When the NBA suspended Deandre Ayton 25 games, the Phoenix Suns where left without a starting center and some big shoes to fill. Luckily, Aron Baynes wears big shoes. But who should start when Ayton returns?
Phoenix Suns pop quiz, hot-shot: your second year center—drafted number one overall and considered to be a generational talent—gets a 25 game suspension for testing positive for a diuretic and leaves a massive whole at the starting center spot, what do you do?
You plug in Aron Baynes.
He plays good D, moves the ball well, and can shoot the three. Maybe you can’t run the offense through him, or throw a lob-pass in the general area of the rim and expect him to dunk it home, but he knows his role and has played for winning franchises—even won a title even—and that’s something.
Okay. Okay. Pop quiz number two, hot-shot: say this Aron Baynes you’re talking about steps in and plays well. Say after seven games he averages 15 points, one block and over 3.5 assists a game in only 24 minutes. Say he’s shooting a staggering .706 eFG% shooting almost .50% from three while attempting over four a game. Say the Suns are 4-2 with him at center, losing the two games by a total of only two points. Say they’re the feel-good-surprise of the early NBA season.
Now say they keep this up until Ayton returns. What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO!?
No, seriously, what do you do?
With Baynes starting six of the seven games played so far this season, the Phoenix Suns are off to their best start since the 2004 season. They have a shot at being 20-6 by the time Ayton gets back from his suspension. Or 19-7 or 18-8.
Even at 17-9 this season would already be considered a massive improvement over last season, and they would have done it without Ayton’s help.
They have some big tests upcoming against the Lakers on the 12th and a rematch against the Nuggets in Denver on the 24th. And with those big tests they have a chance to prove they are for real and defuse any talk that taking down the up-until-then undefeated Sixers was a fluke.
With a game plan that begins with keeping things simple, sharing the ball with a purpose, and a defense ranked 7th overall in the NBA with an emphasizes on aggressive close-outs and cutting off lanes, Baynes has fit perfectly at the center of this new-look Suns team.
And then there’s his trademark—brick wall screens. He sets down screens, off-ball screens, cross screens. He sets them either for the pick-and-pop or the classic pick-and-roll, or just to get a dude an open look. Baynes sets screens harder to get over than Mount Doom.
And then there is the 3-point factor. Last year he shot only 1.2 threes a game, hitting 34.4%. So far this year he is shooting 4.4 a game and connecting on 48.4%, punishing teams for leaving Splash Mountain to double up on Booker or Oubre or whoever.
In an era of lithe unicorn bigs spacing the court and dancing gracefully around the perimeter, Baynes is the yoked one in the flannel, sleeves cut off. The one that just set a screen on you so hard that it jarred your fillings loose.
So where does this leave Ayton? Exactly where he started the season, at center court for tip-off.
As good as Baynes has played in Ayton’s absence, Deandre Ayton, along with Booker, is the future of the Phoenix Suns. Just the age difference alone makes the decision a no-brainer.
Last year as a rookie, Ayton averaged over 16 points and 10 rebounds a game, shooting a solid 58% from the field and 74% from the line. His 3-point shooting has been non-existent and he will have to expand that part of his game. For all the talk this preseason about doing so, he didn’t attempt one in the season opening blowout against the Kings. That will have to change.
So back to the original question, What do you do? You play them both.
Baynes is only playing a little over 24 minutes a game, even as a starter. Coach Williams will have the luxury of bringing one of the best bigs in the league this year off the bench. Sure Baynes’ numbers will drop, not playing the majority of his minutes with the starters, but such is the life of an NBA journeyman.
The real conundrum is, who will end the games on the court, and who will be left ridding the pine?
That is a question for another day.