Deandre Ayton has managed a solid statistical profile amid Phoenix’s disastrous year, posting 15.7 points and 10 rebounds per game as the Suns entered Wednesday night at 7–24, worst in the West. The No. 1 pick in June’s draft is the third rookie since 2000 to average 15 points and 10 rebounds in his first season, showing flashes of the offensive potential that caused Phoenix to bypass Luka Doncic and take the Arizona product.
The impressive numbers didn’t translate to much winning, though. Phoenix’s 24 losses included nine defeats of over 20 points. The Suns rank No. 29 in offensive rating. They’re the league’s sixth-worst defense. Phoenix and Chicago should compete for the top pick as the season draws to a close.
Ayton’s offensive skill-set finally translated to a meaningful victory on Wednesday night, a 111-103 win over the Celtics at TD Garden in Boston. Ayton tied his career high with 18 rebounds, adding 23 points against the league’s No. 4 defense. Boston’s bigs weren’t mobile enough to scoot with Ayton. He dipped and spun his way to the tin from outside the free-throw line on multiple occasions, unveiling a quality hook shot in the process. Ayton hasn’t displayed three-point range as a rookie, but the versatility of his skill set rightfully draws comparisons to Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns. The consistency has varied, but the talent is there.
Wednesday’s victory marked Phoenix’s third-straight win following a 10-game losing streak that lasted over two weeks. The Suns’ road trip will end with matchups against three East teams under .500. The next week will provide a rare opportunity for success away from the grueling Western Conference. But the moral victories will outweigh the actual wins once the calendar turns to 2019.
Devin Booker is the headliner in the desert, yet it’s Ayton’s development that steers Phoenix’s future in the next decade. Booker is signed through 2023-24, a reliable shotmaker, though imperfect as a leading man. The rest of the supporting cast is young and unproven. Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges have yet to string together more than flashes of strong play. T.J. Warren is canning an outrageous 45.2% of threes this season and will likely regress to the mean from beyond the arc after shooting 22.2% in 2017-18 and 26.5% in 2016-17. Like Jackson and Bridges, he isn’t a suitable second star. If Ayton can’t blossom in Phoenix, more lean years will continue.
Performances like Wednesday night should help dissolve some skepticism. Ayton’s defensive flaws are glaring, sometimes embarrassingly so. He’s sturdy in the post, but throw Ayton into space, and he struggles. The Towns similarities extend past the pair’s smooth offensive games.
Those defensive deficiencies can be taught, though, molded and improved through sheer repetition and focus. The same can’t be said for the kind of scoring prowess Ayton has displayed in spurts this season, and especially on Wednesday night. The rough nights will undoubtedly continue through Ayton’s rookie year. But with more performances like Wednesday’s dismantling of Boston, Phoenix will grow more comfortable with their investment in Ayton with the first top pick in franchise history.