Coming off a playoff run and offseason that didn’t go according to plan, it was only fitting that Deandre Ayton’s start to the 2022-23 campaign followed suit. His widely publicized Game 7 spat with Monty Williams, rampant trade rumors, the fact that he had to sign an offer sheet with another team to force the Phoenix Suns’ hand in contract negotiations, whether he and his coach actually spoke over the summer — all of it loomed overhead (to say nothing of the Robert Sarver investigation).

So despite his usual pre-season talk about wanting to take over games and dominate in all facets, the first month of Ayton’s fifth season largely underwhelmed. Through 12 games, he was averaging 14.6 points, a career-worst 7.7 rebounds and a career-low 0.5 blocks on 56.8 percent shooting.

That would be solid production for a guy playing on the mid-level exception, but not a starting center on a max deal.

Fortunately, something’s clicked for Ayton over the last handful of games. Whether it ignited by his high-octane fourth quarter in a road loss to the Utah Jazz or Patrick Beverley body-checking him to the ground, DA has once again flashed the tantalizing potential that would make him an All-Star if he could just sustain it.

Over the last five games, Ayton has put up 20.2 points, 13.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.4 blocks per game on 65.6 percent shooting. He’s coming off two straight outings that served as his new best performance of the season, dropping 28 points on 11-of-13 shooting against the Detroit Pistons before unloading a season-high 29 points and a career-high-tying 21 rebounds the following night against Utah.

This is not the first time Ayton has had Suns fans salivating over monster games like this. The dividing line between “great” and “star” has always been whether he can do it on a nightly basis.

“He’ll say something to you guys about how I’m on him all the time, but this is why,” Williams said after Saturday’s win. “You know what guys are capable of. They may not be able to do it every night, but we have guys that can not just put up numbers, but they can put up numbers that allow you to win games. And when you put up monster numbers like that, that effectively help you win games, like, that is a standard.”

“He’s just continuing to get better, and we’re gonna need that from him every night,” Mikal Bridges agreed.

His coaches and teammates continue to call him up to that level, and the message isn’t lost on Ayton either.

“I want to be a great player, and you gotta be willing to put up numbers and win games night in, night out,” he said. “So I think I’m to that point where this should be a norm. This is how I’m supposed to play.”

Adjusting to different guard play

Chris Paul’s arrival helped Ayton unlock new levels of efficiency, but the Suns’ first handful of games this year made it painfully obvious that CP3 — and DA by extension — still had to adjust to Paul spending more time off the ball. The right heel soreness that’s sidelined the Point God for the last nine games compounded the issue, as Ayton had to recalibrate to Cam Payne’s effective but very different playing style.

The results were mixed until recently. Averaging the fourth-most pick-and-roll possessions, which have always been DA’s bread and butter, the big fella is putting up 0.99 points per possession. That ranks in the 19th percentile league-wide, which is a stark contrast from last year, when his 1.25 points per possession as the roll man ranked in the 72nd percentile.

Ayton’s 28 points and Payne’s 10 assists Friday night against Detroit felt like a culmination of their efforts to re-establish pick-and-roll chemistry. It also went hand-in-hand with Phoenix’s “paint-to-great” philosophy.

“Man, I was getting in that paint!” Payne explained. “He did a really good job on the screens tonight, and it opened him up for baskets. Sometimes that’s how I go. You sacrifice your body, and you’ll be the one who gets the reward.”

Ayton joked about it, but even in jest, it spoke to how they’ve been trying to get on the same page.

“I kept telling him, ‘Man, you have to understand, man, I’m so used to you attacking the rim like that, sometimes I forget to roll!'” he laughed. “And today he got on me and said, ‘Well, listen here, buddy, I’m gonna be passing it. So I’m gonna need you on the rim.'”

It’s not as high as last year’s 81.2 percent mark, but 75.2 percent of DA’s field goals this year have been assisted. Self-creation remains the last frontier before DA is seen as a legitimate star, which means he still relies heavily on a diet of pick-and-roll finishes, midrange jumpers, seals on switches and offensive put-backs.

Three of those four categories require a feed from someone else, which is not always guaranteed in a free-flowing offense that’s littered with actions. The gravity of his rim dives opens things up on the perimeter, but that hard work doesn’t always result in Ayton getting a bucket. As often as the “feed DA” complaint emerges, he understands the balance of the Suns’ system.

“Running it with urgency and making a play for your teammates,” Ayton said. “‘Cause in our plays, you don’t know who’s gonna get the ball. Every movement is live, and just Cam really dishing out to everybody and everybody making sacrificial moves for each other.”

In order to reduce those instances where the guards or wings simply miss Ayton down low, Williams says DA’s done a better job on his duck-ins, punishing mismatches with seals to free himself up.

