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It’s Sunday, Jan. 17. Ask any Phoenix Suns fan what they think of “DOMINAYTON” and they’ll probably just roll their eyes.
Fast forward to Wednesday night, Jan. 20. Ask the same question, and that Suns fan will tell you they don’t give a damn what Deandre Ayton calls himself as long as he keeps playing like that.
It’s been a turbulent couple of weeks for this organization and its fanbase. Aside from having three games postponed because they didn’t have enough players due to the NBA‘s health and safety protocols, ESPN’s Dave Pasch revealed that Phoenix looked at trading Ayton over the summer.
Throw in a slow start to his first season facing real expectations and it would’ve been enough to make most players fold. But on Monday against the Memphis Grizzlies, the former No. 1 overall pick proved his mettle under some pretty dire circumstances, putting up 18 points, 16 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 block on 7-of-14 shooting.
Although the Suns dropped that game in an admittedly bad loss, DA’s performance wasn’t lost on anyone.
“That’s how he has to play,” head coach Monty Williams said afterward. “He’s capable of doing that every night.”
One dazzling performance is one thing. Bringing it in that department night in and night out is another entirely, and it’s been the biggest frustration with Ayton as his third season is now underway. Ask anyone on the Suns about the big fella, and the buzzword that keeps coming up is “consistency.”
“I’m gonna keep challenging him to be that,” Chris Paul said Monday night. “Everybody on our team is so hard on him because we know what he’s capable of. To be one of the greats in our league, you just have to have consistency, and he’s more than capable of it.”
The consistency aspect has been lacking early in Ayton’s third year. While he’s averaging a career-high 12.1 rebounds per game, his scoring has dropped to 13.9 points a night, and both of those numbers looked significantly worse before the last two games bumped up those averages in a small sample size.
But Monty, Paul, and the rest of his teammates have been on his case since training camp to coax the best out of a 7-footer with natural abilities most mortals only dream of, and something may be starting to click.
Against the Grizzlies, Ayton made a concerted effort to finish plays strong around the rim in a way he (confoundingly) doesn’t always do. His spin move and reverse dunk over an undersized Xavier Tillman shouldn’t have felt like such a watershed moment for a man of his size, speed and athleticism, but it was jaw-dropping nonetheless.
“If you just look at our bench, when DA dunked the ball last night, our bench was ecstatic,” Williams said. “There was a bit of elation in that moment, because they know what he can do, and now he’s raised the bar: We want to see it every night. When he’s in the paint, tear the rim off the hinges and make it a common thing for him and our team.”
Ayton literally did almost tear the rim off the hinges in the first half, and play had to be stopped to make sure it was perfectly level again. After another week of his teammates being in his ear, the message may have sunk in at last.
At shootaround on Tuesday, Devin Booker said they had looked at minor adjustments together, from communicating on defense (even when fatigue sets in) to small details with his footwork. The ever-coachable Ayton was open to listening — a compliment he’s now received from Booker, Paul and his head coach multiple times this season.
“We’ve been on him,” Booker said. “I think it’s been some footwork things and him knowing how dominant he can be. I think last night was turning the page for him.”
If Monday was turning the page, Wednesday’s performance was a full-page illustration of what Ayton’s optimal role on this team looks like. Finishing with 26 points, 17 rebounds, 5 blocks and 3 assists on 11-of-15 shooting, he became the first Suns player with a 25-point, 15-rebound, 5-block game since Shawn Marion back in 2007.
And unlike the Grizzlies contest, Ayton’s eye-opening performance was rewarded with a win against the Houston Rockets.
Even so, the feedback after the game — while positive — wasn’t overflowing with praise either.
“I want to see more,” Booker said. “I want to see more, and that’s what I told him.”
“To be honest, I think I did what I was supposed to do tonight,” Ayton agreed.
Ayton was Phoenix’s most impactful player on both ends of the floor Wednesday night, cemented by perhaps the most impressive four-minute stretch of his career.
That stretch included: a post-up basket on DeMarcus Cousins with a lot more dribbling than Ayton ever showcases; an alley-oop from CP3 out of the Spain pick-and-roll; a block on Cousins’ layup attempt; a block on Eric Gordon’s layup attempt; a long 2-pointer (his foot was just over the line); and dunk off a feed from Mikal Bridges.
The bench reactions to those plays reinforce how much the Suns want — and need — their big man to thrive. Watch Mikal Bridges react to an Ayton alley-oop. Or Booker lose his mind on an Ayton jumper that was an inch away from being a 3. Or everyone go crazy after he posterized Tillman. When he makes big plays, the Suns get fired up.
Williams believes the real energy — and team-building chemistry, particularly on defense — stems from the plays he’s making on the other end of the floor, such as a pair of blocks he had on Victor Oladipo in the first half.
“Anytime he can have that effect on the defensive end, it just gives us a lot of juice,” he said. “When he was able to block Oladipo’s shot on those drives, I thought it just gave our team a ton of energy to know that we can play aggressive defense and then you’ve got somebody like that behind you that can cover it up.”
“It’s a lot of responsibility and you have to have consistency every night, just to show your teammates that you got their back,” Ayton added. “Trust ain’t something you just give somebody; that responsibility, you have to earn it. On this team, I’m proud to be that anchor, I’m proud to take on that challenge and just be there for my guys.”
At 22 years old, Ayton is receiving credit from his coaches and teammates for the work he’s putting in, both in the weight room and the film room. Williams says those two factors are helping him stay disciplined on defense while still being able to block shots at their apex (“which is pretty good and mature for a young player. A lot of guys slap down; DA’s getting shots up high, and it keeps him out of foul trouble”).
The advanced numbers don’t bear out Ayton’s true value or improvement on the defensive end. Per NBA.com, the Suns have been a staggering 20.9 points per 100 possessions better when he’s off the court.
But those marks come from a small sample size, as part of a starting five that has inexplicably struggled so far together, and the improved endurance and durability from those weight room sessions has long been a key to tapping DA’s true potential. In fact, it’s what’s making those kinds of four-minute, game-changing stretches possible now.
“I love it,” Ayton said. “I’m ‘DOMINAYTON,’ so that style of play comes with physicality. All of that is muscle memory — it’s just us making sure we’re on top of our conditioning.”
Over the last two games, Phoenix’s starting center has put up 22.0 points, 16.5 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 3.0 assists in 35.5 minutes per game on 18-of-29 shooting. He’s gone 8-for-9 from the free-throw line, and perhaps even more revealing, he’s had nine dunks — a significant improvement from the seven he managed through his first 11 games.
“There’s probably quotes from early on in his rookie season where I told him, ’16 and 10 is cool, like, it’s cool, but I see 30 and 20 out of you,'” Booker said. “I think he’s turning that page, and I wanna keep talking him up, but he has to keep playing. And he understands that.”
For a player who will always be held to a higher standard as the No. 1 pick who did not turn out to be Luka Doncic, Deandre Ayton has his work cut out for him. Even when he dominates, as he’s done the past two games, that is simply what’s expected of him. It’s what should be the status quo, and more of an exasperated, “Finally” than an excited, “Finally!”
But the big man says he’s been waiting for this type of pressure since he first entered the league. He’s wanted to carry a bigger burden on those broad shoulders of his, to feel his teammates depending on him to win games.
“This is the type of player I am as a whole. This is no surprise to me, to be honest,” he said. “I’m not really worried about the hype or what people have to say. It’s just me doing this consistently, over and over and over, to where it’s known, and not second-guess or doubt it.”
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