Since, Ayton, Booker and the Suns have had one of their most successful stretches in franchise history. Phoenix advanced to the 2021 NBA Finals and had a franchise-best 64 wins in the 2021-22 season. This past year, the Suns traded for superstar forward Kevin Durant and took the Denver Nuggets to six games even though they had limited time together.
Ayton has been the Suns' starting center during those seasons. However, he is one of the team's most polarizing players.
Ayton, who is entering his sixth NBA season, has been rumored to be a trade piece in each of the last two offseasons. He signed a four-year, $133 million offer sheet in restricted free agency the Suns matched in 2022. After Phoenix was eliminated in the playoffs, Ayton was rumored to be on the trade block again.
Suns fans have had frustration with Ayton, who is clearly a very talented player. Some want to see him be more aggressive and assertive with the basketball.
He has a chance to develop as a top big man under coach Frank Vogel. Here is Ayton's player capsule from ClutchPoints.
Year in Review
Ayton was honest about his 2022 offseason. He was brief in his answers at the Suns' opening media day last season. He opened up and was humorous as usual in later press conferences, but he was clearly frustrated about his treatment from Phoenix.
Ayton later said he and former Suns coach Monty Williams did not talk the offseason following the team's brutal 33-point elimination loss in Game 7 of the 2022 Western Conference semifinals versus the Dallas Mavericks. Fans already had gripes with Ayton and the news of he and Williams' poor relationship did not help.
Ayton is still a consistent double-double threat and averaged 18.0 points and 10.0 rebounds during the 2022-23 regular season. His offensive role diminished once the Suns added Durant, so it was important for him to serve as an anchor defensively and an active rebounder.
Instead, Ayton flamed out in the Western Conference semifinals versus the Denver Nuggets. He struggled to guard Nikola Jokic, who he limited somewhat when the Suns and Nuggets met in the 2021 conference semifinals. There was also a clip of Ayton watching Jokic and the Nuggets compete for an offensive rebound while he stood under the basket.
Many expected Ayton to be traded this offseason. It is unclear how close the Suns were to dealing him, but Vogel has praised Ayton for his ability in his two press conferences since he was hired.
“He's one of the best two-way centers in the game,” Vogel said. “I think obviously, he's going to be a defensive anchor for us. I've long-utilized his skill set in my defensive scheme to build a dominant defense. And I think he can do that, and I think there's a lot we can untap offensively with him as well. So he's a pivotal part of what we're going to accomplish this year.”
Vogel said he is looking forward to restoring Ayton to an All-Star level player. This is a chance for him to buy in to a coach who believes in him and can get him more offensive touches.
Ayton is a very athletic and coordinated center. He has great footwork and feel in pick-and-roll scenarios.
He thrived in the Suns' offense the last three seasons with Chris Paul. Ayton is a good screener and navigates the paint well in his pursuit of lob dunks and passes around the rim. He said Paul was a huge influence on his career and he clearly developed into a very good player for the Suns in their run to the 2021 NBA Finals.
Ayton's go-to move is a post hook and he can finish it with his right hand. According to NBA Stats, he shot 100-of-174 (57.5 percent) with hook shots this past season.
Ayton also exceeds as a short-roller. He can shoot mid-range shots in the pocket off screens and stretch opposing bigs out. He has dabbled with 3-point shots in the past, but most of Ayton's work comes from inside the free-throw line.
Given his coordination, Ayton always had terrific defensive potential. With the Suns, he has bought in to being the team's anchor. He covered Jokic, Los Angeles Lakers center Anthony Davis and Milwaukee Bucks center Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Suns' run to the Finals.
Unfortunately for him, he did not have the same level of success versus Jokic in this playoff run. Jokic averaged 35 points, 13.8 rebounds and 10.0 assists in games Ayton played in the Western Conference semifinals. Nobody could stop Jokic, who won NBA Finals MVP, but it was clear Ayton did not play with a level of intensity his team needed to beat Denver.
Ayton plays well off Booker and has a chance to develop chemistry with him, Durant and Bradley Beal this season.
This is a huge season for Ayton. It was clear the last two seasons he and Williams had a bad relationship. Vogel has spoken highly of Ayton since he was hired, and he said he intends to give him more offensive touches.
Vogel's teams have had the top defensive rating in the NBA three times since the 2012 season. Vogel has said the anchor of his defense is where the scheme is built around, and Ayton will fill that role this season.
Vogel has led former Pacers center Roy Hibbert and Davis to all-defensive team selections. In 2019-20, Davis was runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year. There is no excuse for Ayton to have a poor showing in Vogel's scheme given his coach's previous success.
The Suns need Ayton to rebound and defend well. He will have a very important role on a team that is seeking a championship this year. Vogel will need to back what he said and give Ayton offensive looks and engage him. This is a perfect situation for Ayton to thrive and prove fans wrong about his game.
Ayton is the most criticized player on the Suns' roster. In an interview this past month, he said he feels like the world hates him and he is looking forward to changing the narrative around him.
SPORTS: “I can feel the whole world hating me,” Deandre Ayton.
Phoenix Suns Center Deandre Ayton opens up about last season and says he aims to “change the narrative” when he returns to the court in October. pic.twitter.com/2vMbE1tc5E
— Eyewitness News Bahamas (@ewnewsbahamas) July 19, 2023
He has a great opportunity to thrive with Vogel. Ayton's relationship with Williams turned sour, and there is reason to speculate Williams was at some level of fault. He did not contact Ayton when he signed his contract extension and clearly did not prioritize him on offense when he had advantages.
Vogel seems to understand Ayton's potential and wants to maximize it. To win a championship, the Suns need Ayton to rebound and defend. But if he buys in to his coach's mentorship, Ayton has a chance to become a dominant center in the NBA. This is something that would make fans happy and shift the narrative around him.