Phoenix Suns

Aron Baynes is the glue holding the Suns together without Deandre Ayton

Losing Deandre Ayton should’ve been a death sentence for the Phoenix Suns, but instead, Aron Baynes has stepped in perfectly for the NBA’s most surprising team.

When Deandre Ayton‘s 25-game suspension for violating the NBA’s Anti-Drug Policy was announced, it felt like more of the same misery that’s hovered over the Phoenix Suns for the better part of a decade.

Coming off an eye-opening season opener against the Sacramento Kings, Ayton and the Suns looked like a revelation, with the No. 1 overall pick putting up 18 points, 11 rebounds and, most encouragingly, four blocks in a performance showing his invigorated interest on defense. It was only fitting that less than 24 hours later, the Suns’ 2019-20 campaign already felt like it was on the ropes. The error for margin in the West is razor-thin for playoff teams, let alone a Phoenix squad coming off a 19-win season.

Fortunately for Monty Williams‘ squad, backup center Aron Baynes has not only filled the Ayton void, but raised the team’s floor with the best stretch of his eight-year NBA career.

Though eight games is a small sample size, Baynes is averaging 16.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 0.9 blocks in 24.9 minutes per game this season, shooting 58.8 percent from the field. He’s also taking a whopping 4.3 3-point attempts per game, making 47.1 percent of them.

Every single one of those numbers represents a career high for the 32-year-old, who is a plus-5.8 on the floor for the Suns. In his seven starts since Ayton was suspended, Baynes is averaging 17.6 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.0 blocks per game on 58.4 percent shooting from the floor and 45.5 percent from downtown.

“It’s remarkable the anchor that he’s been defensively, rebounding the ball, communication on defense, knocking down shots,” Williams said. “I think the guys feel a level of confidence with him on the floor. I do — I feel confident when he’s on the floor. I don’t think anybody saw this, but we knew we were getting a guy this summer that was gonna help us in many ways. We just didn’t know how, and now we’re starting to see it.”

Putting up career numbers on a losing team is one thing, but Baynes is thriving in his expanded role on a Phoenix team that is 5-3 and sports the league’s fifth-best Net Rating — thoroughly unexpected results considering its early season gauntlet. The Suns are winning without one of their franchise cornerstones, and Baynes is having a massive impact on both ends of the floor.

The biggest surprise has been the offensive end. As a role player for most of his career, his leaps in playing time, scoring and 3-point shooting have been stunning. Against the Memphis Grizzlies, he recorded back-to-back 20-point games for the first time in his career, following up a 24-point, seven-rebound, three-block performance against the Golden State Warriors with 20 points and a career-high four 3-pointers.

The Suns have been unstoppable with Baynes on the floor, boasting a team-high offensive rating of 118.4 with the Aussie out there. That figure plummets to a team-worst 94.0 without him — an Aron Baynes-sized drop of 24.4 points per 100 possessions.

His biggest boon to the offense thus far, shockingly, has been his marksmanship from beyond the arc. A career 33.3 percent shooter from distance, Baynes’ previous career high in attempts was 1.2 per game last season, when he shot 34.4 percent from deep. This year, “Splash Volcano” is launching 4.3 times per game and canning 47.1 percent of them.

“You have to put the work in,” Devin Booker said, acknowledging a lot of his progress came before he even joined the Suns following the FIBA World Cup. “You can only imagine the work he puts in. I haven’t seen it, but that just doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a confidence thing, adjusting to the game. The NBA has changed in the past five years.”

Last year, Baynes made a career-high 21 3-pointers in 51 games for the Boston Celtics. Through eight games with the Suns, he’s already up to 16 made triples. Williams said he’s just trying to build on what Baynes’ role was with the Celtics — when they would run pick-and-rolls with Al Horford and Baynes would dive out to the corner for 3s — and Team Australia.

