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Dan Bickley

4 rules Deandre Ayton needs to follow to reach his potential with Suns

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Here are four rules for Deandre Ayton. Follow them, and everyone wins at the end:

1. Dunk the basketball whenever possible

Amar’e Stoudemire once revealed that his rim-wrecking antics were a form of therapy. His father passed away when he was 12. His mother was in and out of jail. He attended six different high schools, forced to make grown-up decisions at a tender age. He learned that dunking a basketball released pent-up aggression he accumulated during his hardscrabble upbringing.

In the NBA, Stoudemire soon learned his dunks elevated everyone in the locker room. Steve Nash directed the Suns’ revolutionary offense, but Stoudemire’s aggression and alpha male brutality fueled the team’s sensational swagger.

Granted, the math doesn’t change. Layups, lay-ins and finger rolls count for just as many points. But they also paint the Suns center as soft, lacking competitiveness, more cat than dog. Like all NBA players, his reputation precedes him. And that’s part of the reason he rarely gets respect from NBA officials.

2. Average 6 or more free throws per game

This is the best way to quantify aggressiveness and reputation in the NBA. A minimum free throw threshold might also be the best way to illustrate, monitor and sharpen the passivity that lurks inside Ayton. How else do you find and turn on the light switch?

In 2019-20, there were 15 players who exceeded this plateau. With all of his gifts, Ayton should be on this list. Especially with Chris Paul running the show and the pick-and-roll.

3. Protect the rim like it’s the family safe

Ayton is 7 feet tall with a 7-foot-6 wingspan. He’s fluid and athletic. He’s light on his feet yet muscular enough to provide a physical presence. He could block shots as easily as one blocks Twitter trolls.

With his colorful personality, he could bring great performative art to his defense. He could embarrass those who drive the line. He could earn the eternal love of his teammates by covering up for their defensive mistake.

He doesn’t need to wag his finger, like Dikembe Mutombo. Or earn an awesome nickname, like Marvin “The Human Eraser” Webster. He doesn’t need 11 championships like Bill Russell.

But he needs to put down the popcorn, get engaged and stay there.

4. Become a professional

One game into his sophomore season, Ayton was suspended 25 games for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy. He missed a COVID-19 test in the Orlando near the end of Year 2, nearly sabotaging the Suns’ brilliant run inside the bubble. He’s been coddled, handled with kid gloves and forgiven for every discretion. It was as if the Suns feared losing him completely if they pushed him too hard.

But during the Suns’ second preseason game on Monday, Ayton looked gassed. His hands were planted on his knees as he took a sideline lecture from Chris Paul. Suns head coach Monty Williams wasn’t exactly tripping, but he twice referenced Ayton’s inferior conditioning after the game.

For the record, the Suns didn’t finish their season until Aug. 13, and most of the NBA had very little offseason to lose their edge. How could he fall out of shape when he claims to feel so energized?

This lack of professionalism must end now, or his relationship with Paul is guaranteed to get sideways.

Ayton is blessed with freakish skills. He’s never had to work hard to be a basketball star. He’s never had to work hard to be a millionaire. Yet he thinks he is working hard, as evidenced by his recent Zoom press conference following the acquisition of Paul:

“Oh, yeah. I haven’t stopped moving. I want to lift more weights. It’s go time. You have a future Hall of Famer coming in to really show us the ropes and help me and [Devin Booker] out as young guys who can really take over this league.”

Twice during that press conference, Ayton grouped himself with Booker. That’s not fair to Booker, who always puts in the work. He’s in a much different class than Ayton, and for good reason. It’s time for Ayton to get rooted in reality, to make better decisions, to learn what hard work really means.

No doubt, the Suns center is a polarizing figure on Planet Orange. His critics point to his balky motor. His defenders come armed with lofty numbers. We should all agree on the basic facts:

He’s a good player with a colorful personality. He is still young and growing. With the benefit of hindsight, he was an inferior choice to Luka Doncic. That’s on the Suns, not him.

But here’s what Ayton must learn, own and conquer:

His biggest problem has nothing to do with player development. It’s his laziness, lack of aggression and inconsistencies at remaining engaged in the flow of a game. It’s his failure to compete at the highest level.

They seem like things he can easily control. But maybe they’re part of his true nature, the things he’ll never change.

Either way, the stakes have been raised and the tough love has already begun. Ayton says he wants to be pushed by a Hall of Famer, but he says a lot of things that aren’t exactly true, even if he means them at the time.

“I know he’s gonna be on my tail,” Ayton said before the exhibition season. “Me and Book need that. This team needs that. I’m a dude who is very amped up and just wanting to destroy everything. But having someone who can channel that is amazing.”

Final tip: Start destroying, big fella. Your time is now. Before the new point guard gets medieval.

Reach Bickley at Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier