they changed the outlook, they changed the way people view our franchise and our team.
“It’s gratifying because you can see their joy. It’s good. I can tell you it’s a good feeling but we all know this is another step. Our goals are bigger. Our goals are to win titles. We’re nowhere near there but we are developing a winning culture and that’s the next step.”
What is the priority for next year?
Jones, as expected, didn’t want to look beyond the task at hand.
Still, Bickley & Marotta asked him how the Suns’ success in Orlando will dictate the offseason ahead, one that will come rapidly and perhaps with financial restraints unforeseen a year ago due to the coronavirus.
“I won’t know what this season looks like until it’s over, but (the performance in Orlando) has strengthened our belief that if we commit to the defensive end with this group, we have enough,” Jones said. “We have enough to compete and we have enough to win games.”
“We’re still in the bubble,” he added. “We need to continue to develop and we need to continue to mature as a team. And we’re always searching for depth. We can shoot the ball better, I think every guy on the team will tell you that. Make no mistake about it, we’re focused on internal development, and when the season concludes we’ll talk about how to continue to improve and build a better team.”