EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Could Spurs fit as potential trade partner for Suns’ Deandre Ayton?

Jun 16, 2023, 4:55 PM | Updated: 5:36 pm

Keldon Johnson #3 of the San Antonio Spurs goes to the net against Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix...

Keldon Johnson #3 of the San Antonio Spurs goes to the net against Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns in the second half at AT&T Center on January 28, 2023 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

In order for the Phoenix Suns to field a balanced roster around Devin Booker and Kevin Durant next season, they will almost certainly have to trade center Deandre Ayton.

The great unknown when analyzing Phoenix’s offseason, however, and the X-factor in it is what Ayton’s value is. He was one of the most polarizing players in the league, and does remain that in some senses, but his most inconsistent season yet certainly affected how the league looks at him now.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on the Ryen Russillo Podcast that Ayton’s trade market is currently “lean” and noted the Suns have “gone through the marketplace and I don’t think there is an obvious deal for Deandre Ayton out there.”

Is there a team out there that believes in Ayton enough to take on three more years of salary at a total of $102 million? That they are the right organization to permanently unlock his potential and develop him into a top 3-5 center that we have already seen he is capable of playing as at times? More importantly, that franchise has to be able to give Phoenix the right pieces back to meet that aforementioned goal at the top.

In Empire of the Suns’ mock offseasons, we covered the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards. We did not get to the San Antonio Spurs, and here’s an interesting tidbit from Yahoo! Sports’ Jake Fischer.

There’s a growing belief among league personnel that San Antonio will target starting centers this offseason, whether by trade or on the open market in free agency, to save Victor Wembanyama from the brunt of battling against frontcourt behemoths in his first season.

Wembanyama, the prohibitive favorite to go No. 1 in the 2023 NBA Draft to San Antonio, is widely considered one of the best pre-draft prospects in the league’s history. He instantly becomes one of the most valuable assets in the NBA, so protecting him physically is logical. At 7-foot-4, Wembanyama will ultimately be a center at his best, but he’s listed at roughly 230 pounds and is at the early stage of his career when putting on more muscle is the next step in his development. He’s got the perimeter skills on both ends to play some 4.

The 19-year-old Wembanyama getting battered by the likes of Steven Adams, Joel Embiid, Domantas Sabonis, Jonas Valanciunas and other brutes would certainly wear him down in some ways.

Fischer does also mention San Antonio are high on the starting potential of its own center, Zach Collins. But what about someone else? And Ayton specifically?

Any framework of an Ayton deal for players in return has to come with a sizable contract, and the only way the Spurs could really get there is by including 23-year-old wing Keldon Johnson.

Johnson was on Team USA’s gold medal squad in the most recent Olympics two years ago, an endorsement of the potential in his game and where he was a teammate of Booker and Durant. Across Johnson’s first four seasons, he has averaged 16.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 46.8% from the field and 36.3% at 3-point range.

The vision for what he appears to be in San Antonio’s long-term outlook is mixed. At times seen as the lead guy and a future All-Star, Johnson projects as more of a complementary piece to the Spurs’ top dogs, especially with Wembanyama’s arrival, plus the emergence of 2020 first-round selection Devin Vassell and 2022 first-round pick Jeremy Sochan. Both those guys are wings, like Johnson.

In Phoenix, Johnson would really need to prove himself defensively to be what the Suns need as the wing playing between Booker and Durant, but he’s also exactly what they require as an offensive piece providing more firepower. Ultimately, when going through hypotheticals to explore the overall quality of players the Suns could acquire, Johnson would be a high-end outcome.

Johnson’s in that weird zone of clearly still being valuable to the Spurs but also someone they’d obviously have to think about dealing if the right offer came across. His four-year, $80 million extension kicks in next season. Would Ayton serving as a short-term doer of the interior dirty work alongside Wembanyama be the right deal? Difficult to say. Ayton’s veto power on a trade that expires at some point in July is worth mentioning as well.

To go back to Wojnarowski’s report, operating in a reality where his information becomes more prominent, Fischer’s got the Spurs down at over $40 million in cap space. If the priority for San Antonio becomes protecting Wembanyama by getting a quality center in the frontcourt next to him, it wouldn’t do better with its resources available than getting Ayton for just about nada, maybe a draft pick or two. The Spurs own Nos. 1, 33 and 44 in this year’s draft and have future picks as well.

That would be the toughest of all pills for the Suns to swallow on Ayton’s value and a brutal outcome, without even considering the chance that still exists of Ayton fulfilling his potential. But it would benefit them in the short term, opening up their possibilities in free agency to bring in more depth. There are dozens of permutations for how Phoenix arrives at the end of July with that. This edition, while rather unlikely, is still one to consider.

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Could Spurs fit as potential trade partner for Suns’ Deandre Ayton?