We have reached the point in the NBA’s offseason when every interview or Instagram live by a player is put under the microscope to see if they are alluding to anything grand about their own careers and futures.
It is tiring to consume each day, with Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers the most recent individual to fall victim to a remark he made while speaking with Maverick Carter of all people. The future of that franchise hangs on how Embiid is feeling about his situation. Thankfully for the Phoenix Suns, they have their affairs very much in order right now.
With a superstar team assembled, and a fantastic supporting cast to match, they appear to be singing off the same hymn sheet, with the exception of one player.
Center Deandre Ayton is no stranger to hearing his name brought up in trade rumors, and this very offseason began with many questioning if it would be him, and not Chris Paul, who would be moved. Going back to the season before that, and Ayton signed an offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers, which the Suns went on to match.
Although that particular situation was of his own doing, it would be fair to say that the Suns haven’t gotten the best out of Ayton since their run to the NBA Finals back in 2021. In a recent video posted by Eyewitness News Bahamas, Ayton opened up on the subject of feeling like he had no fans in the league, and that a lot of people were hating on him.
You can think what you want about a former first overall pick who has made, and will continue to make, a lot of money feeling sorry for himself. But Ayton does have a point in that despite easily being one of the top 10 bigs in the league today, and despite still only being 24-years-old, he receives a lot of criticism.
Some of it is fair, because Ayton can appear uninterested on certain nights and was roundly outplayed by two-time league MVP Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets this past postseason. He has never been an All-Star, and the 18 and 10 he routinely puts up somehow seems pedestrian despite the obvious talent.
But if ever there was a time to show the big man some love, it is surely right now. New head coach Frank Vogel already knows this, and has said all of the right things about Ayton being the fulcrum of what they hope to achieve defensively.
On a deeper level though Ayton will have to be just that, as although the Suns can and perhaps will try and outscore every opponent they come up against, at some point they’re going to need to get a few stops.
The recent addition of Bol Bol may intrigue some, but he is in no way going to be able to help defensively. With Jock Landale also gone, the importance of Ayton has never been greater. The Suns will need him to do more dirty work than ever before, and it would help if he felt appreciated by fans for doing it.
Complicating matters further, and with Bradley Beal now along for the ride and Kevin Durant entering his first full campaign in Arizona, Ayton is going to get even less touches offensively than ever before. Say what you want about the ageing Paul, but he knew how to integrate Ayton and even lumbering bigs like Bismarck Biyombo as well as any player in the league.
How engaged will he be on the defensive end if he is going to see his number called even less and instead have to make a living feeding off scraps and put backs? Last season during the playoffs, the Suns had the fourth worst defensive rating (118.3). With Ayton on the court, that number improved slightly to 118. Unacceptable, and a concern if it is a sign of things to come.
Yet more reasons to really back Ayton then, as the Suns will need him if they hope to win a championship next season. Booker may have an MVP level campaign in him, and Beal could shoot the lights out from the jump. But Durant is going to miss some games, that’s just a fact at this stage of his career, and he’s the next best big defender this group has.
Seeing Toumani Camara have some moments in Summer League is great, and Eric Gordon is going to guard players twice his size because he derives some sick pleasure from it. Even Yuta Watanabe has the length to annoy opponents, and Keita Bates-Diop may wind up being one of the most underrated gets of the entire offseason.
Read those names back though, and you’ll see just how precarious a situation the Suns are in defensively. They need Ayton to have the best season of his career, and all he is asking for in return is for the fans to cheer his name through the good times and the bad during the season.
He understands this is Booker’s team, and he’s not even asking to skip the queue and get the ball more than Durant or Beal. But as a key component, and definite starter, Ayton also needs to prove that he is serious about changing the narrative himself by putting in the work like he says he is. If the fans see that, he’ll find a level of love with this franchise he never thought possible.