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Deandre Ayton is playing like the 1st overall pick the Suns made him

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Finally back from his suspension, Ayton has been living up to his billing for the Suns this season.

Getty Images/USA Today/Pete Rogers Illustrations

Editor Note: This was written before Ayton’s ankle injury suffered Tuesday night.

Deandre Ayton, who was the first pick in the NBA Draft in 2018, played in the first Phoenix Suns game this season on October 23rd, and he scored 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.

And, then he didn’t play again until December 17th due to a suspension.

In the meantime, Phoenix got out to a hot start, and then predictably fizzled fast. The Suns are now 24-37, comfortably numb and nearly certainly out of the playoffs. They’re not ASS level bad—in fact they can be pretty fun to watch—but, they’re still actually bad: since Ayton’s return, the Suns are 13-22, and have the fifth worst team 3PT%, better only than Charlotte, the Knicks, Orlando, and Minnesota.

The Suns have bright young stars, but can’t seem to find their way as a team. While Devin Booker is 12th in points per game this year (26 PPG, right between Anthony Davis and LeBron James), Ricky Rubio is third in assists per game (8.8 APG, after LeBron and Ice Trae Young), and youngsters Kelly Oubre, Jr. and Mikal Bridges have improved overall, the Suns haven’t been winning games. None of the bright spots coalesced into a single point of light.

I think it’s fair to say that this is to be expected of a young team, especially when one considers that the Suns didn’t have their #1 draft pick, who is also their starting center, for 25 games to start the season. That would screw with any team, but the worst part about this is that it stalled Ayton’s accumulation of reps.

Keeping him off the court kept Ayton from getting better, and that’s exactly what you don’t want in your very important sophomore, because what stalls Ayton, also stalls the Suns, and that stalls Devin Booker. And, no one in Phoenix wants to stall Devin Booker right now.

Now, get real, no one thought the Suns would be a contender this year; this was a season about the young players getting better. But, folks and players were hopeful that Phoenix would at least compete for the 8th seed. Even though Phoenix had that nice start to their season, it never seemed real with Ayton not being a part of it.

Deandre Ayton’s development is KEY for the Phoenix Suns, as well as for the continued improvement of Booker. Having another scoring threat on his team would be perhaps the single greatest event in Devin Booker’s basketball life. (And, would, theoretically, help alleviate any concerns Booker has about staying in Phoenix long term.) So, let’s look at young Booker’s even younger running mate, Deandre Ayton, and see what he’s gotten up to this season. After all, this guy was drafted before Luka Doncic and Trae Young: his development as a player is important to the NBA as a whole, too, let alone just the Suns.

Fortunately, Ayton’s looked damn good, though also damn quietly (that’s what starting late and being on a bad team will get you, I suppose).

Since January 1st, Ayton is 7th in rebounds per game (RPG). He’s averaged basically a 20 and 12 since the new year began, which seems a little crazy since only 15 guys in the NBA are averaging 10+ PPG and 10+ RPG this season. Guess who the youngest player on that list is? Correct, Deandre Ayton! Is that good, though? Yes. Yes it is. Just look at the list of sophomores who averaged 19+ PPG and 11.9+ RPG (Ayton’s current line on the season).

Ayton’s defense has gotten better, too. You can see it in his play, as well as in the numbers: he’s averaging 1.7 blocks per game (he averaged less than a block per game last season), and he has a positive net rating on the season (his defensive rating from last year has improved nearly 6 points). From October 24th through December 16th (the time Ayton missed) the Suns had the 18th defensive rating, 109.2, barely besting the opposition with a net rating of 1.3. Since December 17th and the return of Ayton the Suns have the...18th best defensive rating, 111.9, and a negative net rating of -2.8. But since January began, the Suns have had the 10th best defensive rating. I think it just took a quick minute for the young big man to get his motor running.

Since the calendar turned to 2020 Ayton’s been playing like a real legit NBA player. Less than 40 players even average 20 points per game, much less with elite rebounding. If Ayton can keep this up and prove that he can play in the NBA at a high level, then we might be looking at a young star forming in Phoenix, and hopefully igniting the Suns franchise into a team of contention, rather than consternation.

Ayton is widely owned in fantasy, but he’s only a top 125 player on the season (again, because he missed 25 games, and then needed a hot sec to get back into rhythm and game shape). Ayton’s ranking in ESPN basic is actually fascinating because of his immediate company. Here are the players ranked 121st to 126th in ESPN basic this season: Tim Hardaway, Jr. (121), Donte DiVincenzo, Jerami Grant, Larry Nance, Jr., Ayton, and Lauri Markkanen (126, out injured since late January). I like alllll those guys in fantasy, especially DDV and Grant. They’re all fairly young, too. But, none of them have the fantasy potential of Deandre Ayton, who’s been a top 25 player for over a month.

If Deandre Ayton ends the season having been a top 25 player for nearly half the season, then how high will he get drafted next year? How safe are big men in fantasy, anyway? I’m really enjoying watching Ayton play, but I wonder every time I watch the Rockets (who somehow lost to the Knicks bench and their offensive rebounding tonight, FRANK NTILIKINA, LET’S GO): Are true centers long for this New NBA world? I hope so, but the question continues to get louder and louder every time Houston runs a traditional center off the court.

All numbers courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com, and ESPN.com. Thank you!