By Trevor Booth
PHOENIX – When Phoenix Suns forward Frank Kaminsky walked into a postgame interview following his team’s recent 106-97 win over the Chicago Bulls, there was something different about his appearance.
The 7-footer, who claimed he is “not really into jewelry,” was wearing teammate Deandre Ayton’s custom-made chain around his neck, something he requested for reasons he did not specify.
“I just asked if I could put it on and he said, ‘Yes,’” Kaminsky said. “I feel a little responsible now with this thing on. I’ve never had this kind of jewelry on before … so I’m just trying to keep it clean until I give it back to him.”
Like his dazzling accessories, Ayton carries a lot of value for the resurgent Suns.
Now in his third season, the former Arizona star and No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NBA Draft is his team’s anchor on defense, an area that has carried the Suns to a 22-11 record and fourth place in the Western Conference standings with two games remaining before Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta.
Ayton also ranks above the 80th percentile for players at his position in offensive and defensive rebounding, according to CleaningTheGlass.com, and has a 61.0 effective field goal percentage, the best of his young career.
But while Ayton’s game has grown, he will have to continue to develop to maximize his team’s potential.
After earning consensus first-team All-American honors in his lone season with the Wildcats, Ayton’s biggest question mark was arguably his defensive awareness. He earned Pac-12 all-defensive team honors after blocking 1.9 shots per game, but as a more traditional center in an era in which small-ball and versatility are prioritized, he had not demonstrated the flexibility to guard and rotate against players out of his position, notably in Arizona’s season-ending loss to Buffalo in the NCAA Tournament.
The issue affected his rookie season in 2018-19, when he had a 62.9 defensive field goal percentage against shots fewer than six feet from the rim.
Despite being suspended 25 games for violating the terms of the NBA Anti-Drug program by testing positive for a diuretic, Ayton made considerable strides during his second season, raising his overall defensive field goal percentage to 41.0 percent that included an improvement to 52.0 percent against shots inside six feet.
Through 34 games this season, Ayton’s overall defensive field goal percentage and percentage against shots in the paint have dipped slightly to 45.5 and 53.2 percent, respectively. But over the month of February, in which the Suns posted a 12-3 record, Ayton rated at 42.9 percent overall and 52.9 percent inside.
His play has been integral to several of Phoenix’s wins. Against the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 10, Ayton was the primary defender on reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with a season-high 47 points on 15-of-23 shooting but struggled with Ayton on him. Ayton had a defensive field goal percentage of 31.3 percent in that game compared to the 51.2 percent Milwaukee shot for the entire contest.
Two good defensive sequences from Deandre Ayton to end the quarter.
— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) February 11, 2021
Then against New Orleans on Feb. 19, Ayton’s primary matchup was the Pelicans’ dynamic All-Star forward, Zion Williamson. After New Orleans created several transition opportunities in the first half, Ayton helped the Suns erase an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit and win by 18 points, posting a 44.4 defensive field goal percentage and finishing with 16 rebounds.
Deandre Ayton with a strong offensive rebound to score plus the foul. #Suns have opened the fourth quarter on a 9-2 run, Ayton with six of those points.
He’s up to 16 points and 11 boards. Phoenix trails 104-100, 8:45 left. pic.twitter.com/DmjDz6Y6pN
— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) February 20, 2021
“DA (Ayton’s nickname) did a terrific job, just trying to make it tough on Zion,” Suns coach Monty Williams said of that performance. “(Williamson) has been unguardable for most of the season, and I thought DA did a good job of just making him shoot over length without fouling.”
Against the Bulls on Friday, Ayton was forced to cover All-Star guard Zach LaVine and point guard Coby White off ball screens and did not allow a made field goal on four second-half attempts. However, as big as Ayton has been in some games, there have been others in which his mobility and awareness have hurt the Suns when teams have targeted him.
On Feb. 16 against the Brooklyn Nets, the Suns built a 24-point first-half lead before they squandered it in the second, losing by four. A contributing factor was Brooklyn’s decision to go small in the second half, with 6-foot-8 forward Jeff Green at center and multiple shooters surrounding All-Star guard James Harden.
