This should’ve been an easy, no-brainer decision made months ago. However, that’s not how the cookie crumbled in the Valley with the Phoenix Suns and Deandre Ayton.
Coming off an incredible run to the NBA Finals, Ayton’s rapid two-way development was on full display as he averaged 15.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. During the regular season, Ayton’s inconsistencies were sometimes maddening, and teammates like Chris Paul and Devin Booker were constantly in his ear, but the immense talent was always there.
Once Ayton fully tapped into his potential on the NBA’s biggest stage, he blossomed into a more versatile version of Rudy Gobert. A rare player for his position, Ayton’s jump on the defensive end, coupled with an insane athletic profile, allowed him to stay on the court when teams tried to play him off. Ayton has already mastered verticality, plus guards tend to do little with their possessions when switched on him. At 23 years old, Ayton’s techniques are rapidly improving in the areas he was worst at during the 2018 pre-draft process. Long gone are the eye-gouging moments for Ayton, like when he was put in the torture chamber by the Buffalo Bulls during March Madness because of his inability to play defense.
Without Ayton, the Suns come nowhere close to a Finals appearance. Quite honestly, Phoenix doesn’t even make it out of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers if Ayton isn’t able to lock down the paint and score at an absurdly efficient clip.
Under head coach Monty Williams’ tutelage, Ayton’s development curve has completely changed. Entering into the league with extremely high expectations as Phoenix’s first No. 1 overall pick in franchise history, Ayton was expected to become a throwback bruiser who is mentioned in the same breath as greats like Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson.
Well, in today’s modern NBA, that wasn’t going to happen. Although Ayton is a historically efficient big man at this stage of his career, consistently throwing him post touches just isn’t a great brand of basketball. Knowing Ayton’s limitations — little to no self-creation ability, a slow-developing expansion of his shot and sometimes lackadaisical motor — Williams and the Suns’ player development staff molded Ayton into a version of himself that is now in line for a massive payday sometime soon.
Ayton does all of the dirty work while making it look effortless thanks to his physical gifts. The Bahamian big man sets hard screens, fights for rebounds and anchors a vastly improved defense for Phoenix. While it’s not a sexy combination of strong traits, it’s what the Suns had Ayton buy into. So far, the results have been fantastic.
This is why the Suns, and more specifically, owner Robert Sarver’s pocketbook, can’t get in the way. Ayton has sacrificed more than any other player on the Suns’ roster, earning such a valuable role within their system. Instead of being the 1B to Devin Booker’s 1A, Ayton on some nights is the third, fourth or even fifth option offensively. Phoenix doesn’t run plays for Ayton; he gets his touches by simply outworking his one-on-one matchups around the rim or in transition.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Tuesday that Ayton’s camp will sign for nothing less than a rookie-scale max contract, which is certainly the right thing to do. The 2018 NBA Draft class has already seen four players ink rookie-scale max deals this offseason: Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Michael Porter Jr. There’s no reason why Ayton shouldn’t be the fifth and final member.
Certainly behind the scenes, it’s likely a back-and-forth haggling over the small details. Should Ayton receive a guaranteed max contract, or have some incentive-laden details in it like the Denver Nuggets did with Porter? If that’s what the hang-up is over, it’s totally understandable why this could be dragging all the way up to the Oct. 18 deadline.
However, making Ayton a restricted free agent in a historically weak 2022 class is a terrible message to send within the locker room. Not rewarding Ayton with his well-deserved big-money deal says to others that buying into your role and thriving within it won’t get it done in the end. Even writing that sentence out feels heartless, and the Suns shouldn’t even be in this position right now. Ayton and Mikal Bridges’ new deals should’ve happened right when the offseason began and not in its very last moments.
Ayton is not a max-level player yet, but his trajectory is well on its way to that level. It’s betting on the player and coaching staff to continue tapping into the high-end potential. Ayton has flashed it on occasions, doing so for an extended stretch during arguably the most important games in Suns franchise history, but not over an 82-game regular season. With Ayton, it’s been a seesaw battle to find consistency, and the 2021-22 campaign could be what the Suns are waiting on. Ayton was also suspended 25 games after the 2019-20 season opener due to a testing positive for a diuretic, which raised questions about the former No. 1 overall pick’s judgment.
Entering an important fourth season, Ayton is well-established as one of the best young talents at the center position. Instead of being “Shaq & Kobe 2.0,” as Ayton labeled himself and Devin Booker before he was even drafted, it’s a duo now very reminiscent of the one in Utah featuring Donovan Mitchell and Gobert. With Chris Paul being the guiding voice in his ear, it’s hard to expect any sort of regression coming anytime soon from Ayton. From this point on, Ayton should only continue to grow as he gets closer to his prime years in the Association.
“That man Deandre Ayton, we are going to get him a bag this summer,” Paul said after Ayton’s dominant Western Conference Finals Game 4 performance (19 points, 22 rebounds, four blocks) against the Los Angeles Clippers.
It’s time for the Suns to do the right thing and get the big fella signed, sealed and delivered to be a Phoenix Sun for five more years. If not, it sends all the wrong messages coming off one of the most miraculous seasons in franchise history.