Trail Blazers face the Milwaukee Bucks on January 31, 2024. Bruce Ely / Trail Blazers

Ayton Finds Rhythm Since Returning From Injury

PORTLAND -- It took a bit of time, but we’re finally starting to see the best of what Trail Blazers center Deandre Ayton has to offer.

After a bit of a slow start to his career in Portland, much of which is likely due to especially poorly-timed injuries, the 7-0 center in his seventh season out of Arizona has been, as he might put it, “dominayton” as of late.

“I’ve been having a lot of fun since I got here, just playing freely, listening to the coaches, playing with guys my age, younger guys than me,” said Ayton after putting up 22 points on 11-of-12 shooting from the field and 16 rebounds in Tuesday’s loss to the Timberwolves at Moda Center. “Just having that dominant feeling of just knowing that my team is depending on me on both ends of the floor, just knowing that I have to show up on every possession.”

After sitting out 12 games with a minor knee injury between the end of 2023 and the start of 2024, Ayton has shown himself to be a force on both ends of the court in the 12 games he’s played since returning to the lineup.

Deandre Ayton (22 points) Highlights vs. Minnesota Timberwolves

“I’ve been trying to humble myself a little bit and just accept the challenge, have some humility when it comes to failure,” said Ayton. “Not try to rush anything. We’re a young team but we’re an exciting team as well. We just can’t skip no steps and we have to go through these growing pains a little bit where we’re just trying to know each other, really.”

Whether it’s due to better health, both his and that of his teammates, better chemistry with the teams’ guards or an improved understanding of his role and expectations of the coaching staff, Ayton has looked every bit like the player who was selected by the Suns with the top overall pick of the 2018 Draft.

“It just feels good that they’re trusting me now, just trying to find me the best way they can in pockets and in pick-and-rolls, even in dump offs when they’re attacking the rim,” said Ayton. “I truly appreciate this team for just trying to adapt to me and my style of play. Honestly, I’m playing harder for them. You can see the trust and it’s vice versa.”

Between that trust and adaptation, Ayton has averaged 17.8 points on 62 percent shooting from the field, 11.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.4 blocks in his last 10 games.

Deandre Ayton Highlights (18 PTS) | Trail Blazers vs. Pelicans | Feb. 10

He’s shooting 73 percent within five feet of the basket, 69 percent within eight feet and 64 percent between 15 and 19 feet during that same span. And he’s shooting 78 percent from the field early in the shot clock and 69 percent late in the shot clock.

“(Ayton) has been playing great, wonderful lately,” said Anfernee Simons. “That’s what we’ve been wanting from him, be that player we know he can be every single night for us. Whether the shots are falling or not, just his presence on defense, rebounds, just be an anchor for us on the defensive end. That’s what we want from him each and every night and I think he’s been stringing together a lot of games for us where he’s there.”

Ayton continuing to build familiarity with his guards, be it Simons, Malcolm Brogdon, Scoot Henderson or Dalano Banton, and bringing consistent, regular effort on both ends of the floor would go a long ways toward laying the bedrock for future seasons with the Trail Blazers. It might not have started off as quickly as anyone would have liked, but there’s still plenty of time to make up for it, both this season and in the future.

“We some young dudes, man,” said Ayton. “I give these dudes a good summer, a good offseason together, we should be solid. Looking forward to winning these games instead of just learning.”