EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Deandre Ayton arrives at Suns camp in top shape with ‘big-time focus’

Sep 29, 2021, 6:26 PM | Updated: Sep 30, 2021, 1:13 pm
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns reacts to fans as he exits game two of the Western Conference...
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns reacts to fans as he exits game two of the Western Conference Finals against the LA Clippers at Phoenix Suns Arena on June 22, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Clippers 104-103. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — When Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams would be asked in the past about center Deandre Ayton around the time of training camp, one of the first things that would normally come up is Ayton’s conditioning.

The vibe was that it was never quite where the coach wanted it, not a 100% game shape status as they rolled through camp and the preseason. Ayton’s obviously a guy who is a tremendous athlete and is in shape, but there’s that next-level gear Williams wanted him to reach early on, one that Ayton showed in the playoffs he can get to.

That has changed this season after Williams texted Ayton while the franchise center was on vacation in his home country, the Bahamas.

A part of the text had Williams tell Ayton he needed him in game shape from Day 1. As you would imagine, Ayton listened.

“He’s lived up to it,” Williams said after practice Wednesday. “His body looks great. His cardio is at an unreal level.”

When Ayton saw that text, he had the reaction any of us would before quickly getting to work.

“I’m like, ‘Huh?’ I couldn’t believe (it) but I definitely knew the task at hand and I knew the responsibility for me coming into camp in shape and ready to go,” Ayton said.

“I literally forgot about a vacation,” he added, saying that he was using the beaches of the Bahamas to build up that conditioning.

Another change that Williams has seen out of Ayton is his communication. When you play with Chris Paul and Jae Crowder for a year, you’ve got no choice but to talk, and he’s taken it up a few notches in that regard.

“His ability to pick up stuff — he’s a part of the program in a different way now because he’s leading conversations, talking about things that matter as opposed to guessing or thinking,” Williams said. “He’s taking the work seriously, and he always did, but now he understands the importance of it and the details that go into being a really good team and an All-Star-caliber player and he’s come in with a big-time focus.”

Ayton agreed with the sentiment that he’s far ahead right now compared to previous training camps in all aspects. He said he feels the trust that the coaches and players have in him and it’s making him more confident as a communicator.

“Cuz I’m the one usually, the person everybody is telling to do everything,” Ayton said with a smile. “Now I’m the one, ‘Listen here, you gotta go set that screen, man.'”

Given how he’s improved considerably each season, it’s a fair assumption that Ayton will do so again. It’s the main reason why he’s in line for serious money as we await the news on a potential contract extension off his rookie deal, one he’s eligible for until Oct. 18.

Along with his defensive growth, the question to ask is if Ayton’s role evolves offensively. He was sparingly used as an individual offensively last season, doing less of the posting up and shooting jumpers, and instead, his primary role was as a screener and diver.

That’s a sacrifice for a player of his talents to make, one Williams and his players have consistently given Ayton credit for, and Ayton himself even brought it up during the Suns’ media day on Monday when talking about his doubters.

“I think it’s funny because I sacrifice a lot and I don’t think the world is really seeing my game and the type of window I have to where I already know what the requirement is,” he said. “It’s just me being more of an offensive threat and doing the things I want to do now where I already got everything handled to where I don’t have to know how long I stay in the key or how to switch. I already got all that stuff handled and made that my foundation.”

With the experience he got on a deep playoff run, one he was superb during, Ayton sounds like someone who wants to take advantage of possessing that foundation by expanding it.

He alluded to it again on Wednesday,

“I put a lot of work behind it this offseason,” Ayton said. “Me and coach been talking and I’ve been telling him the things I want to do. That’s a step for me, where I’m telling the coaches what I want to do now, and being more of a threat on this offensive end to help my team win.”

When a reporter followed up on what Ayton wanted to do exactly, he replied with, “Everything. Every single thing, man. The game has completely changed. Mainly, just being a force down low and getting to that line, pushing that ball and just being more swift in our offense.”

Good answer!

Free throws are a good one to bring up, but as far as where else he could get the ball more, Ayton could be on the block in the more traditional sense as a 5. Or, it could be more of him popping off ball screens a bit more to space the floor and take jumpers. Defenses, of course, are going to be more than fine with Ayton taking those, but he’s shown in the past that he’s got touch.

While the three-point shot being a part of his game has faded since his lone year at Arizona when he was at a respectable 34.3% on 35 attempts, Ayton was still working on it pregame last year and always lights up whenever a media member brings it up.

He was taking a few in the opening stretches of last season, 20 total, before that part of his game was eliminated.

But it sounds like it could be coming back.

“I finally took care of areas where I can find my shots in our offense,” Ayton said. “Not really hunting down the shots but coach finally put in the play where I can pop out for that 3 and get more comfortable and comfortable as the season goes on.”

Ayton joked after that his arm was sore from practicing them so much, only to not be taking them in games, but now he’s cognizant of where he’s going to find open patches of the floor to get those up.

And as long as he keeps playing at the level he did in the postseason and hoists ’em in at a decent enough clip on the occasional toss like he said, let ’em fly big man.

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