Between Luka Doncic, suspension and Suns’ recent struggles, pressure’s on for Deandre Ayton

With each passing day, it becomes more and more apparent how much pressure Deandre Ayton faces once he’s finally able to return for the Phoenix Suns.

For a guy who hasn’t played since the team’s season opener, Deandre Ayton remains the hot topic of conversation among the Phoenix Suns fanbase. That’s typical for any No. 1 pick in a loaded draft class, but lately, Ayton’s name keeps getting brought up for unfortunate reasons.

After an eye-opening 29-point win over the Sacramento Kings on opening night, in which the big man posted 18 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks, Ayton’s 25-game suspension for the ingestion of a diuretic took the wind out of Phoenix’s sails. But the timing couldn’t have been worse for more than just one reason.

Initially, his absence for nearly one-third of the season was supposed to be a death sentence on Phoenix’s hopes of reaching the 30-35 wins many projected for this team. But the Suns were the surprise of October and the first week of November, going 7-4 despite facing a gauntlet of an opening schedule without their starting center. They looked like a legitimate playoff team.

Backup center Aron Baynes was a major catalyst, thriving in Ayton’s absence and leading the Suns with his defense-first mindset, his veteran experience and his blistering 3-point shooting, canning a whopping 44.2 percent of his career-high 4.3 attempts per game.

Thursday night, New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry summed it up best.

“Baynes has done a great job for them from the standpoint of just being a force and obviously with the suspension, they had to have somebody step up and play,” he said. “I think he’s done a great job.”

Gentry’s praise raises a larger issue, however, which became apparent in Phoenix’s close loss over the visiting Pelicans without even taking Baynes’ absence into account. In fact, it’s the reason disappointment has lingered: The Suns are actually good, but imagine how good they’d be if their other franchise cornerstone hadn’t made such a bone-headed mistake?

As opponents got more film to analyze Monty Williams‘ squad and Phoenix came back down to earth, the dismay over Ayton’s absence morphed yet again. Three straight losses have dropped the Suns to 7-7, but their problems in containing rim-running, tall, athletic big men were present before Baynes’ hip injury and the team’s recent skid.

To state the obvious: Having a 7’1″, 250-pound behemoth like Ayton in the middle might be useful against those frontcourt types.

“It’s not something I can dwell on,” Williams said of his continued absence. “The L.A. game, the Brooklyn game, where teams have had athletic bigs kind of beat us up a little bit — the Atlanta game, but we were able to overcome it. It’s a thought, but I can’t do that. I’ve gotta focus on what we have and put all my heart into the guys that are on the floor and in the locker room right now.”

Williams is right, and his thought process about focusing on what the Suns have at their disposal echoes of a large portion of the Suns fanbase when it comes to the other reason Ayton’s suspension looms large: Luka Doncic, the third overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft who Phoenix passed up on, is absolutely killing in Dallas right now.

At 20 years old, Doncic is legitimately playing at an MVP level. In 14 games, he’s recorded seven triple-doubles while leading the Dallas Mavericks to a 9-5 start. Averaging 29.9 points, 10.6 rebounds and 9.4 assists per game on 62.5 percent true shooting, he’s an offense unto himself for the league’s top-ranked offense.

In his last two games, Doncic led the Mavs to a narrow win over the San Antonio Spurs with a career-high 42 points in a triple-double, and then followed it up with a 35-point triple-double in a 48-point win over the Golden State Warriors. In that last one, he became the first player to outscore, out-rebound and out-assist the opposing team since Allen Iverson in 2003. He also became the first player ever to record a 35-point triple-double in 25 minutes or less.

The grass is often greener when it comes to looking back on draft choices, but as good as Ayton is, it’s already crystal-clear Doncic is a can’t-miss, transcendent talent the Suns whiffed on by favoring the local kid. It’s impossible not to look over at the Mavs without a twinge of yearning, jealousy or resentment as a Suns fan.

While the Suns Twitter war rages on over acceptable protocol for praising Doncic without slandering Ayton, the bigger question at stake is whether Ayton will be the Hakeem Olajuwon to Luka’s Michael Jordan…. or his Sam Bowie.

In the legendary 1984 NBA Draft, the Houston Rockets took Olajuwon at No. 1 overall over the eventual greatest player to ever live. They wound up not regretting it, however, winning two championships during MJ’s baseball sabbatical. However, the Portland Trail Blazers rued that draft forever, since they took an injury-prone Bowie at No. 2 over Jordan, who went third.

Going back to Ayton, the more apt comparison is likely somewhere in the middle: He won’t be a bust like Bowie, nor is he the next Olajuwon. But with Doncic on an All-NBA caliber tear, it’s been easy to bemoan Phoenix passing him up for the guy who’s currently riding the sidelines thanks to a shortsighted mistake that cost his team.

It’s natural to want to focus on Ayton, ignore Doncic highlights, point out the Kings passed on Luka too, etc. Being positive is one thing; denying that passing on Doncic was a mistake (or completely blocking his existence out) is another entirely, and it’s borderline irresponsible to do so with Ayton sidelined, his team suddenly struggling and his draft counterpart thriving elsewhere.

The suspension stings more with each passing day, even without paying attention to what Doncic is doing in Dallas, because as much as Baynes is turning in a career year, his positional defense still leaves the Suns at a disadvantage in sheer size and athleticism on most nights. Now, with the big Aussie sidelined by a hip contusion, Monty Williams’ only options at the 5 are Frank Kaminsky or going ultra-small.

“I told our guys, ‘Look, we had a nice run. We got hit in the mouth with injuries. Let’s see what we’re made of,’” Williams said after the Pelicans loss. “The buzz will die down a bit and now we can just focus on getting better. This is the NBA. Our guys are more than able to do what they need to do to get better.”

It’s an optimistic outlook, but the numbers support common sense: Not having Ayton is killing Phoenix down low and on the glass. The Suns rank 21st in opponent points in the paint (49.9 per game), and in the last six games, there’s been a noticeable shift as opponents are wising up to Phoenix’s defensive shortcomings. Over that stretch, the Suns are giving up a whopping 57 points in the paint per game, dead last in the NBA.

Phoenix also ranks 25th in rebounding percentage, 28th in offensive rebounding percentage and 28th in rebounds per game on the season. A glance at the numbers opposing frontcourts have put up against the Suns lately paints a clear picture of how easy it is for tall or athletic bigs to impose their will:

Some of those scoring numbers may not seem that large, but the shooting percentages are off the charts. In the Los Angeles Lakers game, for example, Phoenix surrendered 70 points in the paint. It’s a challenge the Suns are trying to embrace.

“It’s gonna make us a better team,” Williams said. “I firmly believe that. When we get him back, it’s gonna be like signing a big free agent.”

That’s all well and good, but the Suns still find themselves mired in a three-game skid, and with minor injuries to Baynes and Ricky Rubio picking the rotation apart bit by bit, having Devin Booker‘s fellow foundational piece sure would be nice right about now.

Next: Meet the 2019 NBA 25-under-25

No. 1 overall picks normally face an inordinate amount of pressure to succeed, but between Doncic’s red-hot start, the Suns’ early success quickly turning to struggle, and the embarrassing nature of the suspension to begin with, the pressure facing Deandre Ayton has never been higher than it will be when he returns to action in December.

“We have a style of play, he’s in practice every day, he’s in shootaround,” Williams said. “When I got here earlier for the game tonight, he was finishing his second workout. So he’s chomping at the bit, he wants to get back out there and he’s gonna make us a better team.”