EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Max effort: Deandre Ayton earning future payday in stellar playoff run
Jul 2, 2021, 2:53 PM
(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
“Honestly, the world having me as a question mark in the playoffs. That got to me a little bit. And I’m going to change that. That’s about it. Just a question mark on me. You know. And I just wanted to change that and prove everyone wrong.”
Mission accomplished, Deandre.
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton entered the 2021 NBA playoffs with those deserved question marks. In his third season, the 22-year-old was unable to fully find his footing for consistent play. Every time it appeared he was having a breakthrough, that was not quite the case.
The timing was not the best, as Ayton and fellow 2018 draft class member Mikal Bridges are up for pricey extensions this summer off their rookie deals. Given that, plus the team’s rapid rise into a contender, I myself was not afraid to place down my own question mark around Ayton entering the postseason.
But after his stellar performances on the Suns’ road to the NBA Finals, Ayton has earned the trust of all those closely watching his play, and also a hefty raise.
Ayton is averaging 16.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game in the playoffs. He’s the third player since the new millenium to have those numbers at an age younger than 23, joining Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard. And if those averages hold through the NBA Finals, he’ll be alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan as the only ones 22 or younger to do it while making the championship round, per Stathead.
And no one can match Ayton’s efficiency in any age bracket. With 500 playoff minutes as the threshold, Ayton’s 70.3 true shooting percentage is the best ever, via The Timeline Podcast’s Sam Cooper.
The production is all well and good, but where Ayton’s play reveals itself the most is when focusing on specifically him watching a game.
Ayton has solidified himself as one of the hardest-working dudes on the court you’ll see in the NBA this year.
While his talent and upside are indicators he is capable of much more in the future, Ayton this year has accepted a simplified role on a winning team.
Instead of a dozen post touches on the block a game, Ayton is asked to run up and down the floor, set good screens, dive hard to the basket, crash the offensive glass and be the anchor of a defense.
Ayton’s physical gifts allow him to sprint like a gazelle and unlike just about any seven-footer you’ve ever seen. He uses ’em well.
And if you’re paying attention enough, you’ll notice the value he brings the most on these possessions is when he doesn’t even score.
His gravity on a defense is immense.
Suns head coach Monty Williams described what Ayton can do on the offensive glass.
“He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen at getting up in the air and reaching over and tipping it to himself,” he said after Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals.
Here’s what he’s talking about, the part of Ayton’s game where his unbelievable hands shine.
Take in what Ayton gets in the Suns’ set offense as well and it’s why he can still have a tremendous impact on a game offensively even when Phoenix doesn’t choose to make the big man a focal point of it.
And the other side of the floor is where Ayton makes his presence felt the most.
On top of that role as the heart of the defense in his position, Ayton has an ability to step up on individual matchups against the league’s stars.
In the first round, Davis for the Los Angeles Lakers shot 11-of-29 (37.9%) when defended by Ayton, per NBA Stats.
League MVP Nikola Jokic was 24-of-59 (40.7%) with Ayton on him in the Western Conference semifinals.
His defense on both of those high-level talents played a part in the Suns advancing, as did his defense against the Los Angeles Clippers.
In Game 4 specifically, Ayton was nearly perfect as the backline man on ball screens while also protecting the rim in the process.
Here he is doing both on one play.
Rewatch thread is probably gonna be mostly defensive possessions like this one pic.twitter.com/z0hX0irsLw
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) June 28, 2021
He was so good at spending a second or two on ball-handlers to allow his teammate to recover back to the ball, jamming Los Angeles’ possessions up.
Saw this in the first clip too. Ayton getting in and out of his spots perfectly. Was there long enough on Jackson to get back to Zubac in time while Booker recovered pic.twitter.com/6zPsAEk74G
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) June 28, 2021
On both clips, of course, you’ll see Ayton ends it grabbing the rebound.
Here are two more of him as an interior presence.
This is the best QTR of defense I've ever seen from DA. He is everywhere.
