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Wednesday marked JaVale McGee’s sixth annual Water For Life Charity Softball Game, but it also gave several Phoenix Suns the opportunity to be out in public together for the first time since their season ended.
The night before the 2022 NBA Draft, with free agency set to follow in about a week, there were a few lingering, unpleasant questions to be answered before the fun could begin. In the first media availability with Suns players since the night of Game 7, McGee, Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Torrey Craig all fielded questions before taking to the actual field for the Juglife event.
Here were the five most important tidbits that emerged from a night dedicated to a good cause.
1. Suns back “their guy” Deandre Ayton
Anyone expecting the Suns to publicly denounce Deandre Ayton would’ve been living in a fantasy land, but his teammates were fairly resolute in support of their starting center, who is set to enter restricted free agency this summer.
Bridges, who earned a four-year, $90 million rookie-scale extension last October while Ayton did not, said that when the two talk or hang out, they don’t discuss basketball or his impending contract situation. Instead, they prefer to just have fun and talk about life. Even so, Bridges was adamant when asked whether he wanted DA back.
“Of course,” he said. “That’s my guy, my best friend. Definitely want him around.”
Bridges acknowledged that he has no control over the situation and will be following along on his phone for news like everyone else. The first part of that message was one Chris Paul believes should be DA’s approach to the offseason.
“Control what you can control,” he said. “It’s summertime. It’s a good problem to have, if it is a problem, and for me, during all those stressful situations or whatnot, try to spend as much time with my family as possible.”
McGee, who’s been a free agent and played for eight different teams during his 14-year career, said he doesn’t have a gut feeling about what will happen, but encouraged Ayton to make the best decision for himself.
“I feel like he should do what’s best for him and his family,” McGee said. “I feel like every NBA player should take that that role of putting themselves first and doing what’s best for them.”
Paul, who said during the Suns’ 2020-21 season that he was trying to get his big man paid, spoke from a similar viewpoint when it comes to teammates getting paid.
“I mean, it’s great for any of ’em, all of my teammates,” Paul said. “We try to celebrate everything, but it’s a business, you know what I mean? So what’s good for you may not be good for the next person or whatnot.”
The Suns have the ability to match any offer for their restricted free agent, which could reach a max of four years and $131.1 million. Phoenix could also go above and beyond that amount with a four-year, $136.6 million max, or a five-year, $177 million max. Those outcomes feel unlikely at this point, especially after they declined to extend him with a five-year rookie-scale max extension in October.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday afternoon that the Suns do not value Ayton as a max player and are “very motivated” to work out a sign-and-trade, adding the latest cloud to his murky future in Phoenix.
Cam Johnson said he and his teammates wish they could just “puppet-master everything” to keep their guy around, but understands things need to play out how they play out.
“What we’ve been able to build, what we’ve been able to go through together these past couple years, it’s meant a lot to us, and you kind of bond with a guy in a big way going through that process together,” Johnson said. “So from my perspective, personally, definitely somebody I always want on my team.”
2. A much-needed reunion for a good cause
In the wake of the worst playoff loss in franchise history, the Suns coped in their own ways. Paul said he was spending as much time with his family as possible. Johnson spent the first week after Game 7 completely unplugged, leaving his phone in another room entirely for the first few days. Bridges didn’t watch basketball until the Finals, and McGee joked that even as he watched the playoffs, he had “one single tear” roll down his face during the Western Conference Finals.
The Suns are still aware of that lingering resentment from an inexplicable Game 7 loss.
“Shit, I would be pissed too,” Bridges said of the fanbase’s reaction. “I was pissed, you know what I’m saying? Like, that’s how it is. If you really care about a team and you have high expectations, you’re supposed to be frustrated, especially after that type of L. There’s support all year, even when you lose in regular season and all that stuff, but yeah, you got that right to be mad. Just know we were mad too.”
After the outright negativity of the last few weeks, the Suns needed a reason to gather and have some fun.
Juglife, a foundation McGee started to raise awareness about the water crisis around the world with over 780 million people lacking access to clean water, provided the backdrop for that reunion, all in service of a good cause.
“It’s amazing,” McGee said of the event. “I’m just honored to be in this position and I’m honored that the fans rock with me as much as I rock with them. And that they’re coming out to support and that all my teammates and friends in other sports, other things of entertainment, came out to support also.”
McGee did his research on the importance of drinking a gallon of water per day when he was in Denver playing for the Nuggets. He noticed the change in how his body felt and decided to add it to the philanthropic work his mother instilled in him when he first entered the NBA.
“When I was young and I first got in the league, I really didn’t know about philanthropy,” he said. “I mean, I didn’t have anything to get back. So once I got to the NBA, she was like, ‘All right, we need to set up the foundations and we need to make sure that you’re giving back turkeys on Thanksgiving, and you’re giving gifts on Christmas.’ And then from there on out, I just tried to make sure that I was focusing on philanthropy in that way.”