Ayton admitted it can be frustrating when he puts in the work doesn’t get the ball, but he and his teammates are good about communicating in those situations.

“Just like when I miss them on a screen, or I didn’t hit their guy on the screen, it’s vice-versa,” he explained. “I got a little dude on me, I need the ball. And my teammates, it’s the type of chemistry we have, sometimes when I don’t get it, they say ‘DA, you got a hundred dudes behind you, bro. We can’t throw that ball into you right now.’ It’s the understanding, and we do understand the games get lit, but as brothers, we talk to each other the right, respectable way to get the point across.”

Embracing contact

When it comes to being a dominant big in this league, or even earning the trust of teammates who feed their bigs, physicality is a must. Ayton is not “soft,” as he’s often unfairly labeled, but his career free-throw rate and poor rebounding numbers to start the season spoke to an unwillingness to embrace contact.

Plays like this, where he settled for a fading jump hook against the 6-foot-2 Stephen Curry, made it easy to doubt whether he “had that dog in him.”

Williams has maintained that Ayton would have better numbers if he didn’t play with guys who create offense like Paul, Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges. DA’s offense is often a byproduct of what the Suns run, but early in the season, there was also room for him to be more assertive.

“I’ve actually told him he needs to be a bit more aggressive, especially around the basket,” Williams said. “He tends to pass out a lot ’cause he’s looking for his teammates.”

These are just a few examples of a maddeningly selfless instinct to pass out of potential shots near the basket. It feels like nitpicking to criticize a guy for finding a teammate who then drills a 3-pointer, but Ayton at the rim is still a much higher-percentage look than a 3, and not all of these extra passes panned out with a made triple:

The Suns have praised Ayton’s improvement with playmaking in the short roll, and the 24-year-old is currently averaging a career-high 2.2 assists per game. But sometimes it’s just good to see your starting center elevate and detonate over somebody, or at least draw some contact and get to the foul line.

Whatever it was that clicked, Ayton has been better about both of those things lately:

  • First 12 games: 19 free-throw attempts, 6.8 shooting foul percentage (17th percentile)
  • Last 5 games: 24 free-throw attempts, 16.7 shooting foul percentage (70th percentile)

Ayton often mentions playing physical to the legal limit, but as a guy averaging 2.5 free-throw attempts per game for his career, those words didn’t always ring true. Lately, however, he’s not only playing hard to earn the benefit of the doubt from officials, but he’s initiating contact to force the issue too.

Over the last week especially, he’s been sticking his shoulder in opponents’ chests after catching the ball on the roll or in the post, using power dribbles and pump fakes to invite contact, and even rising up to jam on people with a ferocity we don’t see as often as we should:

“Using pump fakes, being patient under the rim, playing the dunker position and looking for opportunities to get offensive boards and going straight up,” Ayton explained. “Just playing through contact, man. I’m not a guy who’s out here using tricks to get to the line. I’m just playing hard and playing with a little bit of smartness as well when it comes to getting people off their feet and getting to the line.”

After the Jazz win, Williams highlighted the extra work Ayton has put in at “crazy hours” at the Suns’ practice facility with Cory Schlesinger, their head strength and conditioning coach. Ayton joked “crazy hours” for Williams actually means 9 or 10 p.m., but he’s been doing pre-workouts, working out after games and coming in on days off.

From weight lifting to improving his conditioning, DA is getting his body ready to withstand nightly clashes in the paint. His 28.9 minutes per game need to increase, and over the last five games, he’s played 37, 27 (in a blowout), 32, 30 and 34 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back.

“I want to do more,” Ayton said. “I feel like I could do more, and I’m just trying my best way to contribute to the team when I’m out there.”

Ayton is definitely doing more, and while a dunk is still worth two points no matter how earth-shattering it is, his recent barrage of posters illustrates a more aggressive mindset.

After his monster dunk against the Pistons, Ayton said he was trying to break the rim. He also said the magic words in regards to just going up with it near the basket instead of passing out.

“I felt like I dunked the ball before I caught it,” he said. “That’s the stuff we work on in practice. Coach Monty, Mark Bryant, we’re big on short rolls and how teams guard us, and we’re very aware of the low man and things like that. Usually you’ll see me catch that in the pocket or hit the corners, things like that, but to part the Red Sea early in the game is good.”

The more DA puts himself in the same company as Amar’e Stoudemire, in both the scoring column and the highlight reels, the better.

Deandre Ayton doing the little things

So far this season, a few staples that emerged in Ayton’s game last year have fallen short. After drilling an absurd 66 percent of his hook shots last season, he’s dropped to 55.6 percent through 17 games. According to Cleaning The Glass, which filters out garbage time, his 45 percent shooting from the midrange has also dipped from last year’s 56 percent mark.

