DAN BICKLEY

Deandre Ayton is one of the NBA’s unsung stars this postseason

Jun 21, 2021, 6:53 PM | Updated: 9:52 pm
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns celebrates after scoring against the Denver Nuggets in Game F...
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns celebrates after scoring against the Denver Nuggets in Game Four of the Western Conference second-round playoff series at Ball Arena on June 13, 2021 in Denver, Colorado.(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

Deandre Ayton has discovered something precious: Perspective. Fatherhood. Coaching. People who love you enough to tell you the truth. All of the above.

The impact is breathtaking.

Ayton is one of the NBA’s unsung stars of the postseason. He’s playing 36 minutes per game. He’s dunking whenever possible, creating tidal waves of energy in his team’s favor. He’s playing well above the rim, accepting all forms of contact without flinching.

He’s giving the Suns exactly what they want because he finally understands exactly what they need.

You can see Ayton’s improvement in the numbers. In 11 playoff games, he’s made 78 shots and missed only 31. He’s doing all his damage around the basket. He’s averaging nearly 11 rebounds per game. He’s staying out of foul trouble. He’s keeping his feet active and his body vertical. He’s running the floor with real speed, punishing slower-footed centers.

He’s becoming lethal.

You can see it in the demeanor of his opponents, who are now flopping for fouls; or getting out of the way to avoid getting Punk’d on a poster dunk; or changing defensive strategies to cope with his newfound dominance. Nikola Jokic even gave him a signed jersey with the following inscription:

“To my brother DA. U are Beast!!!”

National media who paid minimal attention to Suns basketball in 2021 will not understand the implications of what we are all witnessing. Earlier this season, there was a time when Ayton struggled to catch the basketball. He struggled to hold onto the ball in crowded spaces. He sat out entire fourth quarters, losing crunch-time minutes to Dario Saric.

If you’re watching the Suns for the first time, those facts sound absurd. But they’re true.

By contrast, Ayton could’ve been Ben Simmons, a former No. 1 overall draft pick who turned out to be a big-stage liability in the playoffs, who might have punched his ticket out of Philadelphia on Sunday. In an elimination game on Sunday, Simmons was alone with the ball under the rim. He could have easily dunked the ball, but instead froze from fear. He passed to a teammate on the perimeter and the vitriol has been flowing ever since.

It has been a while since Ayton has had one of those awful moments.

Ayton could’ve conceivably turned out like Kwame Brown, a former No. 1 overall draft pick who has reinserted himself into pop culture in recent weeks, resurfacing with blistering attacks on hyperbolic critics who continue to tag him as an all-time bust.

Truth is, Brown jumped to the NBA from high school and landed in the worst culture imaginable, in the sunset of an aging Michael Jordan, in the crosshairs of a ruthless teammate who never wanted the underdeveloped Brown as a teammate.

In Phoenix, we are watching something different and wonderful. Ayton was blessed to have general manager James Jones, who brought him Monty Williams and Chris Paul. In an essay recently penned for The Players’ Tribune, Ayton recalled how Jones told him about the acquisition of Paul, and what it would mean for a young center struggling in the shadows of Luka Doncic.

“DA, this is about to be great for you,” Jones told him.

To his credit, Ayton is also one of the more coachable young players in recent memory.

ESPN analyst Brian Windhorst said he watches games on the NBA League Pass, which does not show commercials. Instead, the cameras pan on the respective huddles during breaks in the action. Windhorst said that no player in the league gets chewed out more than Ayton during timeouts.

Shortly after arriving in Phoenix, Paul told a friend that Ayton looked like a player who hadn’t received substantive coaching his entire basketball life.

Yet Ayton accepted all the tough love and in-house criticism with an open mind and open heart. That tells you a lot about the student and the teachers. It illuminates the culture and brotherhood fueling this basketball team, one that is seven victories away from the greatest achievement in team history.

Penguin Air

Dan Bickley

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball against Reggie Bullock #25 of the Dallas Maver...
Dan Bickley

NBA schedule gives Devin Booker, Suns an early shot at redemption

The Phoenix Suns will be able to get their first shot at redemption against the Dallas Mavericks when the 2022-23 season gets underway.
2 days ago
Head coach Kliff Kingbury of the Arizona Cardinals participants in a team training camp at State Fa...
Dan Bickley

Kliff Kingsbury biggest winner of Cardinals’ start to preseason

Dan Bickley writes that Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury is the biggest winner out of the team's preseason win over the Bengals.
5 days ago
General manager Steve Keim (R) of the Arizona Cardinals talks with president Michael Bidwill before...
Dan Bickley

Cardinals’ stars need to justify lack of offseason spending on defense

The Cardinals are carrying some luggage, baggage and a lot of question marks into the 2022 season, but they have room in the overhead bins.
9 days ago
Kevin Durant attends "NYC Point Gods" premiere at Midnight Theatre on July 26, 2022 in New York Cit...
Dan Bickley

Kevin Durant’s exit could get messy for Nets, maybe Suns, too

By my calculations, there is only one way Durant lands in Phoenix. There must be a second act of petulance even worse than the first.
11 days ago
Inside linebacker Isaiah Simmons #9 of the Arizona Cardinals during the NFL game at State Farm Stad...
Dan Bickley

Isaiah Simmons must become a playmaker for Arizona Cardinals

The Arizona Cardinals' roster lacks high-end talent and that's why they need third-year linebacker Isaiah Simmons to break out this season.
18 days ago
Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals sits on the bench during the second half against the Los A...
Dan Bickley

Kyler Murray’s study clause is embarrassing for Arizona Cardinals, QB

The contract for Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray including a study clause is a bad look for the organization and its leader.
25 days ago
Deandre Ayton is one of the NBA’s unsung stars this postseason