The odds are stacked against them, the margin for error is small, but the young Suns are prepared for the challenge. The team is coming together with an us-against-the-[Disney]-world mentality as they enter the bubble with one goal: win.
“It's an opportunity for us to really show what we've got,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said. “It's a blessing. There's a little window to make the playoffs and make some history. That's all that's on our mind. We're young and hungry and we're ready to play. Quarantine gave us some time to really take a break, take a load off, take a breather. Now, it's back to work.”
The Suns are the youngest of the 22 teams invited to Orlando and are looking to use that youth to their advantage. While there has been some concern that players could feel too trapped in the bubble, the Suns big man doesn’t see it being an issue for him and his teammates.
“I'm a kid,” Ayton said. “I'm going to have my video games and I'm going to have my phone. I'd love to see my family, but I've been around them long enough in quarantine. I'm just ready, man. I'm just ready to play basketball. I'm ready to see us on TV. It's history to be made. It was a pause in our career. We've just got to get this thing going.”
This quarantine has been the longest stretch that most basketball players have ever gone without stepping on the hardwood and playing competitively. These athletes dedicate so much of their time to basketball and often find it difficult to find quality time to spend with loved ones. So, over the past few months, Ayton has made the most out of the situation and has bonded with his family, when he normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to.
“We couldn't do a lot and we had to be safe with it as well, but I enjoyed the company,” Ayton said. “I finally grew a stronger bond with my younger sister, because she was a little shy around me, not knowing me too well. Just filling in that blank in my family and my personal life. Going outside and going to the park with them and getting a breath of fresh air. Just being a human.”
This time away from basketball gave Ayton the opportunity to reset his body and mind. With basketball returning just around the corner, he now feels more energized than ever to get back to the game he loves.
“I had a break,” Ayton said. “I was happy, to be honest. I definitely took advantage of taking that break, taking that load off. I think that's why I have so much energy now because I wasn't thinking about it. I was just waiting for the world to get back to normal.”
While the world isn’t completely back to normal, the return of Suns basketball reinstalls a little normalcy back into people’s lives.
“I've been working out, staying in shape, getting ready for this,” Ayton said. “I hope our team stays put and just tries to go as far in this tournament as possible.”
Ayton will play a crucial role for the Suns as he looks to build on his already historic season. Although it wasn’t a smooth road for Ayton due to the suspension and injuries, the Big Fella proved his worth on the court, dominating both ends of the floor throughout the regular season.
Ayton is currently on track to become the first NBA rookie or sophomore to average at least 18 points, 12 rebounds and 1.5 blocks since Shaquille O’Neal in 1993-94. He is also allowing a Defended Field Goal Percentage of just 40.8 percent. Among players defending 10-plus field goals per game, only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard and Jrue Holiday are posting a better percentage (each of which has been an NBA All-Defensive First Team selection).
“I'm just ready to work now,” Ayton said. “Ready to show [my family] that their comfort and support for me wasn't taken for granted. It helped me get up every day and be consistent. Coach is on my back about being consistent every day as well. I'm just doing it with a positive vibe, positive mind. I'm happy.”
That excitement and hunger from Ayton has seemed to carry over throughout the Suns roster. Head Coach Monty Williams has preached the importance of everyone doing their job and embracing this opportunity.
“Because of the guys’ ability to commit to the program and work their butt offs off [during the regular season], we’re in the bubble and that’s an accomplishment,” Williams said.
The Suns have already shown a glimpse of how special they can be when they work together as a team, ranking first across the entire NBA with 27.2. assists per game this season. Their high-powered and quick paced offense is averaging 112.6 points per game, the Suns’ highest scoring average since 1992-93.
While the team has battled through injuries almost all season, they will look to continue to build upon the flashes they’ve shown while healthy. The unit of Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridge and Ayton has posted the second-best Net Rating of any five-man lineup in the NBA this season among units that have logged at least 200 minutes on the court together. While the Suns may be without Oubre Jr. for at least part of the time in Orlando, Ayton knows his squad will remain strong together and continue to battle each and every night, no matter who is on the court.
“That's the young energy that we have,” Ayton said. “That’s the hunger that we have. Whether it's me out, anybody out, this team is always going to stay solid. It's a culture we have. We play as a unit. So, we have each other's backs. Coach leads us in the right way, no matter what adversity hits us. There’s much confidence going into this. I think we're good because we all know the task and have been through a lot this year. Nothing is really stopping us.”
That special bond between the Suns teammates was rekindled on Tuesday as the team boarded the plane for Orlando. After being away from each other for so long, Ayton is looking forward to reconnecting with everyone and gearing up for battle with his guys.
“Us being back together and telling stories and just playing catch up,” Ayton said. “It'll be back to how we are during the season or in training camp or at a team retreat.”
With such a small community in the bubble, the Suns squad will have plenty of time to reconnect and bond with one another on the court as well as during down time. Ayton is specifically looking forward to battling Booker on the sticks after falling to him in the championship of NBA Players 2K tournament back in April.
“It's going to be a little fist fight between me and Book if he keeps beating me,” Ayton said with a smile. “He's a gamer. I think we missed a lot of time together. When this team is on the road, that's where we have our best games, the biggest upsets. That's where we come together. That's what Coach has us thinking. It's us against the world and that's the best feeling in the world to me.”
Coach Williams has his team mentally prepared for the competition, but the next step is getting them physically ready. For now, basic shooting and conditioning drills will have to suffice as the days are slowly counting down to when five-on-five training can resume.
The odds may seem intimidating for the Suns to pull off a potential all-time historic upset, but Ayton feels fortunate to have the opportunity to play at least eight games and the team is going to take full advantage of the opportunity ahead of them.
“That is a blessing,” Ayton said. “It's a great opportunity. We just have to really take time to embrace our opportunity and take advantage of this as a team. I just can't wait to see my guys, spread this energy to them and show them what we have ahead of us and what we can do.”
Keep up to date on the Suns journey through quarantine as well as their adventures in Orlando with “Don’t Sleep on Basketball. Tune-in to the Suns social channels and YouTube page this Sunday at 11a.m. as we take you back to Ayton and Booker’s 2K championship battle.