Deandre Ayton ignores all the noises and is focused on his ultimate goal of making the Phoenix Suns an NBA powerhouse.
Phoenix Suns rookie center Deandre Ayton has hit the ground running in the NBA, and he doesn’t plan on slowing up anytime soon. Ayton speaks with confidence belying his age — he won’t turn 21 until the coming offseason — and has goals larger than most NBA rookies.
Another rookie with similar goals plays at home in Dallas, and that one has gotten most of the rookie headlines that have existed this season. Ayton is aware of the hype surrounding Luka Doncic, but he isn’t totally familiar with it. His goals are bigger than being crowned the best rookie.
“Right now I think there’s bigger things than Rookie of the Year for me,” Ayton said in a recent phone interview with The Step Back. “This is a franchise that needs a winning culture, and I think I have bigger things ahead other than a Rookie of the Year. I’m trying to change a whole city around.”
Ayton means it when he talks about changing things in Phoenix. The Bahamian big man has a stronger connection to his first NBA home than most players, as Ayton attended high school and college in Arizona before the Suns selected him first overall in the 2018 NBA Draft.
Even though he was well aware Phoenix wouldn’t get a lot of wins right away, Ayton was genuinely happy to remain in the place he and his family call their second home. With the Suns having suffered through losing 12 of their previous 14 games when Ayton spoke to The Step Back, he said the lost games won’t stop him, and his team, from getting better.
“I didn’t come into this league expecting to win, but I expect to get better, a lot better, very fast, and to play the best of the best, and learn from the very best to go the right way,” Ayton said. “Nothing’s going to change me getting better, and everything is going to go uphill. I’m just working hard every day, looking forward to the next game.”
Although his team isn’t winning, there are few who could criticize the success Ayton has found on the floor thus far. He’s averaging 16.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.9 blocks per game this season, through 52 games and 51 starts. One of the few who does expect more is Ayton himself, who envisioned his averages at even higher levels at this nascent point in his career.
“[It’s] not even close to what I want to do,” Ayton said of his per game averages. “I’m supposed to be averaging 25 [points] and 12, or 15 [rebounds]. But I just have to take what I get, really, and build on it. Just rebuilding and trying to figure it out, and just knowing everybody’s personnel on my team to lead them the right way.”
No, that’s not a misprint or a flubbed sentence from Ayton. The 20-year-old rookie center very much believes the Suns are his team, and already is comfortable with a leadership role in Phoenix. Being a leader is nothing new for Ayton, who says at every step of his career he’s been looked at and counted on as his team’s number one.
“I’m just glad that we’re young, because at a young age, me, I’ve led everywhere that I’ve went on a team,” Ayton said. “I’ve always been a leader. Maybe because I’m the bigger kid on the team, but it got to a point where I’ve always been put in positions to lead. It’s just really natural.”
This is the worst an Ayton-led team has ever played. He led Hillcrest Prep Academy to a 33-6 record in his senior year, and his Arizona team went 27-8 in his sole NCAA season. Phoenix’s current situation is not lost on Ayton. He said the Suns are working on figuring out who they are and spoke in detail on Phoenix dealing with the growing pains of being such a young team in his first season.
“Who are we, and when you play the Suns, what do you think of the Suns,” Ayton asked. “That’s the type of thing we’re trying to prove right now. We’re trying to set the foundation of what kind of team are we. As a young team we’re hungry and we can compete, we’re NBA players of course. We need maturity. There’s a lack of maturity on the team, especially [in] crunch time situations. Sometimes we just worry about the wrong things when it comes to winning, and you just have to give up, make certain sacrifices for the team.”
The Suns looked much better than their record indicated for most of their game against the Golden State Warriors on Friday night, but Ayton’s words proved prophetic as Phoenix blew a fourth-quarter lead after being up by as much as six in that final period.
Phoenix probably deserves a pass for not being able to hold a lead against Golden State, but that wasn’t the only close loss in this current losing stretch. The Suns have dropped three games by exactly two points over the last few weeks.
The Suns looked dominant early in that game against the Warriors, in part due to Ayton putting up a 12 point first quarter to set the tone. He finished with 23 points, making that effort his 16th game with 20 or more points this season.
Ayton, despite knowing that he and his Suns have a long way to go, is well aware that he’s been a force in the league already. Now he wants to exert himself more and more often from here on out.
“I’m dominating,” Ayton said, “I’m dominating the right way, and I’m leading the right way. Right now I’m just not dominating more consistently. I need to destroy more teams, and really put an exclamation point on it when I’m done.”
Ayton is a strong guy, something that helps him with all that dominating. He noted that Rockin’ Protein, a brand he’s partnered with in his rookie year, has helped him to continue to get stronger this season. He prefers the strawberry flavor, and called the brand “swaggy”. Even equipped with a solid protein drink, most NBA rookies tend to struggle at a certain point in the season, known as the rookie wall. Ayton, on the other hand, rebuffs the existence of the concept.
“I have no idea what that is,” Ayton said. “In rookie transition, they were trying to convince me for the longest that I’m going to hit a rookie wall, and I’m like, what is that? I haven’t seen that, come across it, I don’t know what it is. I think it’s unrealistic, it’s a myth.”
Thus far, the Suns rookie has backed up his tough talk. He’s scoring 17.4 points per game in February, the second-best month of the season for him thus far. It would make sense if Ayton didn’t hit a rookie wall, as he doesn’t really see himself as a rookie.
“It feels like I’m in my third, fourth year right now,” he said. “You have no idea. Me talking to guys, and learning from a lot of people in this league — I’m getting a lot of wisdom, and I’m just freestyling it in my own way to be honest. I’ll figure it out in my way, how I see the league in my eyes. I’m doing alright. I still got a lot to learn, a lot more to learn actually. I love the pace I’m going at right now.”
One of the players Ayton can learn from on his own team is Devin Booker. Booker also came into Phoenix with high expectations, and although his Suns haven’t won many games it’s hard to argue Booker hasn’t lived up to expectations. He’s averaging a career-high 6.7 assists this season, to go along with 24.9 points, the same scoring output he managed last season in roughly the same amount of minutes.
Even though Ayton sees himself as a leader of the Suns, he absolutely acknowledges that he isn’t the only one. Ayton says Booker’s confidence is contagious, and a good thing for Phoenix.
“Book is a killer,” Ayton said. “He’s definitely a dude that can go get it anytime he wants. The confidence level of that young man, it’s just contagious. Once you see somebody like that going after it and trying to do what’s best for the team, you have to put in and contribute. It’s a great thing. He’s showing by example. We all try to follow and lead in our own way, in our own roles on this team.”
The Suns aren’t there yet, but with Booker and Ayton on the roster for at least the next few seasons it feels like Phoenix isn’t as far away from competing as it may seem. The Western Conference is stacked with solid teams, but these Suns just might be able to start climbing its standings as soon as next season.
That’s Ayton’s number one goal, anyway. He feels blessed to be in Phoenix and wants to win with the Suns, for the city he’s called home for years now.
“God really answered some prayers for me,” Ayton said. “I really wanted to stay in Phoenix because all my family is out here now, I feel like it’s the right fit, I had to adapt so much to Arizona, I’ve been here forever. I really do call this my second home, my mom calls it her second home as well. It’s peaceful, and we love it out here. [We got] to get the city happy, and get some wins up here so they can support the team like they want to.”