Peep the flex at Balmer hahahah pic.twitter.com/62CyCK027k
— David Kevin (@theIVpointplay) June 27, 2021
And if he got switched out onto the perimeter, Ayton was just fine.
zero stats for DA here. pic.twitter.com/gLNMECklTg
— David Kevin (@theIVpointplay) June 27, 2021
It was the type of outing that brought to life the potential Ayton has shown athletically for being a Defensive Player of the Year one day.
Decades from now, Ayton will be remembered for winning the Suns Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals off the Valley-Oop. That will be the highlight played first and the most memorable moment, but Ayton’s supreme showing in Game 4 was just as important, and probably even more.
Williams after Game 4 hit on everything we just did.
“I thought Deandre’s presence, his effort, the rebounding, shot-blocking, his communication on defense, switching out on smaller guys and being able to guard them, he was the catalyst tonight on the defensive end,” Williams said. “I thought it was an unreal performance from him. Our guys rallied around him.”
“He was all over the place tonight, that’s the kind of player that he can be,” Williams added. “He basically won that game for us tonight. He was tremendous.”
After the fact before Game 5, I asked Williams what it is exactly that’s allowed Ayton to improve to a point where he can dominate a game from that spot. It’s something Williams credited to two years of continuity in assistant coach Willie Green’s defense before breaking it down more extensively.
“DA has defensive gifts that not many bigs have,” he said. “The guy that he reminded me of is like two guys, LaMarcus (Aldridge) and (Kevin) Garnett in pick-and-roll coverages, the way that they talk and their athleticism to switch and cover for the guy on the ball.
“And then the guys around DA really help, the ability to get over screens and that kind of thing. I think the continuity of being in the system for another year and knowing what to call and when to call it certainly helps. The guys around DA, Mikal (Bridges) getting over screens, [Devin Booker] getting over screens certainly helps, and having Chris (Paul) and Jae (Crowder) talking on the back side, those two guys have really helped DA understand defense in a way that’s furthered his growth.”
To bounce off that, here’s Ayton on how this environment and his teammates have helped him reach this new level.
“My teammates are really relentless. We have a thing on the team where something called togetherness and we play as a unit, we come together, and we just fight over adversity and fight over fatigue,” he said after Game 4. “Our mental stamina was there today and we did a good job of that. Me, I learned I could keep going. There’s another level; I learned that. I think I reached the next level that I really need to be at, at this level when it comes to competing.”
Ayton deserves the most credit for his elevated play. He’s put in the work. But it’s hard to imagine where he would be this season and beyond without Paul. If you don’t believe me, here’s the man himself on his relationship with the Point God.
“I love CP, man,” Ayton said. “Like I said, that’s really the only teammate that really push me. Like big bro-type push. Knowing what I got and that I ain’t never thought that I had. I think he was the best thing that happened to my career. I can say that every day. Just C is really a dude who pays attention to detail. It’s not how you say it, it’s what he’s saying. I think most people don’t get it. It’s just the message for real.
“And he cares so much, it’s actually great. I never know a guy who cares so much about basketball and competing at everything. And it’s contagious and that’s what he built in me as well and just having him as a teammate and the experience that he’s went through and teaching me the little things has helped me and it’s working.”
Paul couldn’t be prouder of Ayton after seeing him show out in Game 4.
“To see his growth, I get goosebumps seriously, man,” he said. “We done had some heated conversations this season especially earlier in the season but, man, I genuinely love him. The person that he is and to see everything that’s coming to him, national audience getting to see who he is and why he’s the No. 1 pick, I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Ayton was going to get paid no matter what this summer. His mix of production and potential made that so. But what Ayton has shown in the playoffs, that he plays his best ball when the stakes are the highest, are the results of a player ascending at the right time.
That timing could be good enough to help give the franchise its first championship ever, a franchise Ayton is undoubtedly a cornerstone of now and in the future right behind Booker.