Frank Vogel was officially unveiled as the new head coach of the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, with the introductory press conference available to watch in full here. Vogel said all of the right things that you would expect a veteran head coach to do with a microphone in his face, about believing in the vision in place and being thrilled to join forces with a bonafide contender.
Behind the scenes the Suns have worked in recent days to put a stellar support network around Vogel, with lead assistant Kevin Young, a finalist for the head coaching gig, being kept on as the most expensive number two in the league. That news was followed by the acquisition of David Fizdale from the Utah Jazz, another smart move with Vogel having worked with Fizdale before.
Where this press conference got interesting however, was when Vogel was asked about starting center, and divisive figure amongst the fans, DeAndre Ayton.
Ayton hasn’t always shown the commitment necessary to the franchise to win big, and signed an offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers last summer, which the Suns quickly matched. The right move at the time, but one that now hamstrings the organization to add much meaningful depth since the arrival of Kevin Durant and his own megabucks deal.
The merits of trading Ayton now, so as to consolidate the roster around Durant, Devin Booker and maybe even Chris Paul, are obvious. You move Ayton, and the over $90 million owed to him over the next three seasons, both to create some cap space and get some players who can contribute to the roster right away.
But when pressed on how Vogel planned on utilizing his big man, he was bullish in his assessment of how good, and how important to winning, Ayton can be. Again you might think that Vogel has to say this because he is faced with a room full of journalists and it is his first day on the job officially. He does not want to rock the boat. But these are strong words from the new head coach.
Saying the defensive end starts with Ayton is obvious, but Vogel has right away compared Ayton’s abilities in that area to the elite rim protectors such as Anthony Davis and Roy Hibbert that he has worked with before. Players who helped him win a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers, and who forced a Game 7 out of a super team that were the Miami Heat with the Indiana Pacers.
Vogel didn’t have to do that, and yet he felt the need to come out and back Ayton right away. There has long been a train of thought that says Ayton is an “arm around the shoulder” kind of player. A big man who needs to feel loved and wants some involvement offensively (even if he is limited), before busting his ass on the defensive end. A bit like Dwight Howard for the Orlando Magic.
Vogel had the best defensive rating in the league at various points in his tenures with the Lakers and Pacers. He knows this will be the foundation to winning a championship, and he believes Ayton can help him to get there. Vogel only got more supportive of Ayton from there.
"“There’s still areas that he can grow offensively, but I’m intent on really connecting with him and restoring him to an All-Star level player.”"
That use of the word “All-Star level player” is huge here. There are some who think Ayton has never been that to begin with, but there is no doubt he was an important piece in a team that made a run all the way to the NBA Finals. In fact, 10 percent of our own followers here at Valley of the Suns think Ayton can still be an All-Star one day.
That is phrase Vogel absolutely did not have to use. He could simply have said that Ayton has been an overlooked defensive talent for a while now, and that offensively he can get better, but that he has always been important to the team. But no, he went so far as to say Ayton has shown All-Star level talent before, and is capable of doing so again.
At only 24-years-old, he is yet to even reach his prime, so the comments by Vogel are not crazy, and they certainly show he is backing the player. Having his trusted sidekick in Fizdale from a championship run with the Lakers and an assistant in Young who seems to have connected really well with the players, will give him a great opportunity to truly get Ayton back onside.
Vogel didn’t have to be as complimentary as he was, and this likely means any trade talk involving Ayton is shelved for the time being. This was the complete opposite to Nick Nurse being unveiled to the Philadelphia 76ers’ media, when asked about James Harden potentially coming back next season. Vogel could have gone the same route, but he didn’t.
A reinvigorated Ayton would go a long way to helping the Suns win a championship. The league right now has shifted back to dominant big men, and if the franchise wants to run through the West next year, they’re going to have to avenge this year’s playoff exit to Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.
Ayton can do exactly that if he goes up another level under the guidance of Vogel, and in doing so he will be viewed by fans less as a limited player who is taking up valuable cap space. Instead he’ll be seen as a key component and a member of a “big three” for the organization, alongside Booker and Durant. It may also spell the end of Paul’s time with the team.
Frank Vogel has arrived in Arizona, and has right away made a splash in backing his starting center vocally and passionately. The ball is now in Ayton’s court to step up to the challenge, and have the best season of his still young career next year. If he can manage that, the depth woes of the Suns are going to be forgotten about really quickly.