Now that Deandre Ayton is officially back, the Phoenix Suns need him to be the dominant force he can be. That is going to require more assertiveness than he showed in game one.
After 25 games, many of which spurned thousands of tweets along the lines of, “The #Suns need Ayton back,” Deandre Ayton finally returned to the Phoenix Suns lineup on Tuesday night against the LA Clippers.
The headlines will read “Deandre Ayton notches double-double in his first game back for the Phoenix Suns,” which is objectively true. Ayton scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds (impressively seven of which were offensive) against the Clippers in just 24 minutes of play. But there is much more to unpack here.
Ayton started the game, putting a rest to the short-lived fan-induced controversy about whether or not Aron Baynes should start over him upon his return. That was equally fueled by recency bias in the midst of Baynes’ breakout performances and a grudge against Ayton and his bone-headed suspension.
One of Ayton’s most unicorn-like skill sets is his jump-shot ability for his size. Having said that, his real value is using his size to rebound and dunk on opponents’ faces, the latter of which he has shown extreme reluctance to utilize.
In the first quarter of Tuesday’s game, Ayton attempted four total field goals, the closest attempt to the rim was 18 feet away, the only one he made. The other three were from 19, 19 and 20 feet out.
For someone who stirred significant debates about whether he should start shooting 3s, he sure shoots a lot of deep 2s. The trend continued in the second quarter, as three of his five shots came from 13, 17, and 18 feet. Coincidentally he made his two shots in the paint.
On to the third quarter where he hoisted jumpers from 12, 13, 15, and 21 feet, making three of them.
Ayton sat out the fourth quarter, possibly because of a rolled ankle he played through in the third. Losing him for multiple games would be a devastating blow to an already injury-riddled Phoenix Suns team.
In the end, out of Ayton’s 19 shots, 11 of them were jumpers at least 12 feet out. While he is certainly capable of making these (and he did, he made five of them), it would have been much more comforting to see Ayton use what had to be a lot of pent-up frustration on attacking the glass down low, and you know, maybe even drawing a foul or two.
Ayton only shot one free throw, and that came on a fast break and-one that arguably wasn’t a foul at all. That will happen when you’re a 7-footer who shoots majority jumpers.
Coincidentally, Suns fans don’t get as upset when the other 7-footer on the team does this. Frank Kaminsky would much rather fan himself off after hitting a three and try to look intimidating after a dunk. However, he is built for that, and is really a 6’4″ shooting guard at heart trapped in a center’s body.
Ayton is a center at heart who conveniently has an NBA-dominant center’s body, and the athleticism to boot. He is capable of throwing down lobs Kaminsky only dreams about, so when he doesn’t attack in the paint as consistently as he could, it is maddening.
Where Ayton did take advantage of his size was on the offensive boards. The Clippers didn’t really have anyone who could match up with him, which resulted in Ayton pulling down some big rebounds off his teammate misses. While he did manage a few tip-ins on these, many of his seven offensive rebounds were simply kicked back out in order to reset the offense.
Defensively, he was fine. Typical Ayton. He wasn’t going after a lot of blocks (only had one), but served as a disrupter for the most part.
Ultimately, after watching the assertiveness of players like Kelly Oubre Jr. all year, it was hard to watch Ayton play without the same level of energy, especially in a nothing-to-lose, get-out-all-your-pent-up-frustration kind of game.
Of course, this is just one game in which everyone had way too high of expectations on the 21 year-old. He is just getting back into the groove of things, trying to get his feet under him. And to be fair,18 points and 12 rebounds is an admirable comeback stat line.
It would just be nice to see the Phoenix Suns sent him to the Kelly Oubre school of assertiveness and watch him graduate with a Master’s degree in dominance.