Deandre Ayton’s defensive dominance for Bahamas brings Suns hope

Aug 18, 2023, 10:43 AM

(Twitter Photo/@10thYearSeniors)...

(Twitter Photo/@10thYearSeniors)

(Twitter Photo/@10thYearSeniors)

It’s 10 seconds into the game, and what you feared you’d see has already come.

Argentina point guard Facundo Campazzo, who recently had a stint in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks, starts the first possession by passing the ball to the side and acting like that is where the action truly begins, only to quickly snap back to mid-court with a screen to get him into a re-sealed pick-and-roll situation.

The generously listed 5-foot-11 floor general paces his drive with his big man’s roll, leaving the anchoring defender in no man’s land, finishing right by him for the and-1 bucket.

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton, representing his native Bahamas, is that anchoring defender.

It’s the type of disconnected moment we’ve seen from the center all too often. But it’s also a very good play by Campazzo, forcing the indecision through an opening set run with real pace.

Ayton should never get let off the hook with that type of credit to the opponent, though. He’s capable of reaching such heights that any other mindset would be foolish. And what he showed in the rest of the game proved that point, while also showcasing why the Suns hope new head coach Frank Vogel can be the architect behind guiding another dominant defensive force down low.

To start, Ayton is competing for the Bahamas in an attempt to qualify for the Olympics. It’s pretty freaking cool, first of all, that he would take this journey for a country with little to no basketball pedigree at the FIBA level. This August was pre-qualifying ahead of the last chance to qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris next July. Ayton is by far the best player in the Americas portion of pre-qualifying, joined by Suns teammate Eric Gordon and Indiana Pacers guard Buddy Hield, the qualifier group’s only three NBA players.

The competition Ayton is facing isn’t the point. He should look like a monster against these guys. And he did. It’s how he did so in a 101-89 win Wednesday.

Argentina was running nearly everything through not only Campazzo but a screening center letting him get to work. Its mistake and ultimately its downfall, however, was the rolling out of the red carpet to let Ayton control the game defensively.

After the hosts of the qualifier threw an outstanding first punch that suggested its vast edge in continuity and experience would result in a rout — Argentina led by 15 in under five minutes — Ayton took over on both ends. For the sake of what his role will be on the Suns next season, we will focus on his defense.

Four minutes in, watch Ayton’s feet as Campazzo slices left. He’s ready to make a play, whatever it will be. And because of his agility and 7-foot-6 wingspan, he can do it every time. He does a far better job squaring up Campazzo and then uses those long arms with verticality to get a piece of the ball.

Two possessions later, some more active motion. Ayton’s on top of it, getting higher up to deny the ball-handler earlier. He swipes at it and then gets MOVING.

Next time down, Ayton owns his space again and then briefly flashes his hands before showing real discipline by backing up and defending into the shot attempt to force an errant one.

Argentina keeps going to what it knows in the second quarter, and Ayton keeps mucking it up. The slashing guards start getting into no man’s land with attempts on the net because of the ground Ayton is covering. The last possession we grab from the first half has the poor big man getting the ball to see if that works.

This, right here, is the spot every basketball coach wants its anchor to be at. Ayton is now mentally affecting the game with his sheer presence. That is how you really become a difference-maker in that role, and Ayton’s third quarter was magnificent.

After a previous play in the second quarter successfully sees an Argentinian center seal Ayton off, the team goes back to the well of putting the Bahamian center in pick-and-roll situations. Nope. Ayton shoves him out of the way and goes vertical.

To stick with the theme of adapting, let’s revisit the first play of the night again. Remember Campazzo going right at Ayton?

What did we say about the seal? Stop it. Fool me once, shame on you, etc.

Dribble penetration only matters so much if there’s a 7-foot-1 dude in your way every time.

After that play, the Bahamas goes up 15 points on its way to a monumental win for the program. Argentina’s offense flatlined, unable to find much success through just the primary action because of who was defending it.

Comparisons are stupid, sometimes because of what they are, but mostly due to how they are digested. This reminded me of Ayton in the 2021 Western Conference Finals, Game 4 in L.A. I was there, and while my playoff record of live games is a finite Rolodex of only a few dozen, it’s the most I’ve seen someone change a game defensively and it’s not close. Ayton was masterful, flipping the outcome of nearly every possession in an 84-80 rock fight.

Now, the Los Angeles Clippers were eons more talented and it was in a playoff series that is just before the peak of the sport’s competitive fire. But Ayton was doing the same thing. I recognized that guy. Wednesday was the first time I had seen him since.

In a media world full of grand declarations, I understand the cynicism surrounding them. That said, this upcoming Suns season hinges on Ayton (*waves magical “if healthy” wand around the entire team*).

It sure seems like the Suns tried to trade Ayton, and they had a reason to after seeing the dreadful inconsistencies in his game for the third straight playoff series last May. Relying on him for the biggest stages again feels unwise. If he does it again in any of the four straight series the Suns have to win to win a title, they are almost certainly cooked.

No matter how you slice it, there are flaws in Ayton’s game that we’ve been talking about for over five years now. Like that Western Conference Finals game in L.A., or that playoff run, or the first round in 2022, we’ve also seen what Ayton could be if the ultimate career elixir for promising young players known as consistency and confidence can find him.

That, more than the big-time performances, is what the Suns need. They don’t have to get a career-best year out of him or a breakout defensive stretch that sees him emerge as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate under Vogel. It’s more than possible.

But it’s about Ayton becoming reliable. Not wondering if the Suns will have to again watch his engagement levels crater when the season is on the line.

Perhaps the start of that consistency and confidence develops from representing his country. He’s been the man so far through two games and playing like he knows he is. If Ayton is that guy for two more games, he will have helped the Bahamas win some of its biggest basketball games ever.

Maybe we’ll be saying that in a different way nine months from now.

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