EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Deandre Ayton’s return to Suns brings on required growth from both sides

Jul 15, 2022, 10:18 AM | Updated: 1:04 pm
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Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns shoots the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on April 05, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

We all had our own expectations when it comes to whether or not Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton was going to be back after he became a restricted free agent last October.

You can bet that he, the organization’s key decision-makers, its staff and players had their own too. I’m sure they varied as much as ours did.

Well, he is back. Phoenix matched a four-year, $133 million offer sheet Ayton signed with the Indiana Pacers. For all the talk that a center in today’s NBA wasn’t going to get paid the max, Ayton did, and he deserves a shoutout for it. He held strong during extension talks for that max, and while this one by default is for less money than the contract the Suns could have offered, he is near the top of the list for reasons why the Suns made the 2021 NBA Finals and should have been compensated as such.

But he wasn’t. And the saga playing out the way it did begs the question of how much not only Ayton wanted to be back but how much the Suns wanted him back.

Maybe this was all overblown to some extent. I doubt it.

Ayton spoke before the season about wanting to expand his offensive role more, as he should, in a way that suggested being allowed to do what he wanted to do more as opposed to what the Suns wanted him to do. That did not happen.

The Suns throughout the year provided the same answers on wanting to see more consistency out of Ayton’s high-end performances when his potential really shined. As a tremendous first round against New Orleans and a dud of a second round versus Dallas showed, that did not happen.

The story has been Ayton needing to prove to the Suns that he deserves that desired role. Now, though, it’s Phoenix needing to prove to Ayton that they believe in him by giving him that desired role.

It brought that on itself by not initially paying him and portraying a lack of faith in his abilities. The way the Suns’ last game of the season ended, “that’s internal” and so on didn’t help matters, either.

Do you know who knows this far better than you or I? Head coach Monty Williams. He will be on it. He will get whatever done that he has to in terms of his relationship with Ayton being in the best spot possible. It starts and ends from there, as we’ve seen with the endless benefits of Williams’ tight rapports across the roster.

Otherwise, Jan. 15 is going to linger over the Suns’ year. That is the date Ayton can be traded (with his consent). It has been mentioned at length since he came back, and with good reason because of all the speculation surrounding his future.

That will only continue unless there is some type of breakthrough, one the Suns tried to find two seasons ago.

At the start of the 2020-21 season, Phoenix and especially its point guard Chris Paul tried to get Ayton going in some type of bigger offensive role. Paul was forcing it in a way where I declared a few times that he was willing to negatively impact the Suns’ ability to win early regular season games in the present so the future would be better off.

It was clunky, never got much easier and the Suns bailed. Ayton became primarily a screen setter, diver, rebounder, defender and runner of the floor. That set of responsibilities didn’t expand last year, and for the team’s sake, it worked in the regular season.

But then moments like the second round would roll around when it was in the Suns’ best interests to prioritize Ayton against a small Mavericks team. When the Suns actually tried to do that, which wasn’t enough, the same clunkiness reared its head and we all know the rest.

How about two weeks before that, however, when Ayton thrived once Devin Booker was injured and more was asked of him offensively?

Again, it’s a two-way street. Ayton has to be more consistent. The Suns must consistently involve him more, even if it’s a rocky road that takes the regular season to figure out.

That is what makes Ayton so polarizing. There are some nights he plays where his engagement waned and it’s on him. There are some nights where he’s locked in and the Suns don’t capitalize on it, and that’s on them. The refusal of many to believe it can be both, as opposed to one or the other, has led to quite the discourse surrounding him over the last four years.

But it is both! Both sides have to be better. And the funny thing is, for as much as the Suns running back a similar version of last year’s roster inspires trepidation, if both sides are better about it, Phoenix’s odds of winning a championship increase greatly.

Yes, greatly. Not just a little. Ayton could be that good and the Suns’ offense has been missing some extra oomph from another source beyond Booker and Paul. We’ve been talking about the Suns adding another ball-handler and threat off the bounce for weeks, something the Suns still need to address, but their best solution for the problem was always right in front of them.

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Deandre Ayton’s return to Suns brings on required growth from both sides