Deandre Ayton said something that might have slipped past all of us. It was a statement, something that could be confused as a prophecy, or, if that’s too dramatic, something a typical then 19-year-old would say, especially when you’re the best college player in the country and moments away from being selected as the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
The NBA ain’t ever seen a player like me.
Three years later, Ayton still means it. It wasn’t for clout or to make his SLAM 216 cover story sound good. He knew, even back then, that the League had never seen a player like him. When asked about it again during our interview in April, he makes it clear to everyone on the Zoom call that today he means it even more.
“I was serious. And I’m deadass. I’m serious, to the bone,” Ayton says. “I’m something the League has never seen: a 5 that can guard 1-5. A player that can anchor a defense, that can play like this every night.”
His voice is stern and unwavering, the same way someone speaks when they’re right and they know it. “I love it,” he continues. “That’s the day and era that we’re in, where young guys like the Luka Doncics and the Trae Youngs are carrying teams, literally. But we love it. It’s who we are. It’s the life we chose. Simple as that.”
He has a point. There are a handful of players, all under the age of 25, that are helping carry their teams to potential playoff runs. Ayton is one of them, and as of writing this, he’s ranked 13th in the NBA in rebounds (10.7) this season. The Bahamian-born center is only four years younger than Clint Capela, who is leading the L. Ayton, only in his third season, turns 23 in July.
As the Suns continue to dominate the West and look to make a run in the playoffs—which would mark their first postseason appearance since 2010—DA is playing with a new type of energy and responsibility. His teammates are depending on him to grab every rebound that floats in the air, to help generate the offense by getting it done on the defensive end of the floor. It was once written that “there’s beauty in how the Suns turn Ayton rebounds into points,” but that might be too flowery. His job, he says, is to not only dominate the paint but to protect it.
“I’m a Leo, so I be roaring,” he says bluntly. “I don’t back down, I don’t do none of that. I love to compete, I love to defend. If I’m not there, people are going to see food…You might scoot by me, but I’m here. At the end of the day, you’re gonna come back down and see DA. This is basketball.”
And while many have criticized him for not shooting enough threes, Ayton knows that’s not his role on a team full of shooters. Devin Booker is averaging 25.4 points per game, and the Suns are led by the point god himself, Chris Paul, who can dish a dime to anyone on the floor at any moment in time. Ayton is expected to make things happen on the glass from anywhere on the court, to grab boards, set screens and help generate the offense, every single night.
“When I’m on the glass, I’m a presence. I don’t even call myself a big man. I never do. On my team, nobody calls me big fella. I really don’t compare myself to bigs. I can score like a big, that’s my system and that’s what’s best for my team, but I do all of that,” he says. “I know that CP and Book are depending on me to get them open, they’re expecting me to roll to create offense and generate in the middle.”
There’s a sense of pride you get when knowing that one of the best point guards in the game knows you can compete and expects it of you. Demands it.
“CP3 is on our ass,” Ayton says about Paul. “I’m talking about he be on my ass, man. It ain’t no slip ups. I’m talking about paying attention to the details to the finest, almost perfection. He knows you’re human, but if he trusts you, when a superstar like that trusts you, you know, [it gives] superpowers almost. It’s like, You believe in me that much?”
It’s that belief, and his own self-assurance, that has added more fuel to Ayton’s fire this season. In 60 games, all of which he’s started, DA has 32 double doubles—and is on pace to have the most of his career. He’s running the floor, running pick and rolls with ease and playing with the confidence needed to get his shooters wide open. The two-man game that he plays with Paul has become one of the Suns’ most lethal weapons. And when asked about Ayton’s ceiling and potential, CP3 let us know back in February that the not-a-big-man is ready. He’s in full control now.
“I ain’t never been on this type of competitive team, to have this type of competitive spirit around you, [where] other dudes are on the same page as me. So why not? I’m cursing myself every day. Why not? I’m asking myself, knowing the answer. I just got to go out there and do it.”
DA will be the first to tell you that with everything he’s been through in his three years in the League, he’s not taking this moment for granted. But he hasn’t forgotten, either, about the moments when he and his team were doubted.
He knew the odds of the Suns dominating in the bubble: Fivethirtyeight.com projected they’d go 3-5 and had a “less than minuscule” chance of making the playoffs.
But, what the Suns did in the bubble wasn’t a fluke, and that 8-0 run wasn’t just a moment of good fortune. The numbers were wrong.
“Even going into the bubble with the -0.3 percent, all that stuff, I remember all of that,” he says. “That’s why I got this thing up in my room, you know what I’m sayin?” Ayton says, pointing to the jersey that is hung up behind him. “Like, ah, I just got to turn around sometimes, and [nods head] aight.”
Ayton then motions with his thumb to the RESPECT US jersey that’s hung up behind him on his wall, the same one he wore last season in the bubble. It’s a reminder of the journey, the process. But it’s also a demand.
“I’m from a different country and it’s hard to really adapt to new things and things that we’re not used to,” he says. “I think that’s what this world lacks a little bit and we’ve got to respect people’s ways and it’s who they are and what they do. That’s the thing, we have a hard time doing this in this world, and not only did I do that for us but for the team as well, as respect for the Suns before these wins.”
DA knows better than anyone that these wins shouldn’t be taken for granted.
He admits that the bubble, and the drug suspension he faced last season for unintentionally ingesting a diuretic, has made him who he is today. It’s made this player right now.
