DAN BICKLEY

Deandre Ayton’s postseason play demands a max contract

Sep 28, 2021, 4:04 PM | Updated: Sep 29, 2021, 9:13 am
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns reacts in the first half of game five of the NBA Finals at Fo...
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns reacts in the first half of game five of the NBA Finals at Footprint Center on July 17, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

When light bulbs went on and the game finally slowed down, Deandre Ayton made more than big strides. He made history.

His performance in the 2021 NBA playoffs was astonishing and essential. He played heavy minutes of elite defense against the best teams in the NBA. He played with force while staying out of foul trouble, shouldering the load without a true backup at his position.

As a 22-year old center in his first taste of the postseason, he put up statistics that rival some of the greatest names in NBA history.

So what’s the delay? Why haven’t the Suns rewarded him with a maximum contract?

The terms, the money and risk shouldn’t matter at this point. Nothing would excuse the Suns for insulting Ayton and his camp with a lowball offer. Shae Gilgeous-Alexander and Michael Porter Jr. each received maximum extensions on lesser merit. So did Luka Doncic and Trae Young, both of whom were drafted after the Suns center.

Ayton should feel the same level of respect and achievement. Because he was that impactful in the postseason. And because nothing is more important than preserving the vibe and camaraderie in Phoenix, locking all outside doors, the ones that might allow ego, money and outside forces to ruin a good thing.

Sigh. The Suns have reason for reticence. Ayton has shown questionable work ethic and poor judgment in the past, namely a 25-game suspension to start his sophomore season in the NBA.

Following the arrival of Chris Paul, the Suns tried to run a chunk of their offense through Ayton, with Devin Booker compromising the most. It didn’t work. There were recurring mental errors that made teammates roll their eyes and make stink faces on the court. At his lowest point, he was being savaged by Chris Paul in practice, benched in the fourth quarter of games in favor of Dario Saric.

Magically, it all changed near the end of last season. Suns forward Jae Crowder said the turning point was when Ayton started telling his teammates what he needed from them, and not just the other way around. It marked an obvious evolution from all those one-sided chiding conversations of the past.

With clarity of purpose, Ayton scratched his surface and tilted the postseason playoff field significantly. He dominated playoff games with full engagement and activity alone. He still has much room for improvement.

If Ayton can polish up his dribbling skills, he will add monstrous elements to his offensive arsenal, especially with his speed and wingspan. If he ever feels comfortable throwing his body into traffic, he will live at the free throw line, especially with his burgeoning reputation. He went from being a passive observer around the basket to a rebounding machine in the playoffs, and pray for the rest of the NBA if he ever learns how to box out.

But this is also a time for the organization to focus on its own deficiencies and not Ayton’s. During his tenure as majority owner, Robert Sarver hasn’t always excelled at keeping players happy and bonded to the common cause. He paid dearly for locking horns with Joe Johnson, for trading an unhappy Shawn Marion, for taking the long view on Amar’e Stoudemire and his balky knees.

The Suns must remember it doesn’t matter what’s right, wrong, fair or prudent. It’s what Ayton thinks and feels that matters most. And after an extremely short offseason that will tax the game’s most influential players, now is not the time to quibble over dollars. Even with an enigmatic star like Ayton.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta mornings from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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