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Suns' Deandre Ayton 'problem' is one of their own making, but it's not too late to fix it

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
September 28, 2022

Like Deandre Ayton on his new diet, we just wish we could go back to carne asada fries.

Following an uncharacteristically solemn press conference at Media Day, the first day of training camp on Tuesday almost provided a weak point past DA’s new, more serious demeanor. The Phoenix Suns star was more reserved to start his media availability, but after a few questions, he began to loosen up. Detailing his new diet, Ayton quipped about missing carne asada fries the most, nearly cracking a smile in the process.

But as soon as the conversation turned to head coach Monty Williams, the walls were back up, with nothing but curt, prickly answers to follow.

Asked about moving past his Game 7 sideline blowup with Williams, Ayton revealed he hadn’t talked to his coach since the incident.

“I haven’t spoke to Monty,” he said flatly. “No, I haven’t spoke to him at all, ever since the game.”

Asked if he hopes that changes soon, Ayton pointed out the obvious.

“I’m here,” he said.

Asked what he would like to say to Williams if they finally talked, Ayton continued to be all business.

“I can show him better than I can tell him.”

Stemming back to last season, there were concerns about a potential clash between what Ayton wanted to do and what the Suns wanted him to do. DA said straight up that he did not enjoy his big man duties and wanted to showcase more offensively, while Phoenix felt he optimized his skill-set by using his elite gravity and finishing ability as a rim-runner in the pick-and-roll. The two sides found a happy, unsteady medium thanks to the rapid growth of his midrange jumper and infallible hook shot, but without a new contract coming off a Finals run, finding that balance felt like a tightrope act.

Whether that uneasiness was exacerbated by the Game 7 spat, his lack of a market in free agency, having to sign an offer sheet elsewhere to finally get his max from the Suns or all of the above, Ayton got a firsthand look at the coldness of the NBA’s business side. But he also had to endure a summer full of conflicting reports, speculation and outright nasty headlines, many of which circled back to him.

Doing so without any word or amends from his coach probably didn’t help.

For his part, Williams said he doesn’t foresee this being an issue (“not at all”), downplayed that anything was amiss between he and Ayton, and continued to stress that people on the outside magnify issues when they don’t have all the facts.

“I haven’t talked to a bunch of our guys,” Williams said. “As I said earlier this summer, they needed a break from me, the gym. Unless you were in the gym, like, every day — I’ve had interactions with everybody, but talking to guys about deep stuff, there was a number of guys I haven’t talked to.”

Communication is a two-way street, but neglecting your 24-year-old starting center after a summer full of Game 7 scapegoating, rampant trade rumors, mucky contract-posturing and every other unpleasant storyline of the last few weeks? That’s a one-way road to slamming the Suns’ title window shut before the season even begins.

Not all of these issues trace back to Williams directly. It’d be unfair to blame the coach for the unending horde of Twitter trolls calling Ayton “soft,” the constant speculation about where he’ll end up next, or even DA being forced to sign a max offer sheet elsewhere to force Phoenix’s hand.

To his credit, Williams believes the rabid hysteria over that sideline incident in Game 7 has been overblown. In order to drive the point home, he recited a joke about the man who visited his doctor in serious pain, screaming every time he touched any part of his body. The man was horrified when the doctor asked him to come back in two weeks, but then the doctor diagnosed the real problem: The man had a dislocated finger.

“That’s typically how we look at stuff,” Williams said of his joke-turned-parable. “The human condition, we always make the dislocated finger the thing. And the body is healthy. And that’s just not my makeup. I’m not gonna let us do that. Everybody wants to blow up the DA thing. It’s like, DA didn’t lose to Dallas; we did. None of us coached or played well that day, but the body is healthy.”

Even in defending Ayton, though, that’s an uncannily dismissive approach for a guy whose players routinely praise his communication skills, preparedness and concern for them as human beings. Williams alluded to players and coaches sometimes “bumping heads” in this league, but not having a single one-on-one conversation with a younger player who clearly feels some type of way about it is cruelly intentional at worst and a miscalculation that needs to be promptly amended at best.

