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An ode to Deandre Ayton -- and the polarizing Suns legacy he leaves behind

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
September 29, 2023
The legacy of Deandre Ayton from his time with the Phoenix Suns is a complicated, polarizing one.

The Phoenix Suns have only held the first overall draft pick once in the franchise’s 55 years of existence. Five years into that players’ tenure, he was unceremoniously shipped off to a rebuild — leaving Deandre Ayton with one of the most polarizing, complicated legacies in Suns history.

Very rarely has there been such a divisive figure wearing the purple and orange — not because he was a troublemaker off the court, or a problematic personality, or anything even remotely serious, but rather, because his ardent stans defended him to the death and his biggest haters unloaded on social media with every missed shot or bobbled pass.

There was juxtaposition in everything about him. His exuberant, bubbly personality was a delight to be around, but his tendency to speak honestly could be twisted easily, painting him in the wrong light whenever he spoke the first thing on his mind without thinking (remember when he was asked to define NBA success and replied with “getting to my second contract“?). His knack for positivity and saying all the right things offered encouragement, but his inconsistency in backing those words up frustrated to no end.

The greatest, most frustrating juxtaposition of Deandre Ayton is this: The world saw the flashes of brilliance that could one day make him deserving of that No. 1 overall selection, but they were never sustained for long enough to prevent that lofty designation from feeling like a curse.

Deandre Ayton’s journey to this moment

Deandre Ayton never asked to be drafted ahead of Luka Doncic. But when the Suns ignored Doncic’s impressive overseas resume against superior competition and held a pre-draft workout for Ayton, it felt more like a coronation ceremony. The media room was more packed that day than it was for Marvin Bagley III, Jaren Jackson Jr., Mo Bamba, or any other rookie who’s held a pre-draft workout in Phoenix over the last decade.

The local kid who went to U of A? The freakishly athletic big who was drawing David Robinson comparisons? The center phenom the Suns had wanted but never had? Doncic’s interview with the Suns amounted to a 10-minute FaceTime call. DA had the front office and most of the city fawning over his potential, his joyful personality and his potential fit with Devin Booker.

It didn’t take long for everyone to see the Suns had passed on a generational talent, but the 1984 NBA Draft offered hope: As long as Ayton was the Hakeem Olajuwon of his class rather than Sam Bowie, Phoenix might one day be vindicated for passing on the Michael Jordan of their draft. In other words, if the Suns won a title and Ayton was good in his own right, people would forget they bungled the best available player.

In 2021, it felt like the stars were aligning for that very outcome. All the Suns needed was one championship with Deandre Ayton on the roster to absolve them of that fateful draft decision. Phoenix reached the NBA Finals for just the third time in franchise history and were two mere wins away from reaching the mountaintop.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, of course, had other plans. But even in defeat, Suns fans could take solace in Ayton’s eye-opening postseason. He was arguably Phoenix’s most consistent player in those playoffs, anchoring the defense on one end and finishing every look in sight around the basket. Those 15.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game on 65.8 percent shooting showed a hungry, tenacious, still-learning player with room to grow.

The Suns had let a prime opportunity for a title slip away, but Devin Booker and a 22-year-old Deandre Ayton would be back.

Two years and two humiliating second-round defeats later, that version of “Playoff DA” never really came back. Even now, it’s inexplicable that Ayton failed to reach those same peaks — or even the same levels of engagement — in his last three playoff series. In just two years, he went from this:

To this:

Click image to play video

The difference is baffling, and speaks to so much more than basketball. Because as much as we could point out the difference between Ayton’s willingness to dribble and attack the rim in the first clip, versus short-circuiting in the short roll for the next two years, that second play is only made by a player whose confidence is completely zapped. So how did that happen?

The first fracture

The first crack that would eventually become a breaking point came just months after that promising Finals run.

After doing all the dirty work that made Phoenix dangerous on both ends, Ayton was eligible for a rookie-scale extension. He had just spent an entire postseason fully locked in, setting strong screens, rolling and sealing with purpose, punishing defenders in the paint, finishing every rim look, protecting the basket, defending in space and crashing the glass.

