DAN BICKLEY

Suns’ Deandre Ayton undergoing a quantum leap of progress in 2021

Apr 14, 2021, 4:48 PM

(AP Photo/Darryl Webb)...

(AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

(AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

Deandre Ayton is playing loud. His critics have grown quiet. He is proving that passive, playful puppies can learn how to bite, after all.

This is a victory for everyone.

It’s a victory for those who have pushed and prodded the 7-foot man-child every step of the way. Ayton is finally playing with consistent force, accepting contact, meeting and beating opponents at the rim. His stretch of stellar play is rarely reflected in the box score, other than his field goal percentage, which is soaring because everything he does is now around the basket.

Perfect.

Ayton’s ascension can’t be measured in points per game because this is all about details and focus. Being in the right place. Being aware. Catching the basketball. Reading and reacting with quickness and clarity. Engaging and not spectating, challenging and not deferring.

It’s been about the little things, and when Ayton does them well and does them consistently, this team is good enough to win a championship.

Ayton’s growth spurt is also victory for those on Suns Twitter who preached and exercised patience, even when Ayton was among the most frustrating, underachieving young players in the NBA.

Turns out, we were both right.

This is a victory for Chris Paul, who has pushed and prodded Ayton more than anyone. He admitted after Tuesday’s game that he’s not the easiest teammate to get along with if you happen to be in his crosshairs, the target of his endless nitpicking. Paul has authored an exquisite career full of point guard wizardry, and this season in Phoenix might belong in the Louvre, his Mona Lisa.

This is a victory for James Jones, who is authoring the greatest single-season performance from a general manager in the history of Arizona sports. By signing Paul, Jones paired the perfect project with the perfect pest. Jones helped create this current stretch of basketball by not acquiring a backup center at the trade deadline, by stealing Torrey Craig from the Bucks and otherwise standing pat. He resisted a blockbuster trade that many endorsed, like Ayton for Karl-Anthony Towns or Nikola Vucevic.

This is also a victory for Monty Williams, who ditched the kid gloves and stopped coddling Ayton in Year Three. Not that long ago, the Suns head coach started benching Ayton in the fourth quarter, which must’ve been a tough swallow for a former No. 1 overall draft pick. The Suns began closing games with Dario Saric, a savvy power forward who lacks so many of the physical blessings gifted to Ayton.

In successive games, Ayton watched the entire fourth quarter from the bench. Even worse, he didn’t seem to mind all that much.

“I feel no way,” he said. “We’re winning.”

But something has changed inside Ayton. He has found a new level of aggressiveness. He’s decisive in the post. The game seems to have slowed down. He’s dunking more often, no longer finger-rolling and finessing his way around the basket. He’s playing with real gravitas, and if these changes are permanent, the biggest victory will be his alone.

Along the way, Ayton has proven to be a great teammate, coachable, receptive to criticism, so well-liked inside the locker room that his peers desperately want him to succeed. He might even be doing the impossible:

Ayton has suddenly turned a season of regression into a quantum leap of progress. He’s the ‘X’ factor in Phoenix, the player who will determine just how far the Suns advance in the postseason. And for the moment, he’s even put Dallas star Luka Doncic in the rear view mirror.

At least in the Western Conference standings, the only place that matters.

Dan Bickley

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