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Deandre Ayton's return to Phoenix confirms everything we knew about Suns' decision to trade for Jusuf Nurkic

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
November 22, 2023
Deandre Ayton's first game back in Phoenix confirmed everything we knew about the Suns' decision to trade for Jusuf Nurkic

One game, one month, or even one full season cannot properly determine the winners and losers of an NBA trade. But in his first game back in the Valley Tuesday night, Deandre Ayton — and Jusuf Nurkic — reaffirmed everything we knew about the trade that will define this Phoenix Suns season.

The validations started well before the game, when a bubbly Ayton fielded questions in the visitor locker room of the Footprint Center. He’s historically preferred not to talk before games, but he made an exception, understanding it was a special occasion.

Ayton didn’t know what to expect from his reception but was gracious with his time and responses. He joked that he needed directions to the visitor’s locker room and praised a fanbase that was frequently split between two extremes when it came to his game.

“Reception? I don’t even know,” Ayton said. “I know Suns fans, if you ain’t wearing the same jersey as them, shit, good luck! They goin’ with their team regardless of who on it, whoever in the jersey, but I don’t know how that should go.”

It didn’t take long to find out. Before the game, the Suns played a brief video tribute on the jumbotron. Ayton was mostly greeted with cheers, but there was a smattering of boos as well. Those boos got louder when Ayton was introduced in starting lineups, and when he backed down Nurkic in the post.

When asked about it afterwards, Ayton either didn’t take the bait or didn’t hear the boos at all.

“They booed me?” he responded. “You think so? It didn’t sound like a boo to me. I seen my tribute video and I was happy. It sounded like I heard cheers, not boos.”

New, lowered expectations for Deandre Ayton

All night, Ayton took the high road when asked about his time in Phoenix, his reception from the crowd or the game overall. Even in defeat, he was his normal, upbeat self, echoing what his new coach said about him.

“What I’ve been most proud of is he hasn’t gotten frustrated one time,” Chauncey Billups said. “He’s had plenty of reasons to get frustrated. He’s been a great teammate, he’s been a warrior. He understands some of our struggles as of late with being so shorthanded, and he’s been positive the entire time.”

The Portland Trail Blazers were 3-10 entering the evening and left with a 3-11 record. Injuries have rocked their guard rotation, and Ayton is averaging the lowest scoring numbers and second-lowest field-goal attempts of his career.

There’s plenty reason to be upset, but now that Ayton has had time to reflect on his Suns tenure, he said Phoenix taught him everything he knows. Now he’s incorporating those lessons in Portland, where the expectation is just to play hard and have fun.

“As a team, they gave me an opportunity to be part of something new, and who am I to really come up here and try to complain or feel some type of way ’cause things ain’t going the way I expected?” Ayton said. “It’s a new team, and guys are hurt. That’s part of the league. I’m not gonna sit here and say I got into the league and I started winning. I know how this thing goes.”

And therein lies both the beauty and the frustration with Deandre Ayton. As a kind, gracious human being, it’s easy to buy into what Ayton is selling. His happy-go-lucky approach reminds that there’s more to life than basketball, which is perfectly fine.

But it’s also why he wasn’t the best fit alongside competitors like Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, and his words can ring a bit hollow when compared with stark reality.

In his world, the 25-year-old is having a blast gassing up these “babies in the league” that he finds himself surrounded with. He’s enjoying giving younger players advice and watching them grow through their mistakes, just as he did for years with his Phoenix vets. It’s a full-circle moment that Ayton embraces and Billups encourages.

“He’s played in the league for a little bit, played in the Finals,” Billups explained. “His institutional knowledge is a lot different than some of our young guys, ’cause he’s played for some really good coaches and played with some first-ballot Hall-of-Famers. He brings a level of leadership with his voice that guys will listen to, and he’s been pretty good with that, using that voice out there on the floor.”

But in reality, he’s the vocal leader of one of the worst teams in the NBA — all while being an inconsistent hub on offense. It’s obviously unfair to hold a young, rebuilding franchise like the Blazers to the same standard as a team like Phoenix, but Ayton’s production has dipped at the same rate as his team’s guard play.

Deandre Ayton is still the same player

Ayton is averaging 12.6 points per game this season, down significantly from 18.0 per game last year. He’s shooting 57.4 percent, which is the second-lowest mark of his career. And while Ayton has been a top-10 rebounder, he’s struggled to find his spots. He’s taking three fewer shots per game than last year and has only managed nine free-throw attempts through 14 games.

Any notion that playing with future Hall-of-Fame guards like Booker and Chris Paul stunted his growth couldn’t have been more misguided. Ayton remains one of the NBA’s most gifted finishers, but Portland was always going to be a bumpy adjustment, given his lack of self-creation and the Blazers’ lack of established/healthy guards.

“That’s how he actually gets his opportunities: The guards create things for him,” Billiups explained. “So losing that in the first game really hurt him. Losing Scoot [Henderson] really hurt him, losing Malcolm [Brogdon] really hurt him. He’s not a guy that you just bring it down and throw it to 20-some times a game and let him just do what he do. That’s just not his game, at least not now.”

That familiar description was on full display in Phoenix’s 120-107 win over the Blazers on Tuesday. In the first half, Ayton put up “revenge game” type of numbers, notching 14 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists on 7-of-11 shooting.

But as the Suns have seen time and time again, Ayton had trouble replicating that performance in the second half. Most of his early production came off midrange jumpers that Phoenix was willing to concede, and DA couldn’t sustain his productivity as the focal point.

In the second half, Ayton managed only 4 points, 2 rebounds and 1 assist on 2-of-3 shooting. Single-game plus/minus can be misleading without proper context, but his team-worst -33 felt appropriate.