DA was coming off a fairly solid rookie season before his suspension. He registered a double-double in his NBA debut, making him the first player to do so in their debut game since Lew Alcindor in ’69 and Oscar Robertson in ’60—and, despite ankle injuries, he went on to break the Suns’ record for most double-doubles by a rookie (previously set by Alvan Adams in 1975-76) against the Washington Wizards in March, the same night teammate Devin Booker dropped 50.
But then, shortly after getting another double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds) in the season-opener against the Kings the following year, he was suspended for 25 games for violating the League’s drug-policy.
They say the higher that you climb, the further you can fall. The unintentional mistake he made back in October of 2019 was called a “false start” for Ayton and a “disappointment” for an organization that has had “nothing but disappointment for the last decade.” The former No. 1 pick thought that everyone was done with him.
“I’m thinking everybody hates me,” Ayton admits.
Well, everyone except for Diana Taurasi.
“I would walk past her every morning, going [into the gym] early and she’d be parking her car,” he says about one of his favorite players. “She’d stop me every time and tell me to keep my head up. And I’m like, for who she is, stopping me, someone who got suspended, who is damn near is done, my name got dropped, I [was] so surprised someone was talking to me. She had faith in me and told me, Nah, everybody makes mistakes.”
The suspension, he admits, felt like another chance to do things right. He spent that time watching film and going at it in workouts. While he’d be training, everything that Taurasi had said to him would run back through his head. He felt more locked in than ever.
Yo. Just remember, every time you’re doing these little workouts or whatever, just know, it’s only really important when nobody is watching.
But second chances don’t always come easy, and oftentimes, life is the hardest teacher. He returned in December, getting another double-double against the Clippers, only to sprain his right ankle three days later against the Thunder. It felt like another harsh reality he had to face about being in the League.
“It was like, Man. This is what it’s about, this is really the NBA. You can work for something so hard and it can go away like that,” he says with the snap of his finger.
He missed five games, but returned with redemption on his mind. He dropped double-doubles for three straight games against the Lakers, Knicks and Grizzlies, and then had a monster game against New York on their home court in January. Ayton finished with 26 points and a career-high 21 rebounds against the Knicks, making him the youngest player since Amar’e Stoudemire to record at least 25 points and 20 rebounds in a game for the Suns, and the youngest player ever to drop 25-plus points against the Knicks.
He was back, and so were the Suns. Looking back at that time, Ayton says he not only learned how to win, but what it felt like to win as an underdog.
“We were acting like we were winning championships in there. We were locked in. It felt like the playoffs because it was really intense and everybody was hungry, man. Every team brought it, but we was bringing it to them. We really wanted it more.”
He’s keeping that same energy this season on a team that not only knows how to win, but expects it. And no one is more in control right now of how Deandre Ayton plays than Deandre himself.
“There’s no turning back from here,” he says. “I know what to do to prepare myself for the next level, I know what’s ahead of us. I have the guys around me to tell me what the hell I’m about to get myself into, how things are about to play. I like damn near have a chain around my neck about to pop, because I’m beyond ready for this shit. I’m just happy the front office really put some serious winners around me because now I feel it. I see the confidence certain teams get when they’re on a roll. It’s contagious throughout our whole team.”
The battle isn’t over, though, and in his own words, this the NBA, love. You can’t be content with a winning record in the NBA before the playoffs. DA is hungry for more, and his jersey from last season is a reminder to keep going. That respect has to be earned. It’s not just given.
“It’s to remind myself, Yo, we ain’t it. Only 40 wins, we ain’t got it. We ain’t there yet, it feels aight but we ain’t got it. There’s so much more. There’s so many more. I’m tryin’ to flip this city upside down. Tryin’ to have the whole roster and names on the streets, like, that’s just the energy I’m on.”
We haven’t seen the Phoenix Suns like this before. And, if we’re being real, the NBA hasn’t seen Deandre Ayton play like this before, either. Forget about stats and shooting percentages and all of that—just watch the way that he plays. His confidence is unwavering, every rebound is a testament to greatness and greatness to come.
But if we are talking numbers, then here’s one for you: 3.9 seconds. Back in April against the Jazz, per Arizonasports.com, it only took on average 3.9 seconds (give or take) for the Suns to attempt a shot on offense after Ayton secured the rebound. After grabbing a defensive board, he then hit a 15-foot jumper three seconds later. When Jae Crowder missed a three, Ayton was right there to snag the offensive rebound and dish it to Chris Paul for another shot. While the ball didn’t go through the net every time, Ayton’s 12 rebounds that night—seven of which were offensive and five defensive—helped guarantee more opportunities for the Suns. They went on to defeat Utah, who have the best record in the L and are sitting at a spot above them in the West, in overtime.
So if the Suns performance in the bubble wasn’t enough to prove to you that this team isn’t playing around, and if Ayton’s double-double performances and playmaking ability this season aren’t enough, then let these words, his own, be a final warning to dispel your lingering doubt:
“I’m ready to see it. I can already taste it. I’m craving it. I want to win every day…It’s like, why not be No. 1? Why not do certain things that people wouldn’t expect us to. We young, we’re just young and hungry. We’re competitive. We’re taking everybody. Straight up.”
And as we say on the islands, No let dat go ova yu head top. Blessings soon come.
Deyscha Smith is an Associate Editor for SLAM. Follow her on Instagram, @deyschasmith.
Photos via Getty Images.