Phoenix Suns six-year-old center Deandre Ayton is at a crossroads.
One route leads to team triumph and success, while the other leads to personal glory. A fine line to walk in the NBA, we’ve seen instances where you can have both. When the talent and execution are so unique, so fine-tuned and so unstoppable, both of these paths cross. Two-time MVP and now NBA champion Nikola Jokic is one of those players. His personal glory has led to team success and vice versa. It’s a rare quality to possess, especially as a big man.
Just look at Joel Embiid. The reigning NBA MVP previously felt slighted when he was passed over for the award he won in 2023. “I’m not mad,” he said in 2022“Last year I campaigned on it. This year I answered questions when asked, and the next couple of years until I retire, it’s almost like…I don’t know. Like I said, I don’t know what else I’m going to do to win it.”
This year he won his coveted prize. This year, his team lost in the second round for the third straight season.
Deandre Ayton is at a crossroads because he hears you. He hears us. He hears me. I wouldn’t classify myself as an ‘Ayton Hater’ as I have always claimed to be an ‘Ayton Realist’. As with all questions, I try to look at a subject from all angles and make my decision based on the information available. Meaningful, safe, but not blind hate or love based on bias.
Earlier this week, he commented on how he feels, saying: “I can feel the whole world kind of hates me.” He added: “I feel like I don’t have any fans out there and I can feel it because the whole world says so.”
These are statements from someone who doesn’t understand why his fan base is frustrated. Some might see this as a ‘he can’t see the forest for the trees’ situation, but if you pause and empathize with the 24-year-old, you might understand why he doesn’t get it. He is not looking at The basketball of the sun through our eyes. He is player that from a team-first perspective. He does not chase state. He is a gentle man from the Bahamas who does not possess the aggression we feels he must.
Ayton has sacrificed personal glory for team success in his career, but it hasn’t been enough to silence critics. A former #1 overall pick, he could have been someone who selfishly demanded the ball, increased touches and an offense to run through him. He could have demanded to be traded to a team that would allow him to flourish statistically. But he doesn’t have that. That’s not Ayton’s way. Which, to be honest, is what frustrates the fan base. We wanted a second coming of David Robinson. We got the first Deandre Ayton.
He is a career 59.7% shooter, averaging 16.7 points and 10.4 rebounds. Last season, the year after having his max contract matched after the Indiana Pacers ran at him in restricted free agency, he put together an 18 point/10 rebound season on 58.9% shooting.
In games where Ayton has played in his career, the team is 167-136 (.551 winning percentage). The guy helps the Suns win, it’s just not how we prefer him to do it. Jump hooks, spinning away from the basket, finesse versus physicality. Again the team wins and has put together a solid run in its five years. But we want more. And he doesn’t know how to give more, even as he promises to “change the narrative. Unlock whatever it is.”
It wasn’t unlocked in the postseason, where he averaged 13.4 points and 9.7 rebounds on 55% shooting. The thing is, there has to be a crossover between his personal production and the team’s success. He needs to be a reason for the team to win, rather than just a contributing factor. He’s an expensive role player, and that’s what he’ll be in 2023-24 with the three-headed scoring monster of Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant.
The big man stands at a crossroads.
In an interview with Republic of Arizona‘s Duane Rankin, James Jones acknowledged his starting center’s statements. “I think what gets lost is his desire to be great and how much winning means to him,” Jones told Rankin. “He’s six years into his NBA career. He’s an 18-10 player, and if you were to ask the game’s best players how easy it is to do it, they’ll tell you it’s extremely difficult, but even that bar isn’t high enough for him and others.”
Ayton looks for a way to raise the bar, but the bar has risen around him. He has had the advantage in his career of playing with a Hall of Fame bound point guard in Chris Paul, Hall of Fame bound outstanding forward in Kevin Durant and perhaps the greatest player in franchise history in Devin Booker. And now Bradley Beal is on the team.
The offense will certainly change around him, but a part of him has to change as well. He knows it. He feels it.
“Rightly or wrongly,” Jones added, “he senses and he feels, but the outside opinion, I think and I know internally, he’s changed the narrative because if you look at the impact he’s had on this team over the last three or four years, it’s undeniable, and without him playing at the level he’s playing at, we’re nowhere near as good as we’ve been.”
“If he can take it to a level that I know he will, he makes us special and I think that’s the driver for him. The intrinsic, extrinsic motivations will always be there, and I think he’s just trying to tap into that now.”
Ayton struggles internally with how to change the narrative. Behind him will be a coach drooling for the opportunity to coach him, the best trio on paper in Suns history and a fascinated fan base. What could swing the pendulum in Phoenix’s favor and bring a championship to the Valley is Ayton. It’s a ton of pressure. As Jones said, he’s trying to capitalize on that now.
We all want DA to do just that, to exploit his motivations. We wish him and this team nothing but success. We want him to live up to his max contract, be the dominant big man he can be. After five years, despite the victory that has followed, the time has come to navigate these crossroads. He must find a way to be a productive and consistent member of the team, playing with the energy that equals success and is not the cause of defeat.
And we have to temper our expectations. What do you expect from the fourth option on offense and the first option on defense? Are you just keeping an eye on the box score, or are you looking for the attitude and effort on the pitch? We will always have this frustratingly unique relationship with our Ayton expectations.
Maybe it’s time we changed our narrative too.