Deandre Ayton’s All-Star-level streak is credited to his teammates’ tough love
The text messages arrive daily. So do the phone calls and video chats.
And Deandre Ayton loves receiving them.
They’re from teammates and coaches who continue to push Ayton to play with more force, attack the basket and anchor the Phoenix Suns’ defense. Those tough-love conversations have helped Ayton put up All-Star-caliber numbers since Phoenix returned to play following three game postponements due to health and safety protocols.
They are also part of the Suns’ clear and open platform of accountability, which requires buy-in from everybody from coach Monty Williams and general manager James Jones, to veteran leaders Chris Paul and Jae Crowder, to blossoming standouts Devin Booker and Ayton.
“I'm just taking the constructive criticism that they want the best for you,” Ayton said. “I enjoy people telling me how to do things or show me that they care. Cause if they didn't care, they wouldn't even bother wasting their breath.”
Through the first 11 games of the season, Ayton averaged 12.5 points and 11.3 rebounds. While averaging a double-double in the NBA is no easy feat, teammates and coaches wanted more from Ayton because they knew the former No. 1 overall draft pick had it in him. When the Suns went a week without games earlier this month, those “career-changing, life-changing” motivational conversations before, during and after workouts at the Verizon 5G Performance Center ramped up even more.
“That’s all he’s been hearing for the past week about being more ferocious in the paint,” Williams said of that period. “He’s so talented, so big and strong, we feel he can dominate that way."
Added Booker: “It was some minor adjustments that we sat down and looked at together. He was open to listening, and it shows. He went out there and implemented it in his game. I think he’s finding that it comes a lot easier with what we talked about.”
Since returning to action, “DominAyton” has been living up to his nickname. In the past six games, Ayton is playing at an All-Star level, averaging 17.5 points, 14.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while shooting 61.4 percent from the field and 85.7 percent from the free throw line.
Paul said the way Ayton has responded to the teaching moments has been “unbelievable.”
“I’m going to keep challenging him to be that,” Paul said. “Everyone on our team is so hard on him because we know what he’s capable of. To be one of the greats in our league, you just have to have consistency and he’s more than capable of it.”
One of Ayton’s most impressive performances came in the Suns’ victory over the Houston Rockets on Jan. 20. In just a four-minute stretch in the fourth quarter, the Big Fella showcased his finesse with a turnaround jumper, threw down an alley-oop from Paul, blocked both a center and a guard on two possessions, was a toe shy of a 3-pointer and wrapped it up with another one-handed slam inside.
Then, Ayton averaged 22 points, 13 rebounds and a block in back-to-back games against the Denver Nuggets. In the closing minutes of the fourth quarter of the first meeting, Ayton caught the ball from a diving Cam Johnson and delivered home an and-one slam that prompted Williams to pump his arm in celebration. In the second matchup, Ayton stonewalled Nikola Jokic in the post down the stretch, drawing praise from the MVP candidate.
“Give the guy credit. He’s amazing,” Jokic said following the second night. “He’s really solid. He knows like what he needs to work. I think that’s the best thing a young player can have, that mindset.”
The maturity in Ayton’s game on the court has also been present in his recent postgame interviews. A normally playful and slightly exaggerated Ayton has become more stoic in his responses, consistently mentioning that he’s now playing the way he is supposed to be and offering that he could be doing even more at times.
“I’m there for my brothers,” Ayton said. “That’s the pride and the dignity I have in it. … As we go along, our trust is getting stronger and stronger.”
Ayton said he first learned to absorb candid feedback at a young age, noting criticism and pressure have “always been on my back” since moving to the United States from the Bahamas when he was 12 and becoming a top basketball prospect.
“It’s just my instinct to just be humble and listen,” Ayton said. “Anyone can teach me something. That’s why I learn. That’s the person who I am, where somebody else will say something and I’ll respect it and I’ll try to understand...
