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Deandre Ayton can be the Suns’ savior or an overlooked No. 1 pick

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The big man was immediately productive as a rookie with the Suns. Can he be impactful?

Deandre Ayton smiles as he runs down the court for the Phoenix Suns.
Deandre Ayton is already good. Can he be great?

Whenever someone says Phoenix Suns, I think about Robert Sarver’s reign of terror, an unnecessarily complicated front office org chart and all the head-scratching choices it’s provided over the past two years, a frustrated Devin Booker and his frustrating talent, the never-ending game of musical chairs on the bench, and goats.

All are symptoms of the self-sabotage that reflect what the Suns are and have been. Unmentioned is Deandre Ayton, a 7’1, No. 1 overall draft pick who averaged 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds as a 20-year-old rookie. He should be at the center of Phoenix’s universe in the same way Luka Doncic and Trae Young are in Dallas and Atlanta. Or even a substantive symbol of change and growth, like Jaren Jackson Jr. in Memphis or Marvin Bagley in Sacramento. But instead, the expectations and excitement typically knitted into an aspiring franchise player’s DNA aren’t there, which is and isn’t Ayton’s fault.

The cynicism that corrodes everyone associated with the Suns organization makes the task of dragging them from the outskirts of the Western Conference quite a cross to bear. But separate from his circumstance, Ayton alone must be held responsible for the holes in his game that may prevent him from dominating modern basketball in the same way Doncic, Young, and Jackson Jr. soon will.

At the belly of his young career is a struggle between production and impact. How can he — or any traditional big man (i.e a non-primary ball-handler) — consistently influence games in a way that extends above and beyond the nightly double-double? Can they take over when a playoff series is on the line, force adjustments from the opposition, and use their physical gifts to dictate both sides of the ball?

These questions aren’t easy, particularly when directed towards someone with immense talent and just one NBA season under his belt. Ayton’s offensive function will likely toggle in several directions, depending on what type of players surround him at any given time, but big-picture reservations about relevancy and effectiveness grow a bit more urgent when defense is a question mark.

A couple months ago, Suns general manager James Jones appeared on ESPN’s The Jump and said this about his franchise center: “We expect him to take a big jump defensively. He needs to be a dominant defensive force ... He has to get stronger. He has to recognize things a little bit quicker. But that comes with time.”

Indeed. Ayton has much to learn. He’s seven feet of chiseled brick that glides without instinct. Defensive anchors can’t be described that way. They must recognize their teammate’s mistakes in real time and then immediately transform into back-line insurance. Last year, Ayton was whatever the opposite of insurance is: Twenty players defended at least five shots around the rim per game, and none allowed a higher field goal percentage than he did.

The Suns were roasted at the basket and couldn’t force the mid-range shots most quality defenses are able to coax from an opponent. Ayton wasn’t entirely to blame — in every lineup he was surrounded by undersized or unequipped fours: T.J. Warren, Dragan Bender, Josh Jackson, Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, Kelly Oubre Jr., etc. — but he was far from Phoenix’s solution. His fundamentals were all over the place. Flat hips. Low arms. Fickle feet:

Being large and taking up space can only do so much. Ayton was antsy and welcomed contact that served no purpose beyond forcing the referee to blow the whistle. Unguarded cutters whisked by whenever his eyes stayed on the ball. All big men find themselves in no man’s land from time to time. Ayton lived there:

But the thing about team defense is no one player can save it if another — or two, or three — routinely goes rogue. Ayton could’ve used a beefy tag-team partner in Phoenix’s frontcourt, and this year Aron Baynes will be exactly that. Over the past three years, the Celtics and Pistons were excellent on defense whenever Baynes played. He’ll shout instructions, take punishment, and protect Ayton in ways none of his teammates were able to last season.

Despite not playing a minute of power forward since he was drafted, Ayton should benefit from some time there this year. (Jones has talked about the possibility.) His post game is one reason to be bullish. Only seven players averaged more post-ups per game last season, and on a points per possession mark he was as or more efficient than Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Nikola Vucevic, per NBA.com.

