Suns big Deandre Ayton showing growth from lessons learned in first NBA Finals

Duane Rankin
Arizona Republic

SAN ANTONIO – Deandre Ayton hasn’t let the praise he received in his first playoff run last season cloud some realities of that experience.

“I saw the flaws and the mistakes and stuff that I should’ve done in the playoffs and finals, especially the finals,” Ayton said. “I didn’t like the way I performed in the finals.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo got the better of him in the NBA Finals in leading Milwaukee past Phoenix in six games after the Suns were up 2-0. So Ayton came into the season looking to be more of an offensive force and has been that since returning from a right leg injury that kept him out of six games.

“Like I said from the beginning of the season, I’m trying to be more of a threat,” Ayton said. “… I’m trying to make a mark and trying to get used to certain things I wasn’t used to doing, but I’m used to doing because it’s my playing style as well.”

Ayton has averaged 18.2 points on 67.7% shooting and 12.8 rebounds in his five games back from injury as he’s posted three double-doubles during that stretch. The 6-11 big connected on 10 of his 16 FGAs in finishing with 21 points and grabbed 14 boards in Monday’s 115-111 win at San Antonio to begin a four-game road trip.

Winners of 13 straight games, Phoenix (14-3) faces Cleveland (9-9) Wednesday.

Nov 22, 2021; San Antonio, Texas, USA;  Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) dunks over San Antonio Spurs guard Dejounte Murray (5) in the first half at the AT&T Center.

“We’re not working for today,” Ayton said. “We're working for the big stage. I’m glad we have a swag and mentality to where we’re just winning games and working on us. Not just trying to go out here and beat teams, but we’re working on something way bigger than what the league is thinking, especially for the long, long run."

In Monday’s win, Ayton even showed some ball handling in attacking the basket after a pump fake from the high post in the second half that led to more than drawing a foul.

Devin Booker got pumped about the play and ran up on Ayton to let him know it.

Long time coming.

“I’d told him I’ve been waiting on that for three years,” Booker said. “Some games I get a lot of attention. He makes quick, dynamic moves like that, it’s tough to guard. Anytime he's aggressive like that and throwing his body into the defender and getting some contact, I enjoy it.”

Ayton gave the unedited version of that conversation with Booker.

“Three g--d--n years, that’s what that man told me out loud while I was shooting a free throw, too,” Ayton said. “He was like, I’ve been waiting for you to do that for three years. That’s one move Book always been trying to teach me since I stepped down in Phoenix 'cause he knows the type of pressure and attention he brings on the court coming off of screens.”  

Ayton has talked about how he’s learned from backup bigs JaVale McGee and Frank Kaminsky, who is out indefinitely with a stress reaction to his right knee.

Williams has heard Ayton say the same thing as recent as Monday night.

“He said that he’s learning and has learned a lot from Frank,” Williams said. “He said that tonight. He had the fake DHO (dribble hand off) and he took off and went to the basket. He’s much better at playing in the pocket. Sometimes he scores, sometimes he finds guys on the backside. He’s a worker. He’s still growing and understanding. He’s had a lot thrown on his plate for such a young player, but in those particular points on the floor or spaces on the floor, he’s getting more and more comfortable.”

This is all part Ayton’s game evolving that could prove to be beneficial now and in the postseason.

“The way play people play Book and Chris (Paul) in pick-and-roll and DHOs, to have that element of faking the DHO and not just going to the basket, but going under control is a weapon for us,” Williams concluded.

Have opinion about current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at dmrankin@gannett.com or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on Twitter at @DuaneRankin.

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