Deandre Ayton (22) of the Phoenix Suns celebrates shooting and fouling the Denver Nuggets in the third quarter at the Phoenix Suns Arena, Monday, June 7, 2021. The Phoenix Suns host the Denver Nuggets for a game of one of their best games -of seven NBA Playoffs series. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
“Honestly, the world left me a question mark in the playoffs. It made me a little bit. And I’m going to change that. That is all. Just a question mark on me. You know. And I just want to change that and prove everyone wrong.”
Mission accomplished, Deandre.
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton enters the 2021 NBA playoffs with a deserved question mark. In his third season, the 22-year-old couldn’t fully find his footing to play consistently. Every time it appeared he had a breakthrough, it wasn’t quite the case.
The timing isn’t the best, as Ayton and fellow 2018 draft class member Mikal Bridges are poised for a costly extension this summer of their starter deal. Given that, plus a team that is rapidly rising to become a contender, I myself am not afraid to put my own question mark around Ayton going into the postseason.
But after his incredible performances on the Suns’ path to the NBA Finals, Ayton has earned the trust of all who closely watched his play, as well as a big pay raise.
Ayton averaged 16.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game in the playoffs. He is the third player since the new millennium to have those numbers at an age younger than 23, joining Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard. And if that average holds up to the NBA Finals, he’ll be alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan as the only ones aged 22 or younger to do so while making championship rounds, according to Stathead.
And nothing can match Ayton’s efficiency across all age groups. With 500 playoff minutes as the threshold, Ayton’s 70.3 correct shooting percentage is the best ever, via Sam Cooper of the Timeline Podcast.
The production is well and good, but where Ayton’s play stands out the most is when it focuses on him specifically watching the game.
Ayton has established himself as one of the hard working men on the court you will see in the NBA this year.
While his talents and strengths are indicators that he is capable of much more in the future, Ayton this year has accepted a simplified role in the winning team.
Instead of a dozen post touches on the game block, Ayton was asked to run up and down the floor, set up a good screen, dive hard into the basket, hit the offensive glass and anchor the defense.
Ayton’s physical gifts allow him to run like a deer and unlike nearly every seven feet you’ll ever see. He used them well.
And if you pay close attention, you’ll see the value he brings the most out of this stuff is when he doesn’t even score.
His gravity on defense was enormous.
Suns head coach Monty Williams described what Ayton can do on the offensive glass.
“He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen when it comes to hovering in the air and grabbing and dropping it on himself,” he said after Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals.
This is what he’s talking about, the part of Ayton’s game where his amazing hands shine.
Also note what Ayton gets in the Suns set attack and that’s why he can still have such a tremendous impact on offensive play even when Phoenix doesn’t choose to have the big guy as his focal point.
And the other side of the floor was where Ayton made his presence most felt.
On top of that role as the defensive heart of his position, Ayton has the ability to step up individual fights against league stars.
In the first half, Davis for the Los Angeles Lakers shot 11-of-29 (37.9%) when defended by Ayton, according to NBA Statistics.
League MVP Nikola Jokic is 24-of-59 (40.7%) with Ayton on his way in the Western Conference semifinals.
His defense of both high-level talents played a part in the Suns’ progress, as did his defense against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Especially in Game 4, Ayton was almost perfect as a back line player on the ball screen while also protecting the rims in the process.
Here he does both in one game.
The rewatch thread will probably be mostly defensive like this one pic.twitter.com/z0hX0irsLw
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) 28 June 2021
He was very good at spending a second or two on the ball handler to allow his team-mates to regain possession, disrupting Los Angeles possession.
Saw this in the first clip too. Ayton got in and out of his place perfectly. Is there long enough in Jackson to get back to Zubac in time while Booker recovers? pic.twitter.com/6zPsAEk74G
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) 28 June 2021
In both clips, of course, you’ll see Ayton end it by grabbing the rebound.
Here are two more of him as an interior presence.
And if he’s diverted to the perimeter, Ayton is fine.
zero statistics for DA here. pic.twitter.com/gLNMECklTg
— David Kevin (@theIVpointplay) 27 June 2021
It was the kind of match that brought to life the potential that Ayton had shown athletically to become the Defensive Player of the Year one day.
Decades from now, Ayton will be remembered for winning the Suns Game 2 Western Conference Finals at Valley-Oop. It will be the first played highlight and most memorable moment, but Ayton’s highest performance in Game 4 is just as important, and perhaps even more so.
Williams after Game 4 hit everything we just did.
“I think Deandre’s presence, his effort, the rebound, the blocking of shots, his communication in defence, replacing smaller players and being able to keep them at bay, he was the catalyst tonight in defence,” Williams said. “I thought it was an unreal performance from him. Our people gathered around him. ”
“He was everywhere tonight, that’s the kind of player he can be,” Williams added. “He basically won that game for us tonight. He’s amazing.”
After the fact before Game 5, I asked Williams what exactly allowed Ayton to develop to the point where he could dominate the game from that point on. It’s something that Williams credited to two years of continuity in assistant coach Willie Green’s defense before breaking it wider.
“DA has a defensive talent that a lot of big companies don’t have,” he said. “The men he reminds me of are like the two guys, LaMarcus (Aldridge) and (Kevin) Garnett in pick-and-roll coverage, the way they talk and their athleticism to switch and cover the guy with the ball.
“And then the people around DA were really helpful, the ability to tackle screens and that sort of thing. I think continuity is in the system for another year and knowing what to call and when to call it certainly helps. People around DA, Mikal (Bridge) overcoming the screen, [Devin Booker] tackling the screen certainly helps, and having Chris (Paul) and Jae (Crowder) talk on the back side, those two guys really help DA understand defense in a way that advances its growth.”
To bounce back from that, here’s Ayton on how this environment and his teammates have helped him reach this new level.
“My team-mates were absolutely relentless. We have something in the team where something is called togetherness and we play as a unit, we unite, and we just struggle to overcome adversity and fight fatigue,” he said after Game 4. “Our mental stamina was there today and we did it. . that good job. Me, I learned that I can keep going. There is another level; I learned that. I think I reached the next level that I really needed, at this level when it comes to competing.”
Ayton deserves the most credit for his high play. He put in the work. But it’s hard to imagine where he would be this season and beyond without Paul. If you don’t believe me, here’s the man himself about his relationship with God Point.
“I love CP, man,” said Ayton. “Like I said, that was the only team-mate that really pushed me. Like a big brother type push. Knowing what I got and that I never thought I had. I think he was the best thing that happened in my career. I can say that every day. Just C is truly a man who pays attention to detail. It’s not how you say it, it’s what he says. I think most people don’t understand. That’s just the real message.
“And he cares so much, that’s really great. I have never known a man who cared so much about basketball and was competitive at everything. And it’s contagious and that’s what he’s built in me too and just having him as a teammate and the experience he’s been through and teaching me little things has helped me and it’s worked.
Paul was very proud of Ayton after seeing him perform in Game 4.
“To see the growth, I really got goosebumps, man,” he said. “We’ve had some hot conversations this season especially at the start of the season but, man, I absolutely love him. His person and to see everything that comes his way, a national audience to see who he is and why he’s the No. 1, I am very happy for him.”
Ayton will get paid no matter what the summer is. Its mix of production and potential makes it so. But what Ayton has shown in the playoffs, that he plays his best ball when the stakes are highest, is the result of a player rising at the right time.
The timing could be good enough to help give the franchise its first championship, the Ayton franchise is undoubtedly a cornerstone now and in the future right behind Booker.