With several teams — the Celtics, Blazers, Jazz, Nets, and Clippers, to name a few — momentarily abandoning the power forward position in favor of wings who allow more flexible options on both ends, Ayton’s contrarian bully ball can disrupt the NBA’s ongoing stylistic revolution instead of trying to fit inside it. (That’s a best-case scenario.) There was more skill than luck at the core of his impressive field goal percentage at the rim last year, and in situations where Baynes ties up the opposing center Ayton can find ways to bury a smaller defender. He makes it look so easy.

Attacking with one’s back to the basket serves a purpose, and size will always matter when it’s combined with competence, but it’s not controversial to say that players like Ayton were a better fit 15 years ago, when those who do what he does were asked and expected to lift their team into perennial contention. Ayton is highly efficient, but thus far it’s been on shots that great offenses no longer depend on. It’s tough to reconcile with that fact, but his development isn’t static, either. There are other, encouraging dimensions to Ayton’s game that are plenty useful in this era.

As a muscular pogostick with tight-end hands, his potential as a roll man is off the chats, particularly with Ricky Rubio gift-wrapping lobs none of his teammates were able to provide last season. Rubio enters the year as a career 32.2 percent outside shooter, but working Booker, Oubre, and/or Mikal Bridges off the ball will help space the floor a bit whenever Ayton dives into the paint. Baynes, Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky are all bigs who don’t hesitate from beyond the arc, either.

He’s as graceful as he is effective in the open floor, and has enough athleticism, strength, and aggression to normalize 16-rebounds-per-game campaigns. (When unleashed on the offensive glass Ayton knows how to finish: according to Synergy, he ended the year in the 92nd percentile on putbacks as a rookie.) If he can routinely draw double teams on the block, force help on the roll, and require multiple bodies to keep him off the glass, the Suns will undoubtedly be a better team when he’s on the floor, in ways that invigorate those around him.

Also, Ayton only attempted four threes last year, but if Monty Williams (a big man whisperer who helped mold LaMarcus Aldridge and Anthony Davis) is willing to extend his range a bit, the possibilities only grow. Ayton’s release on all the long twos he launched as a rookie was quick and smooth, and he makes his free throws. If he can become a pick-and-pop threat 25 feet from the rim, or simply stand above the break and create space for Phoenix’s guards and wings, his value will only climb.

If Ayton tops out as “polished Myles Turner” it won’t be the worst thing in the world, but the Suns probably also wouldn’t make any deep playoff runs. To eventually impose himself in fourth quarters during a playoff series, Ayton will need — in addition to premier defense — range, vision, and an ability to manufacture offense off the bounce. None of these qualities currently exist in his game — he averaged 0.41 dribbles per touch last year, which shades closer to support (Clint Capela) than star (Joel Embiid) — but there’s still plenty of time to fold them in and build on bits and pieces scattered throughout his rookie season.

A quick example: Ayton is not a great passer, but comb through tape of his assists and at least one hopeful pattern emerges. He already knows how to make release-valve kick outs that punish defenses when they trap the ball. This is small but significant.

A decade ago, the footwork, touch, and patience packed into his body would guarantee perennial all-star appearances and raise Phoenix’s floor up to a respectable level. Ayton’s sheer size made him a privileged commodity. Today, he’s forced to adapt to his surroundings instead of having it be the other way around. But that doesn’t mean Ayton’s second season can’t end with people thinking about him before his organization’s endless missteps.

Phoenix’s most notable offseason moves were made, in part, to stabilize Ayton’s environment — from Rubio, to Williams, to Baynes. It’s a step in the right direction, though who’s to know if it will matter. Asking any one person to lead this franchise towards anything that remotely resembles sustainability is unfair. In countless ways, Ayton’s career, in or away from the Suns, can still go in so many different directions.

Still, their fans have little choice but to approach him with cautious optimism and reasonable expectations. The door for Ayton to become the savior they’ve been waiting for is wide open, but the areas of his game that took a nap during his rookie season need to wake up before he can take a step through.