DAN BICKLEY

Chris Paul’s arrival makes everything easier for Suns’ Deandre Ayton

Dec 11, 2020, 7:01 AM
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns warms up before the game against the New York Knicks at Madis...
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns warms up before the game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on January 16, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The rising Suns have already succeeded on one front. They have eased the regrets and laments that have shadowed our NBA team for two years.

The other day, I noticed that Luka Doncic was No. 4 on ESPN’s Top 100 player rankings. And I didn’t flinch.

That’s progress.

That’s also the effect of Chris Paul. He upgrades the team at point guard. He provides unquestioned leadership. He takes immense pressure off Devin Booker. He establishes Phoenix as a NBA destination city. He will push Deandre Ayton in ways that no one else can.

That’s a lot of value for the money, even with a $41 million salary in 2020-21.

“He’s always on me about talking early on defense, being there, really protecting the rim, giving me reassurance that I’m the leader on defense,” Ayton said Thursday. “And, you know, they’re relying on me.”

Ayton needs peer pressure. That much is clear. And here’s the hidden perk:

While Paul pushes Ayton, he also mitigates Ayton’s importance. There are no longer unnavigable obstacles in the Suns’ path just because they took the wrong guy with the No. 1 overall pick, because Ayton doesn’t impact games like Doncic.

It doesn’t matter if Doncic is the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in the coming months. Not if the Suns have the better basketball team. And they might.

Either way, Ayton is free to be the Suns’ third-best player. He can focus on well-defined goals, like blocking shots, protecting the rim and establishing Defensive Player of the Year credentials. He does not need to dominate on both ends.

He needs to stay active, competitive and available. No more suspensions or juvenility. And if the Suns start winning basketball games, he will be freed from the suffocating expectations.

We’ll all be liberated from the Doncic comparisons.

Naturally, Ayton is already talking a good game. He’s talking about dunking on people. About taking his work ethic to another level. About lifting more weights. About all the space that Paul will create on offense. We’ve heard it all before. But imagine if he backs it up in Year 3?

Imagine how his lovable, goofball personality would play alongside an All-Star berth. Paul is certainly bringing a higher level of visibility to Phoenix, along with many more nationally-televised games. Individual successes will be magnified. And if Charles Barkley publicly adopts this team, the excitement will be off the charts.

Suns star Devin Booker has twice pulled Ayton aside, bracing him for the incoming demands and details, a level of in-house pressure they haven’t experienced before. Paul has already told Ayton that he wants his big man to be talking constantly on defense, reading the floor as the last line of defense.

That’s what Aron Baynes did so well for the Suns’ defense. It will also force the easily-distracted Ayton to stay mentally engaged at all times.

We’ve seen it too often. Ayton becomes a spectator in traffic, missing only the popcorn. He passes on opportunities to embarrass an opponent who is driving to the rim, the kind of stuff most NBA players live for. As a rookie, he too often sounded in awe of his opponents.

It’s time for Ayton to make his mark, to give the Suns what Rudy Gobert gives the Jazz.

“I want to up my defense a lot. I want to be up there in defensive rankings,” Ayton said. “I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to be that anchor for this team.”

Paul will be there every step of the way. Pushing and prodding when necessary.

“Just being on top of me,” Ayton said. “Just staying on me (to be) a legit defensive player.”

On a high-flying team, that will be enough to keep Luka from lurking. And that will be a refreshing change.

Penguin Air

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