Despite a heartbreaking NBA Finals defeat, the Phoenix Suns undoubtedly had one of their best seasons in nearly three decades. Obviously, they failed to reach their ultimate goal of winning a championship. And while injuries played a major role to their path to the Finals, they still deserve credit for their surprising playoff run in 2021.

After coming so close, the Suns undoubtedly want another shot at the Larry O’Brien trophy. But playing in the Western Conference with other teams getting stronger and healthier, the road to the Finals may be tougher this 2021-22.

Phoenix managed to get much of their core back from last year, particularly veteran point guard Chris Paul who was instrumental in turning the Suns to legitimate title contenders. Clearly, Phoenix’s success hinges on CP3 and Devin Booker. However, the two All-Star guards do not hold the final key to unlock the Suns’ championship potential. That actually depends on their 2018 no. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton.

Suns, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton

As mentioned, we all know what Booker and Paul bring to the table. Book is perhaps their most important player since he is arguably their top dog. He is Phoenix’s go-to scorer, especially in the clutch. Meanwhile, Paul raises Phoenix’s floor and makes them a shoo-in playoff squad. The Point God provides them with much-needed leadership and stability, as well as elite playmaking and shot creation.

Ayton, for his part, is the guy the Suns are banking to blossom into a legitimate third star alongside Book and CP3.

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In his third NBA season, Ayton showed tremendous strides as a player and was a huge reason for their success in 2020-21. He played magnificent throughout their run to the NBA Finals and looked poised to prove his worth as the no. 1 overall pick in his class. Up until the Western Conference Finals, Ayton put up averages of 16.2 points and 11.8 rebounds while shooting an extremely efficient 70.6 percent from the field.

The 23-year-old still put up solid numbers in the NBA Finals—14.7 points, 12.0 rebounds, 53.1 percent shooting—and even had a gem of a performance in Game 1 after dropping 22 points and 19 rebounds. However, through the rest of the series, he was dominated by eventual Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, especially inside the paint.

The knock on Ayton early on in his career was his poor defense. But despite getting outplayed by the Greek Freak in the Finals, Ayton still showed vast growth on that part of his game last year.

Suns, Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Trae Young

Offensively, Ayton is still pretty limited with his range. Perhaps his perimeter shooting could be one of his top priorities of development this summer. While his bread and butter is his dominance and efficiency inside the paint, the Suns could still use him as a viable option as a floor spacer, even from midrange.

Phoenix definitely hopes Ayton can duplicate the jump he had in Year 3. If he does make the leap into a true All-Star caliber big man, especially in the Western Conference, the Suns will be in better position to avenge their bitter 2021 NBA Finals loss.