It’s possible Williams simply failed to read the room. He emphasized on Tuesday that he hopes his players feel comfortable approaching him with any issues they might have, and that those relationships have to happen organically, over time, without being forced.

“I think there are times for that, but not in a way that is unprofitable,” Williams said. “I think there’s one-on-ones that are always needed between guys I’ve been around for a while. Some players need it, some players don’t. I’ll identify that as the season progresses.”

But it’s hard to stomach that reasoning given what the two have said about their relationship over the years. It goes far beyond Ayton’s description (“calm”) over the offseason to ESPN’s Marc J. Spears; Williams’ influence on DA became vital back in 2019, when the Suns center received a 25-game suspension for taking diuretics. As Ayton told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski:

“He said, ‘Okay, DA. This is just something you’re going to learn from. This is part of your journey, your dynasty. This is it. This is part of your story, young buck.’ And [I thought] this is not a coach! This is reverend, this is a preacher, I don’t know what’s happening. And hearing that kind of wisdom…it just kind of put me at ease.”

Ayton has embraced constructive criticism throughout his Suns tenure, and he’s been outwardly appreciative of Williams every time he’s taken him under his wing with sage advice. To not hear from that kind of influence directly for four and a half months — in the wake of a shell-shocking playoff exit, trade rumors and a disappointing brush with the business side of the NBA — probably felt closer to abandonment than the “break” Williams said he intended.

“It’s life,” Ayton said of the discomfort in the air despite getting his new contract. “Nobody really cares about the uncomfortable nature about it. It’s how you perform and what you’re going to bring to the table. What’s said is already said. So I’m here, man. The one thing I can possibly do is try my best to help these guys win.”

One day into training camp, this viral clip has already overshadowed the pall that Jae Crowder’s absence already cast over the proceedings. Basketball was never going to be its usual safe haven for the Suns in the wake of the Robert Sarver investigation, but lingering resentment and public contradictions during media sessions could threaten the entire season.

It’s an awkward place to be, where the head coach, general manager and the rest of his teammates spent Media Day singing DA’s praises and flexing how glad they were to quickly match his offer sheet, how excited they are about the new wrinkles he’s adding to his game, and how his next step is an All-Star selection…only for Ayton to field questions with the type of soul-snatching glumness of someone who’s done putting on a happy face.

For those concerned the current tension will affect his play, Ayton made it clear his focus is still on his craft — something he may feel people take for granted, given how many times over the last two days he’s cited his professional approach to the gym and the weight room.

“I’m all right,” he said. “You know, when I’m in between those lines, I just work. You know I’m not playing for myself. I have an organization across my chest and a name on my back that I have to represent. I’m just here to work.”

Dario Saric joined the refrain of his teammates from Media Day, downplaying Ayton’s more stern demeanor as being focused and insisting he’s still the same old DA when it comes to his brothers in purple and orange.

“Yeah, I think DA’s happy,” Saric said. “I think that’s a question for him, first of all, but like, I know DA. I’ve been with him like four years. He’s [an] incredible guy, he’s always happy and smiling. So I’m seeing him like that in all these days that I’m here.”

At Media Day, it felt too soon to overreact to Ayton’s tonal shift. Perhaps he was fed up with “the media,” which is really just the generic term for anyone with a social media account calling him soft. Maybe he was having a bad morning. Maybe he was just grumpy at 9 a.m.

But after the first day of training camp, one thing became clear: The Suns’ Deandre Ayton “problem” is one of their own making. Fixing it with a simple heart-to-heart may be the first, necessary step to prevent a title contender from swerving off the tracks.

“I just haven’t spoke to the man,” Ayton reiterated. “Disagreement, I don’t know anything about that, I just know I haven’t spoke to him. At all.”

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