In addition to Arizona sports stars like Larry Fitzgerald and DeAndre Hopkins, several other prominent faces showed up Wednesday night, including wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Phoenix resident Frankie Muniz, and former NBA players Matt Barnes, Kenneth Faried and Steven Hunter.
The cherry on top, of course, was the number of Suns players who showed up to support their teammate. In addition to Paul, Bridges, Johnson and Craig, Cam Payne also played in the game. Devin Booker and Iffe Lundberg attended as well, and although Booker did not speak to the media before or after the event, he threw the ceremonial first pitch and could be seen having a blast near the dugouts.
That type of camaraderie is rare in the NBA at this point in the offseason, and it wasn’t lost on anyone in the building.
“I think that’s pretty special, just the amount of people we have, the process in general,” Johnson said.
“Yeah, I mean, but our team is like that, you know what I mean?” Paul added. “We all still talk, communicate, see what’s going on and try to support each other any way we can.”
For his part, McGee appreciated how many of his teammates came out to support his event, even as he heads for unrestricted free agency this summer.
“That’s real meaningful, man,” he said. “It just really shows the camaraderie that we had during the season, and it continues on. I feel like once you’re teammates in the NBA, it’s only 450 guys each year. And 60 new guys, but I mean, 60 guys have to leave also, so it’s really a lifetime friendship when it comes to basketball.”
3. The unpleasant COVID question
Two weeks ago, a story from The Athletic reported a Suns COVID outbreak during their second-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks, confirming that one player tested positive after Game 7 and that multiple staffers had also tested positive.
It was an unfortunate and ugly situation for everyone involved. The topic hardly fit the mood of such a good-spirited event, but it was a question that needed to be answered. When asked about the reports of playing through a quad injury and testing positive for COVID, Paul deflected.
“I ain’t seen none of that, so I’m here right now,” he said. “That felt like that was so long ago. I just can’t live in the past. It is what it is. I’m good right now. I don’t know. I don’t think so, they beat us. We lost. And we here to support JaVale.”
Bridges said there were no COVID cases on the team that he knew of during that time, while Johnson unwittingly called attention to the NBA’s faulty playoff testing process.
“I think everybody during certain parts of the season struggles with it, getting sick and you don’t know if it’s because you’ve been flying around and playing hard or because it’s anything else, so it’s really hard to comment on,” Johnson said.
4. Cam Johnson talks potential extension
Ayton isn’t the only contract situation the Suns have on their plate during the upcoming offseason. Cam Johnson is already on the books for $5.8 million next season no matter what, but he’s eligible for a (well-deserved) rookie-scale extension, just like Bridges and Ayton were last offseason.
Johnson said he’s not thinking about that just yet, admitting the Suns have other things to handle first.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s gotta happen before we get to that, you know?” he said. “Even if you’re talking about the stuff with DA, like, that is obviously more at the forefront of things. But I trust that whatever is meant to happen will happen.”
In addition to navigating restricted free agency with DA, the Suns can also offer Devin Booker a supermax contract after he earned All-NBA honors. Couple that with possibly finding some bench upgrades with their mid-level extension, and Johnson understands it may take awhile for negotiations to take shape.
Johnson said he’s talked with Bridges about that process, but he seemed acutely aware of the value of his Twin’s contract…and the value of that contract to the Suns as well.
“He got a great deal, and if he would have went into a restricted free agency, who knows what he could have got, but I do think he enjoys playing here and got a deal that was good for him, and, in a lot of ways right now, good for the team,” Johnson said. “We’re building something here, so it’s something that I love being a part of, and I keep that in mind.”
5. Chris Paul gets his obligatory Mikal Bridges shot in
It’s no secret Chris Paul loves Mikal Bridges. Even if he hadn’t publicly said he views the 25-year-old wing like a son, his constant joy for getting shots in at Bridges’ expense would be a dead giveaway.
After winning MVP honors for the 2022 Water For Life Charity Softball Game, Paul took to the podium in postgame and revealed his award-winning strategy:
“My game plan every time I stepped up to the plate was to hit it at Mikal Bridges,” he deadpanned. “Mikal was just the weakest link out there, you know what I mean? So every time I stepped up, I looked out and saw where ‘Kal was, and I knew if I hit it where he was, I had a chance.”
On one play, Paul hit an inside-the-park home run that Bridges was unable to corral. Johnson knew as soon as it happened that his teammate would be regretting that mistake.
“Mikal played well, it’s just that one play was tough on him, and he’s hurt about it, because the last thing you want to do is give Chris a home run to that man,” Johnson said. “There’s every other player you’d rather give that up to than Chris.”
Before the game, Bridges had said that he believed he’d be the best athlete on the field. Upon being informed of this in postgame, Paul had to get one last dig in.
“Yeah, that sounds like what Mikal would’ve said, but I think he thinks ‘cause the Diamondbacks had to have a Mikal Bridges Day that it was gonna translate to his game, but it obviously didn’t,” he said. “Not at all. Mikal was trash.”