Ayton had shown how high the Suns might rise when he fulfilled his role, giving fans one of the most magical NBA playoff moments of all time in the process:

In a vacuum, was all that worth the five-year max contract he wanted? Probably not. But in refusing to give him that deal, the Suns sent the message that what he provided wasn’t enough to get paid. So entering training camp the following season, a disappointed DA did not hesitate to let those failed negotiations bleed over into his comments.

“Throughout the playoffs and Finals, eventually I started to realize I was starting to turn a lot of heads from a lot of doubters, and I think it was funny because I sacrificed a lot,” Ayton said. “And I don’t think the world’s really seen my game and the type of window I have to where I already know what the requirement is, it’s just me adding on.”

In that first week of training camp, Ayton started using that word “sacrifice.” It was a term he hadn’t uttered to that point, letting his coach and his teammates use it for him. He also talked about wanting to do more on offense, wanting to take 3s, and most concerning of all, not liking the very role that helped Phoenix reach the Finals.

“Now that I finally established this big man role that I do not like, I finally took care of areas where I can find my shots in our offense,” Ayton proclaimed.

Wait. You don’t like your big man role, Deandre?

“Of course,” he replied. “I mean, I don’t like the big man role, but that’s the job at the end of the day. That’s the thing I’m great at.”

It was the birth of a chicken-and-egg riddle that may never be solved: Did the Suns limit DA’s growth by not letting him do more, or did they not let him do more because his growth was limited?

No matter which side of the debate one stands on, it was clear that from then on, Monty Williams had to walk a tightrope act between getting DA enough touches and keeping him locked in on the things the Suns really needed him to do. Ayton did sacrifice the types of touches No. 1 picks are typically afforded, but in an offense that included Booker, Chris Paul and Mikal Bridges, winning took priority over giving DA the freedom to fail, learn and grow.

A never-ending parade of what-ifs

So what if the Suns front office had overpaid Ayton with a max contract in 2021 to reward him for doing the dirty work? Maybe that would’ve kept him satisfied. Maybe that 64-win season ends differently.

On the other hand, what if Phoenix still fell short in the playoffs, and what if having two players on those types of designated max contract extensions then prevented the Suns from trading for Kevin Durant?

On the other other hand, once Durant forced the Brooklyn Nets back to the trade table, what if DA being on that type of extension would’ve given them no choice but to take Ayton back in the trade instead of one of the Twins?

The hypotheticals go on and on. What if Booker’s alley-oop to DA in the Finals had been a split-second sooner? What if the Suns had won the title in 2021? What if Chris Paul hadn’t gotten hurt and Phoenix hadn’t been dealing with COVID-19 in 2022? What if Monty Williams had just called Ayton after he finally got his payday?

It’s a never-ending parade of what-ifs that never manifested the parade Phoenix envisioned when it drafted him No. 1 overall.

A source of consternayton

But it wasn’t just the Luka Doncic “what if” that led to this week’s surprising but not unexpected trade. He wasn’t traded because the Suns drafted Ayton over Doncic; he was traded because the level of consistency he showed would’ve been hard to defend for any player on a max contract. For all the complaints about Monty Williams holding him back, the Suns actually ran more pick-and-roll and more post-up opportunities — DA’s bread and butter — last season. His efficiency regressed in both categories.

Ayton was never the best self-evaluator, which compounded matters. His comments about running on “Tesla battery” came just five days before a video of him standing under the basket and watching Nikola Jokic grab three offensive boards in a row went viral. He often talked about wanting to shoot more 3s despite his 3-point form clearly needing more work. And when asked about blocking out the excessive online vitriol, he gave an answer that didn’t quite compute.

“That’s easy to ignore,” Ayton said. “I let the peanut gallery keep going, and then I shut ’em up with my performance.”

