FLAGSTAFF, AZ — The Phoenix Suns enter the 2018-19 season with plenty of new faces, headlined by No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton and new head coach Igor Kokoskov. The first two days of training camp have been heavy teaching days, as Kokoskov installs his system on both ends of the floor.
With Devin Booker working his way back from a hand injury (he’s been going through non-contact practices playing only with his left hand), Ayton is easy to focus on during practice. As Kokoskov installs offensive sets, it’s easy to see why Ayton was a fairly easy selection with the top pick for Phoenix. The 7’1, 260 pound Ayton glides effortlessly around the court until it’s time to use that massive frame to set a punishing screen or finish a lob with a ferocious dunk.
His offensive instincts and ability are immediately recognizable, but the real questions for Ayton exist on the defensive end of the court. The physical tools are all there, but at 19 years old there’s still so much for him to learn on that end so he can harness those athletic gifts and turn himself into a defensive force.
Where on the offensive end of the court everything looks natural, even running a new play, it’s obvious on the defensive end that he’s thinking and trying. That’s a good thing, because it shows his commitment to getting better, but it also means he’s not moving as quickly or fluidly as he tries to figure out where he’s supposed to be and supposed to go next. This was apparent in Summer League as well, as he began his adjustment to the NBA game and the never-ending wave of pick-and-rolls he’ll be thrown into.
Kokoskov wants his centers to be the “defensive coordinators” on defense, a point that’s clearly been driven home to Ayton who echoed that sentiment when I asked him about how he feels about his defensive development from Summer League to early camp.
“Down low, dudes that’s down low really have to be the general. I’m my point guard and wings’ eyes,” Ayton said. “I gotta be vocal even when I’m tired. That’s what I’m learning now and something I’ve really added to my game and getting better at. When I’m tired I’m still communicating and trying to give the best directions out there possible. Verticality as well. Knowing when to jump, knowing when to stay on my feet as well, closing out on the wings. It’s stuff like that. Just really moving a lot, because everybody in the league switches now, so that’s what I’m working on. I’m not trying to be a liability on the court not trying to switch.”
The learning curve for Ayton, like most rookies, is steep on the defensive end coming to the NBA from college, but he’s in a good situation for it. The Suns’ timeline affords plenty of patience to young stars, and while the team defense might not be especially good, it’s hard to have picked a better mentor for Ayton on that end than former Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler.