Deandre Ayton has had a rollercoaster of a sophomore season in Phoenix, one that was derailed early by a 25-game suspension for a positive drug test one game into the season, but was showing considerable promise of late before an ankle injury forced him to miss the last two games prior to the All-Star break and sit out the Rising Stars Game.
For the season, Ayton is averaging 18.7 points and 12.0 rebounds per game in his 23 appearances and has had some truly spectacular performances, including a 28-point, 19-rebound outing in his last game played against the Nuggets. For Ayton, who spoke with Dime during All-Star Weekend in Chicago at the Puma activation at Champs Sports, the biggest change he’s been looking for in his game this season compared to last is consistency.
“Dominance. Me being dominant every game,” Ayton said. “I’m just playing through pain, bro. Playing through a lotta pain. Missing a lot of games, coming back the same day and spraining my ankle then have to miss some more. It’s a lot of adversity I hit, and I had to get mature really fast.”
Like so many, Ayton’s mood and vibe affects his choice in music, and for the former drummer (who says he still picks up the snare drum to “make a little noise” at home) he’s found himself listening to a lot of NBA Youngboy lately because of that pain.
“I listen to a lot of genres of music, but my favorite artist right now is NBA Youngboy,” Ayton said. “Him just expressing his pain, and if there’s anything I can relate to, then I’m with it.”
When he’s been able to play, he’s been highly productive. The second-year center still has the occasional off night, but those are fewer and farther between than his rookie season. He’s failed to score in double figures just once this season — his first game back from an injury — and has more 20-10 games (eight) than games with fewer than 16 points (seven). His improvement has coincided with a team that has taken strides as a whole in the first year under Monty Williams.
“We’ve grown a lot [as a team]. Communication, keeping each other accountable and bringing that work ethic every day,” Ayton said. “Just setting the example and guys seeing me not play and I’m still coming into practice early, it’s just contagious. You can’t walk into the Suns facility and not work on your game, because everyone else is working hard on their game, and it’s just contagious.”
Part of that is the addition of some new veteran pieces, like Ricky Rubio at point guard, but also the growth of first-time All-Star Devin Booker. While Booker is having one of his best seasons, Ayton believes the recognition is long overdue.
“Honestly, it’s just recognition, bro,” Ayton said of his All-Star teammate. “He’s been doing his thing for a long time now since he’s been in the league and just the recognition he’s getting — and he got some wins under his belt early in the season — he’s finally getting the credit he deserves.”
Still, there’s ample room for Ayton to grow and expand his game, but in order to do that, he has to find a way to stay on the floor. Life in the modern NBA can be tricky for a center like Ayton, who has to find the balance of being able to play at the pace of today’s league while also taking advantage of the physical gifts of his massive frame. Ayton looks like a throwback to the 80s and 90s, right down to his fade, but brings the modern athleticism and skillset to the post and this season has navigated that aforementioned balance much better. As such, it’s fitting that he’s sponsored by Puma, as the sneaker company has leaned heavily on its retro looks, but updating them to be modern-day performance hoops sneakers that are functional for the needs of today’s NBA.
The latest release is the Sky Dreamer, which Ayton is a big fan of — and the general retro vibe Puma is working with — although he does hope to see some alternate colorways come soon so he can brighten things up a bit.
“It’s fire,” Ayton said. “I wish they had a red colorway, but it’s definitely a comfortable shoe. It looks heavy, but it ain’t heavy. It feels real light on my feet. You can come outside with it off the court and you can be on the court with them. It can really go with any fit. I like the high top. I love the strap and the retro look. It’s just swaggy. It’s crazy how technology works nowadays where they can just turn any shoe into a basketball shoe, and any retro shoe from way back, I’m with it.”
Once he’s back on the court, Ayton will look to continue building on his recent success and hopefully partner with Booker and company to get the Suns back on track to the winning ways they exhibited early this season. It’ll be partially on him to make strides defensively to be a more impactful anchor in the middle, as well as continuing to serve as a dominant force on offense down low. Still, Ayton’s growth this season is encouraging, and the next step is being able to stay on the floor so that his improvements can impact the Suns more consistently.