For much of the fourth quarter, the Nets targeted Ayton on Phoenix’s defensive switches and succeeded at getting to the paint for layups or kick-outs for open 3-pointers. Brooklyn made 20 of its 40 3-point attempts including 75 percent of its looks from the corner, which rated among the 95th percentile of all NBA games this season per CleaningTheGlass.
“We could go small and play small-ball, but that’s to their advantage with the guys they have that can attack the basket,” Williams said. “With James in the game, you hope your rim protection and rebounding can help when he misses the shot. Just didn’t miss a lot in the second half.”
Against the Charlotte Hornets last Wednesday, the theme was similar. The Suns built a 17-point lead in the second quarter before Charlotte tied the game at halftime, eventually building a double-digit lead in the fourth.
Hornets guard LaMelo Ball, arguably the frontrunner for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award, got to the basket several times in actions with Ayton involved, opening opportunities for himself and teammates. Charlotte had 54 of its 124 points in the paint, a product of getting by initial defenders and challenging a slower-rotating Ayton and others inside.
“In our pick-and-roll coverage, they were getting 3s,” Williams said. “So we decided to ‘red’ and keep everybody in front of us, which is our switch defense. And then putting DA in that position where he’s got to guard point guards, that hasn’t really worked well for us.”
The Suns tried to negate Charlotte’s dribble penetration by inserting forward Jae Crowder at center, but the move came too late. The Hornets went on a 10-3 run after the game was tied at 110 with 3:39 remaining in an eventual 124-121 Phoenix loss.
Even with wins in 14 of their last 17 contests, the Suns have weighed situational defense heavily in their game-planning. Williams has asked for his players’ input during games, now feeling comfortable they can be flexible within the principles he has spent the last two seasons installing.
“We’ll call plays and we’ll have our own little input in plays,” Kaminsky said. “Sometimes, whether it’s going over a screen, going under a screen, the way we’re executing certain things. Matchups we see, what the other team is doing. It’s been good to be a part of this because I’m learning so much at the same time.”
Phoenix has also continued to tweak its rotation depending on the matchup. Crowder started Friday’s game at Chicago to play against a smaller rotation with 6-foot-7 Patrick Williams at power forward, while Kaminsky started against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday to match up with 6-foot-9 forward Jarred Vanderbilt and 6-foot-11 center Karl-Anthony Towns.
The fluid nature of the Suns’ bench has created some discontinuity, including a defensive stretch that affected their loss to the Hornets on Wednesday. However, the unit has remained locked in for the most part, with second-year forward Cameron Johnson and veteran guard E’Twaun Moore generating aggression that helped their team overcome a 14-point second-half deficit to beat Chicago on Friday.
“It’s such a luxury to have, but we expect that,” said Suns guard Chris Paul of his team’s bench. “We talk about it all the time. We’re one of the few teams in the league that has a bench that comes in, and they’re basically starters. So that’s why we’re a team. We pick each other up on any given night, and it’s great to be a part of it.”
After leading the Timberwolves, who have the NBA’s worst record at 7-28, by just five at halftime on Sunday, the Suns ran away with a 19-point victory, led by a season-high 43 points from All-Star guard Devin Booker. Phoenix limited Minnesota to just 37.6 percent shooting and held it to fewer than 30 points in each quarter.
Moving forward, Ayton will likely be a target in late-game scenarios and possessions that other teams look to exploit. As a coach, Williams will have to continue to find a balance between Ayton’s development, schematic adjustments with him on the floor or personnel changes to limit deficiencies.
“DA, he’s a guy that knows the calls now,” Williams said. “Last year, I think there was some gray areas and murkiness when things were happening quickly. Now, he and Dario (Saric), Frank, the bigs that have been in our program, they know what the calls are, so I think that helps them a lot.
“He has the ability to protect the rim, guard his man one-on-one, and he’s shown the ability to guard smaller guys the way he did on Coby White. It doesn’t always work out in those situations, but he’s a versatile defender for us and he’s athletic enough to move his feet without fouling.”
Even though Paul and Booker are expected to carry the Suns in most games, Ayton will need to be the one who finishes them. It’s a task he says he is taking to heart.
“Just knowing the type of dude I am, and knowing the expectations and knowing the responsibility every night, there is no hiccups really,” Ayton said of his mentality. “There can’t be no hiccups really, because I take care of so much. And I’m glad my team trusts me and believes in me to cover that.”