25-under-25: Deandre Ayton at No. 9

25-under-25, Phoenix Suns

Will the Phoenix Suns’ run to the 2021 NBA Finals help propel Deandre Ayton into having a career year?

Heading into the 2021 NBA playoffs, Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton was one of the league’s biggest wild cards.

Fresh off a run to the NBA Finals, he now appears poised to cement himself as one of the league’s top big men.

Inconsistency defined Ayton throughout the 2020-21 regular season. Some nights, the 2018 No. 1 overall pick erupted for a 20-point double-double while playing surprisingly sound defense. On others, he’d finish with single-digit points and/or rebounds while making the same defensive mistakes that plagued him throughout his first two years.

Ayton took a back seat in the Suns’ offensive pecking order upon the arrival of Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul in the 2020 offseason. He went from averaging 18.2 points as a sophomore to a career-low 14.4 points last year, although he shot a career-best 62.6 percent overall.

A change in shot diet helped fuel his improved efficiency. The big man cut down on his mid-range attempts in favor of more shots in the paint and around the basket while Paul, Booker, Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges bombed away from around the perimeter.

While the Suns rarely knew what they’d get from Ayton on any given night during the regular season, he made an immediate impact in the playoffs. The Arizona product opened up with four straight double-doubles against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, and he finished the Suns’ run to the NBA Finals with per-game averages of 16.2 points on 70.6 percent shooting and 11.8 rebounds.

Last season’s postseason run proved the Deandre Ayton is essential to the Phoenix Suns

Ayton had a massive 22-point, 19-rebound double-double in Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Finals, but he began to sputter from there. Having to serve as the last line of defense against two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo got him into early foul trouble in Game 3, and he ended the Game 6 closeout loss with only 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting and six rebounds in 36 minutes.

The Suns are effectively running the same core back this season, having signed Paul to a four-year, $120 million extension during the summer, which should enable Ayton to hit the ground running. Paul, Booker and Ayton spent most of last year feeling one another out, but their playoff run provided valuable lessons about how all three can eat at once.

During the Western Conference Finals, Ayton also told reporters about the off-court impact that Paul was having on his career.

“I love CP, man,” he said. “Like I said, that’s really the only teammate that really push me. Like big-bro-type push. Knowing what I got and that I ain’t never thought that I had. I think he was the best thing that happened to my career. I can say that every day.”

Paul was similarly effusive about Ayton’s development.

“To see his growth, man, I get goosebumps seriously, man,” he said. “We done had some heated conversations this season, especially earlier in the season but, man, I genuinely love him. The person that he is and to see everything that’s coming to him, national audience getting to see who he is and why he’s the No. 1 pick, I couldn’t be happier for him.”

Having now spent a full season with Paul and gotten his first real taste of playoff success, Ayton should be all systems go in 2021-22. He’s figured out how to make his impact felt without being the Suns’ offensive focal point, which makes him that much more dangerous.

Instead of throwing a tantrum about his downtick in touches, Ayton instead bought in and embraced his role as a screen-setting, board-gobbling, rim-running, lob-catching sidekick for Paul and Booker. It’s admirable when any player does so, much less a No. 1 overall pick.

Ayton still has plenty of room for growth, though.

He isn’t likely to evolve into a high-volume 3-point shooter overnight, as he’s gone only 7-of-37 from deep (18.9 percent) across his first three seasons. If he does become more consistent from that range, though, he could help draw opposing bigs away from the paint and open driving lanes for Paul, Booker and his other teammates.

Ayton could stand to improve as a passer, too. The Suns aren’t likely to run repeated post-ups for him, but he could help generate easier looks for his teammates by sucking defenders into the paint and then kicking out to wide-open shooters.

The big fella has made major strides on defense since entering the league, but he isn’t a finished product in that regard, either. The more reps he gets defending pick-and-rolls and switching against perimeter players in the regular season, the better. All of that should pay dividends once next year’s playoffs roll around.

If Ayton doesn’t sign a contract extension by mid-October, he’ll become a restricted free agent next summer. Either way, he projects to be a critical piece of the Suns’ long-term future.

How he builds upon his dominant playoff run will again make him one of the league’s biggest wild cards heading into the 2021-22 season. If he continues to progress toward his sky-high ceiling, the Suns could find themselves right back in the NBA Finals next year.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Spotrac.

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