“People gotta understand, I haven’t even played with the full team, so I’m just taking what the defense gives me right now,” Ayton said. “I feel like on the scouting report, me and [Jerami Grant] are the two main guys right now that teams are attacking on defense, so there’s only so much I could do.”

The Suns’ season-high 66 points in the paint felt fitting as well. Portland’s roster is littered with inexperienced defenders, and Phoenix has enough firepower to make any defense look bad. But Frank Vogel responding “paint’s open” when asked about it felt telling. Nobody in Phoenix feared Ayton as a rim deterrent, even after he blocked one of Booker’s layups and started barking at him.

Instead, Booker barked right back, and the next possession down, hit a pull-up jumper on his former center. When asked about their exchange and facing Ayton for the first time, the face of the franchise smirked before answering carefully.

“I’m happy we came out with the win,” Booker said. “He played extra hard tonight. I seen that, and my challenge for him is to play like that every night.”

On the one hand, this isn’t a new idea. It’s something that Booker, Monty Williams and multiple Suns players said for years: We know how good Deandre Ayton is at his peak. We need him to do it consistently.

At the same time, there’s a reason Booker smirked before answering. He knew how his words would be interpreted and the underlying meaning beneath them. As an on-court killer and perennial competitor, Booker’s sentiment comes from a genuine place of support….but the fact that he still feels that way is likely the reason Deandre Ayton is no longer in Phoenix.

That’s not to say that Booker demanded an Ayton trade or hates his guts. As he mentioned not long ago, Book has smoke with the whole league.

But if the Suns and most of their fanbase felt they had reached their ceiling with DA at center, there’s a 99 percent chance their leading superstars felt the same way. In other words, there’s very little chance that Ayton trade would’ve gone through if Booker and Durant had objections.

Deandre Ayton and the Suns needed a fresh start away from each other, and pretty much everyone can see that now.

“They’re allowing him to do a lot for this team, so that’s only gonna make him better as a player,” Durant said. “What is he, 24, 25? So he got a long, long time in this league if he wants to. Being thrown in the fire like this and having to be a leader of this team is only gonna make him better.”

What the Suns got in return

Of course, it’s not just about what the Suns gave away. In his first game against his former team, Nurkic was getting dominated before turning things up in the third quarter. Nurk only had 4 points, 4 rebounds and 0 blocks on 1-of-3 shooting in the first half, but in the second half, he put up 14 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocks on 6-of-8 shooting. He knocked down two of his four 3-pointers and was a +17 in 29 minutes.

“I think Deandre was trying to get back at his old team, and Toumani [Camara], and Nurk and [Nassir Little and Drew [Eubanks] were trying to get back at their old team,” Vogel said. “So it was a high level of competition from those matchups, but Nurk did a really good job, especially in that third quarter, making shots, facilitating and controlling the defensive boards.”

Both the strengths and weaknesses of Nurkic’s game have been on full display. The ceiling with Ayton was always higher, especially defensively, but Nurk has been hailed as the “better fit” for a reason. Because the Big 3 haven’t played together, the Suns haven’t seen that fit in its fully evolved form yet. But they’ve seen enough glimpses of the playmaking to understand how Nurk elevates their offense.

“He gives us the versatility of being that presence in the paint, and at the same time, can stretch the floor and make plays,” Booker said. “Super high I.Q. for the game, and it’s fun to play alongside of him.”

With Booker and Durant on the floor, defenses are already stretched thin. Having to worry about shooters like Allen and Gordon in the starting lineup opens up the floor even further, which has helped Nurkic improve his subpar efficiency at the rim. He had multiple dunks against Portland, and when he’s making 3s on top of that, his full game makes the offense that much more dynamic.

“Once he’s making that shot, we just go to the next level, and he’s shooting it with confidence this season,” Durant said. “He was making the right plays. I like how he’s playing right now.”

Nurk’s 11.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game on 44.8 percent shooting don’t sound like much. Like we predicted, his finishing around the basket has underwhelmed, as has his pick-and-roll defense at times and even his 3-point shooting (28.6 percent).

But he’s brought the playmaking upgrade as expected, averaging 4.0 assists per game. He’s also been active defensively, averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks a night. Even if outperforming Ayton head-to-head means little in a vacuum, the difference in their mindsets matters too.

Case in point: When asked about his ugly first-half, Nurk admitted he was overthinking and trying too hard to please everyone. In the second half, he focused on playing good basketball, and he was honest about his struggles with adjusting to taking a backseat.

“It’s not like I’m a main player here, man, [like] I’m just gonna take the ball and do whatever I want,” Nurkic said. “I feel like people need to understand I’m here to sacrifice and do all the little stuff that they need for the game and winning basketball.”

For years, Ayton sacrificed…until he felt it impacted his contract and his ability to expand his game. Now he’s in Portland, where he’ll be expected to help lead a young group, but also be given opportunities to expand his game, even as they come with growing pains.

Nurkic, on the other hand, is 29 years old, and finally on a team with title aspirations. As much as learning to complement a Big 3 requires sacrifice, he’s willing to do so to help Phoenix win. And that’s without even mentioning the other depth pieces of the trade, Grayson Allen (a double-digit scorer, spot starter, and top-five 3-point shooter this year) and Nassir Little (who’s filled in nicely for the injured Yuta Watanabe by scoring in double figures the last two games)!

There’s no guarantee that a difference in mindset will compensate for some of Nurk’s inherent shortcomings. But as Tuesday showed us, the divergent paths of Deandre Ayton and Jusuf Nurkic both led them to teams better-suited for what they bring, who they are, and what they hope to accomplish in the near future.

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