Williams often refers to those patented middies as one of DA’s sweet spots, calling him one of the best in the game from that area of the floor alongside Booker and Paul. When Ayton got going against Detroit, it stemmed from knocking down a couple of those midrange jumpers early on.

“That’s something we feel like is a weapon for him,” Williams said. “We haven’t seen the floater as much this year, but he has been able to knock down some of his midrange shots where he faces up and the guy backs up and he just knocks it down, or sometimes he knocks down the turnaround.”

Ayton’s middy often serves as a release valve for the offense, as do his post-ups, where he ranks in the 71st percentile in points per possession.

To the Suns’ credit, they’ve found Ayton in the post and have even gotten creative about setting him up for success there. DA averages the eighth-most post-ups in the NBA, and although it’s not a play used nearly as frequently as it was in its heyday, it can still be effective.

“When we feel like there’s a matchup or an opportunity to do that, we’re going to take those shots,” Williams said. “I like it because it gives us balance. When you post up a guy, there’s a tendency to flatten out the defense, and a lot of those shots that they take are short shots, so you can’t get out and run. And DA can score in there.”

However, with his midrange efficiency down and post-ups only going so far, Ayton’s recent hot streak has stemmed from the same areas that have always helped him excel: rolling hard, running the floor and crashing the offensive glass…with the added bonus of more physicality.

“I cannot be that guy who’s easing into games,” he said. “For this team, I have to be that energizer, that dude who’s making them plays, who’s on the glass, who’s dunking the ball, who’s getting the crowd in it, setting hard screens, setting the tone of the physicality, moving people out the way. I’m the tone-setter, and when I do that, my team follows and everything falls into place and we play Suns basketball the right way.”

Ayton has always been receptive to instruction from his coaches and teammates, and he’ll often repeat that constructive criticism verbatim when discussing where he can improve. There’s little doubt the Suns have tried to hammer the message of consistency home, especially since it’s proven tricky to unlock outside of his otherworldly playoff run in 2021.

Even as recently as last week, there are still plays where DA fell asleep as a help defender, missed an easy boxout or rolled without intention:

It’s been a night-and-day difference since that fourth quarter in Utah. The jumper may not be falling this season, but Ayton has made up for it by shooting 81.6 percent in the restricted area — by far a career high. A big part of that stems from his work on the offensive glass.

Ayton ranks eighth in the league in offensive rebounds per game and 12th in second-chance points, averaging a career-high 3.5 per game. His 1.38 points per possession on put-backs puts him in the 78th percentile, and his offensive rebounding percentage over the last five games (12.3 percent) would be a career high.

“At the end of the day, my requirement is to crash the glass, regardless if there’s three, four dudes, no [dudes], I’m going to crash it,” Ayton said. “I have to do that. That’s the requirement from my team, and that’s how we get extra possessions and that’s how we win games.”

Going into the season, Ayton said offensive rebounds would be the first category he’d check on the stat sheet after games. It took a “heartfelt” conversation with Williams two weeks ago to reactivate that main drive, but he’s leading the Suns’ charge on the offensive boards, turning their 2021 NBA Finals weakness into a strength.

Just a few weeks later, he sealed back-to-back games with an offensive rebound in the clutch.

“When DA crashes just like that, it does great things,” Bridges said. “He’s big, he’s got good hand-eye [coordination], he’s strong, physical, so he knows how to read it and go get it. Just another dynamic to our team that makes us even tougher.”

Offensive rebounding and running the floor in transition have long been telltale indicators of Deandre Ayton’s engagement. If he can sustain his recent increased activity, don’t be surprised if he starts reaching career-high numbers in those categories.

Overall, 16.2 points and 9.5 rebounds per game on the year still isn’t max-caliber production. But after such an uneven start to the season, Ayton has re-established a new norm, with bigger goals in mind. Now he just has to prove he can sustain it to take his game to the next level.

“DA’s growth has been in a number of areas,” Williams said. “We threw the kitchen sink at him when we first got here, and it was a lot. It was overwhelming. And every year we’ve done the same thing, and he’s adjusted to receiving it, absorbing it and then processing it. His work ethic was good; now it’s become, like, a part of his lifestyle. He understands in order to be as good as he wants to be, he’s gotta work every day off the floor. And I’ve seen the improvements.”

Author

Gerald Bourguet serves as PHNX's reporter, writing savant and podcast co-host for all things Phoenix Suns. He's been a basketball fan since the day he could say "Michael Jordan," graduated from the Walter Cronkite School at ASU in 2013 with a BA and MA in sports journalism and has been covering the NBA ever since. As a credentialed media member since 2015, Gerald dealt with his Suns-related depression through his writing...until the Bubble Suns changed everything. Now, the Artist Formerly Known as Zewio is just as excited to cover winning basketball as Suns fans are to enjoy watching it.

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