“Nothing really hurts my feelings. It’s just me breaking down what the message is and trying to accomplish what the instruction is.”
That openness to learn is now being aided by his teammates’ willingness to constantly emphasize that they need Ayton to use his athleticism to sprint up and down the floor and his strength to become a lock-down inside presence. Williams also understands that in order for any player or team to grow, “You have to be vulnerable at times.”
Those teammates and coaches have the authority to push Ayton because they also hold themselves to an elite standard.
For example, after the Suns’ Jan. 3 loss to the Clippers, Booker said the players immediately discussed corrections in the postgame locker room. Paul was self-critical after committing six turnovers in a Jan. 18 loss at Memphis, saying “this ain’t it.” Williams took a demonstrative tone after Wednesday’s close loss to Oklahoma City, an approach Crowder agreed with because “it’s definitely on the players. It’s not a coaching-staff thing. We dropped the ball.”
“At some point, you just have to finish out games and understand what it takes to be a really good team is consistency,” Williams said. “Period. And that’s the deal. … Until this team understands consistency for four quarters, we’re gonna feel like this a lot.
“We can try to get everybody to feel sorry for us. It ain’t gonna work. We gotta be consistent. This is on us. Period.”
Following the crushing defeat, that team-wide accountability was at work.
Williams felt he was, “failing our guys by not challenging them enough.” So, the team spent the following afternoon re-watching the game and talking together about how the Suns operate, especially when it comes to ball movement.
The impact of this team meeting clearly hit home for the players as they tipped-off against the Golden State Warriors the following night.
The Suns made the extra pass, communicated throughout the game and, more importantly, remained consistent. Though they surrendered a 14-point first-half lead, the Suns put their foot on the gas in the fourth quarter and led by as many as 28 points in the 114-93 victory. Phoenix notched 34 assists, including nine players with at least two.
“When you see it on the screen and how some plays can directly affect the result of the game, it's really eye-opening,” Kaminsky said. “…A lot of that I took personally for myself today to just try to get everyone involved, keep the ball moving, make the right plays, make the right passes and just keep playing and talk on defense.”
The interactions during breaks and timeouts also demonstrated that the young guys are seeking to learn and the veterans want to help. Reserve wing Abdel Nader called Paul “the king of giving you pointers during the game.” Then, those types of conversations become contagious.
“He don't stop talking. Not in a bad way, but I love it,” Nader said. “It rubs off. So, now you've got the younger guys talking all the time. You've got guys like me, guys that might not play as much, they're talking a lot now. It's just becoming one whole cohesive unit.”
Naturally, many of those conversations involve Ayton, who has become a microcosm of the Suns’ pledge for accountability.
The past two games, Ayton, Paul and Williams were the last people out of the Suns’ locker room following halftime. During a first-half timeout against the Warriors, Booker (wearing street clothes while nursing a hamstring injury) needed to be shooed off the court by a referee because he was in a deep, animated discussion with Ayton.
Those on-the-fly tips surely helped Ayton rebound from a five-point outing against Oklahoma City to record his 10th double-double of the season against Golden State. He totaled 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, 13 rebounds and 4 assists, and did not need to play during crunch time as the Suns’ bench built the big lead.
“I don’t think it’s intentional when someone doesn’t implement it into their game,” Booker said. “Coach will tell me some things that I will go back and watch in film and be like, ‘What was I doing? Coach just told me about this.’ It’s just being fully focused, being locked in and just figuring it out.
“It’s a fast-paced game, there is a lot going on, there are a lot of things to remember. But, you can make it easier on yourself if you pay attention to the details.”
Ayton has the desire to be great. He has flashed his potential over the past week couple of weeks.
And those texts, phone calls and video chats from teammates and coaches will keep coming, thanks to the Suns’ push to hold each other accountable.
“Now, he’s raised the bar,” Williams said. “We want to see it every night. When he’s in the paint, tear the rim off its hinges and make it a common thing for him and our team.”