Averaging 10.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game on 57.8 percent shooting against Denver didn’t shut anyone up, especially in a six-game defeat where all four losses came by double figures. Making matters worse, “Playoff DA” hadn’t shown up at all, capping off a season where he seriously regressed as a rim protector, hook shot master and midrange threat.

Deandre Ayton is a wonderful human being, a joy to be around, a supportive teammate and a talented basketball player. When Monty Williams had a specific task for him, DA usually found ways to deliver.

But trying to keep him happy, motivated and focused became grating for Williams, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and the rest of his teammates. Their patience wore thin with a guy who constantly needed carrots in front of him to stay motivated and would sulk when he didn’t get the touches he felt he deserved. The Suns’ offense ran through its best offensive weapons, and the taste for DA’s main courses — hook shots, midrange pull-ups and a predictable spin move in the middle of the paint — had gotten stale.

All of that on- and off-court tension exploded during the Suns’ Game 7 beatdown against the Dallas Mavericks in a public shouting match with Williams, but it was still evident in pretty much everyone’s body language during the Nuggets series. Williams and CP3 may have gotten the axe this summer, but this trade doesn’t go through without the top brass running it by Booker and Durant first. A source told PHNX Sports the star duo was ready to move on.

That’s not to say Ayton is the only one to blame in all this. Williams’ decision to not reach out to DA all summer after his big payday remains a baffling one — especially when Ayton looked up to him like a father figure, someone he cited as being instrumental in mentally getting him through a 25-game suspension in his second season. The toxicity of the fanbase took a toll, and having Booker, CP3 and KD constantly in your ear can’t be easy, especially in the heat of battle.

But that last one speaks to a larger issue: Deandre Ayton only had that dog in him on occasion, and it was nowhere near often enough to keep pace with on-court killers like Booker, Paul, Durant and now Bradley Beal. Ayton had gotten to his second contract, but his desire to improve stagnated. He had gotten a pledge from his new coach to keep him involved on offense, but realistically, he wasn’t going to get the touches he needed to stay engaged — especially on this roster that now had three certifiably superior options ahead of him.

In the end, that fundamental disagreement on how Ayton was best-utilized made this trade a welcome change of scenery for everyone involved. Bearing a chip on his shoulder, DA joins a youth movement in Portland that will grant him more touches and more opportunities to fail, learn and expand his repertoire, all without any expectations to win right away.

The Suns, meanwhile, have placed their bets on being able to get by with 80 percent of what Ayton does for half the price tag. It’s an addition by subtraction move that prioritizes fit over talent and banks on Jusuf Nurkic being more accepting of the fourth or fifth fiddle role on a title contender. It also represents a gamble that could alleviate some of the negativity surrounding DA if the Suns fall short…or make his legacy look even worse if they finally break through and win it all.

In the end, Deandre Ayton was a misunderstood source of polarity in Phoenix. His successes were thrilling to witness, his childlike sense of wonder was enjoyable to be around, and his willingness to engage with fans in the community made the Valley a better place. He leaves the Suns ranking third all-time in both field goal percentage and rebounds per game, but more importantly, he provided fans with his infectious personality, the Valley-Oop, the poster dunk over Michael Porter Jr., the pregame half-court shots for those who came early, and the hilarious dance routines with Mikal Bridges and Cam Payne in warmups.

But he also struggled with his uphill battle against the hype of being a No. 1 overall pick, the expectations of being on a max contract, the cynicism of being drafted ahead of Doncic, and the downright nasty comments from those who labeled him “soft” and a litany of other uncalled-for names. He brought some of that scrutiny upon himself because of that fundamental disagreement over how he was optimized in Phoenix, as well as the inconsistent bouts of play that had his name in constant trade rumors.

Perhaps one day, when a championship affords them the luxury of doing so, Suns fans will be able to look back fondly on Deandre Ayton’s five years in the Valley. But until then, he’ll be sorely missed by his diehard supporters and readily dismissed by his harshest critics — a true testament to his polarity and the complicated legacy he leaves behind.

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