“With us, we’ve freed him up to get more trail 3s and top-of-the-key 3s,” he said to explain his success. “And obviously, when you work on your game the way he does. The way they played him on the national team is something that we tried to implement here. So it may be more [playing] time, it’s probably a byproduct of time and the work he’s put in.”

His release is hardly conventional, but with defenses having to worry about drivers like Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio, they’ve given Baynes all the space he needs to load up the catapult and launch with deadly accuracy. Obviously near-50 percent shooting isn’t sustainable, and his form isn’t aesthetically pleasing, but his release feels routine and calculated.

Per NBA.com, 28 of his 34 long-range attempts have been “wide open,” with the nearest defender being six-plus feet away. As long as defenses keep giving him that much space, that shot should continue to fall.

“It’s something I keep working on, but at the same time it’s a credit to everyone on the team — the guys that are creating so much space for me and giving me a lot of time,” Baynes said. “I just gotta go out there and like I said, anyone who shoots a shot on this team, it’s usually the right shot for the team.”

Therein might be the most commendable thing about Aron Baynes: In the midst of what could become a career season, filling in for a future star like Deandre Ayton, he continually deflects whenever he’s asked about his individual success, crediting his teammates and Monty Williams’ system instead.

“How could it not be fun?” Baynes said. “It’s fun for everyone here involved. That’s one of the good feelings we have right now is we understand that when we’re playing within the system and the ball is moving and everyone’s getting a shot, we’re just taking the best shot for the team — that’s when it’s fun. When we keep playing defense the way we are, it allows us to get out in transition. It’s fun through sticking to the little things and doing the little things consistently and making the most of every single play, and that’s how we have our fun.”

Of course, Baynes was originally a target for the Suns because of his veteran experience and defensive mindset. Williams said his communication and toughness on defense is a big part of Phoenix’s success on that end.

“For me, when Aron’s knocking down his shot and he’s making the extra pass, that’s who he is,” he said after the Sixers win. “But he’s the anchor of our defense right now. He’s talking, the blocked shot he had was tremendous, he’s always on the boards. Even when he doesn’t get the rebound, he’s so big he clears out two or three guys so Mikal [Bridges] can come in and get it or Kelly [Oubre] can get the rebound. His communication on the defensive end really helps our guards a ton.”

The numbers don’t back up his defensive impact at this point, as the Suns have been 13.3 points stingier per 100 possessions with Baynes off the court, but the intangibles shine through for what was the NBA’s fifth-ranked defense before Thursday’s reality check against the Miami Heat.

Against the 76ers, for example, Baynes drew the unenviable task of guarding Ben Simmons, playing off the All-Star point forward and forcing him to shoot. The result? His worst offensive outing of the season so far, in which he tallied a mere six points on 2-of-8 shooting.

All of this is without even mentioning the other intangibles, like how his screens are the equivalent of running into brick wall with good manners and an Australian accent. Per NBA.com, he’s created 34 screen assists (tied for 10th in the NBA) and 82 screen assist points (eighth), freeing up tons of precious room for Devin Booker to work with.

Learning from all-time greats like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili taught Baynes a lot about how to lead, and he’s putting all that knowledge to tremendous use so far in Phoenix.

“I think it’s who he is,” Williams said. “If you talked to his national team coach, he probably would say the same thing. I talked to Brad [Stevens] this summer and he talked about how much he was gonna miss Aron. I just think that’s who he is. Whatever messages you have, he’s going to echo those messages in the locker room and on the floor. Those are the kinds of guys you want on your team.”

For his unexpected leap in 3-point prowess, defensive intangibles and leadership qualities, Aron Baynes is the reason the Phoenix Suns’ 2019-20 season hasn’t gone belly up already, and he’s the reason we’re not talking about the Deandre Ayton suspension more.

Next: The Suns are legitimately good…and could be a playoff team

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown, who coached Baynes in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and recruited him to play for Australia back in 2008, reveled in how much he’s grown up over the years.

“I think that Phoenix is very lucky to have someone that capable as their starting center,” he said.

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