Deandre Ayton had high expectations following being drafted first overall by the Phoenix Suns last season and the Big Fella didn’t disappoint during his inaugural season. He notched the third-highest field goal percentage by a rookie averaging a double-double in NBA history on his way to earning himself First Team All-Rookie honors.
But the 21-year-old seems to just be getting started.
Ayton dedicated his summer to basketball and, while most other NBA players were enjoying their break, he remained in the gym working with the Suns coaching staff. Head Coach Monty Williams said just his commitment to staying in the Phoenix to train is huge in his development as the season unfolds.
“I think it just started with that,” Coach Williams said. “His intention on being here this summer said a lot about his focus. I think he knew it was going to be hard. As most young players are, he was kind of concerned with that, but he didn’t back away from it. We wanted to get Mark Bryant to be a part of the organization early so he could be with DA as much as possible. I think it boiled down to DA making the decision to be here all summer.”
Williams, Bryant and the rest of the coaching staff didn’t make it easy on the young center either, but Ayton remained focused and continued to grind each day.
“I’m going to be honest, this summer I’ve never worked so hard in the gym in my life,” Ayton said. “I’ve seen these lines so many times, I see them in my regular life now. They beat me to the ground this summer. With Coach Bryant, Coach Monty and all the other coaches just surrounding me when nobody was in the gym. I was in there by myself with ten other coaches.”
Through training camp, practice and Tuesday’s preseason game, his teammates have taken notice to the steps he’s made from last season.
“You can see the difference for sure,” Devin Booker said. “Just a different animal… He has his goals and he wants to achieve them. He knows he’s going to have to put the work in and go out there and perform. He’s coming in with that mentality every day.”
Not only has Mark Bryant been an ideal coach for Ayton to learn from, but Aron Baynes has also provided an opposing presence in the paint to battle with every day at practice. The big-bodied center in Baynes has the aggression, strength and scrappiness to help push Ayton to the next level.
“Aron can definitely help me be great,” Ayton said. “He can definitely help me add on to the talent that I have because he’s already great himself and he already has a ring. So, he’s seen it all. Just be quiet and learn and listen.”
While they’ve only practice against each other for a short time, Ayton’s maturity has stood out to the eight-year NBA veteran.
“He’s locked in,” Baynes said. “He’s very professional in the way he’s carried himself since I’ve been here and I’m excited to work with that because you can’t teach that professionalism. It’s something he takes upon himself to do that every single day. It’s going to be fun to work with.”
Ayton backed up the words from his coaches and teammates with his actions on the court in the Suns first preseason game on Tuesday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
From the opening tip, Ayton looked locked in, aggressive and focused on the task ahead of him. While Ricky Rubio and Booker both did their jobs of finding him inside the paint, Ayton also took it upon himself to battle for his own buckets.
Ayton already had 16 points and 10 rebounds in just the first half, which so happens to be his averages from last season. The Big Fella only saw 20 minutes on the court, but still finished with a team-high 18 points on 9-of-14 shooting to go along with his 13 rebounds and 2 blocks.
Ayton went head-to-head against one of the league’s elite rebounders in Karl-Anthony Towns and consistently held his own on the glass throughout the night. He out-rebounded Towns 13-10, including grabbing seven offensive boards.
His activity on the glass, movement on offense and attention on defense made Ayton look nearly unstoppable on the court. Suns fans may only have gotten a glimpse of what Ayton’s potential can reach and Coach Williams credits his production and improvements to the dedication he made over the past few months.
“Over the long hall, because of that decision to be here all summer, I think we’re going to see a dominant player here in a few months,” Coach Williams said.
Ayton and the Suns will continue their preseason action on Thursday night as the team tips-off against the Portland Trail Blazers.