Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns reacts after a slam dunk against the Golden State Warriors during the second half of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 08, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Warriors defeated the Suns 117-107. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Suns are in danger of swallowing another inedible lesson:
Losing the NBA draft lottery is a lot better than whiffing on the No. 1 overall pick.
Sorry, but Luka Doncic has been that good, averaging nearly a 30-point triple-double for the Mavericks, a budding superstar primed to become the youngest MVP in league history.
Meanwhile, Deandre Ayton has been that disappointing by comparison, partly because of his untapped potential, mostly because of a 25-game suspension that will sideline him until Dec. 17.
Ayton was supposed to be the reward for five decades of misfortune. The prize for winning a draft lottery process that bedeviled the organization for years. A symbol that our basketball luck had finally changed for the better. And now his selection is threatening to haunt the organization for the next 50 years, a bookend to losing the coin flip for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
That’s how much Doncic has separated himself from Ayton.
The narrative can change. But only if Ayton cares enough to do more, including the dirty work. To push himself like he’s never done before. To get in the weight room like Anthony Davis did, and quit looking for shortcuts.
Good news is, Ayton is extremely young and affable, goofy in a good way, with plenty of maturation left on the road to NBA manhood. He’s so physically gifted and freakishly athletic that he’s never had to fight for minutes or his starting job on a basketball team. All of that has been gifted to him, and would properly explain his relative softness.
Now he must earn the rest.
Motivation shouldn’t be a problem. Ayton should be deeply embarrassed by his actions, for getting suspended just one game into a new regime and a new season, ingesting a masking agent that comes with a lot of questions and many convenient excuses.
He should be itching to rejoin a team where a self-made player like Aron Baynes has become a fan-favorite and stat-sheet stuffer. A team with a legitimate point guard running the show, at
least when Ricky Rubio is healthy. Rolling out of bed and racking up 18 points and 10 rebounds is no longer good enough. Baynes is proof of that.
Finally, Ayton better be motivated by the ascension of Doncic.
Argue all you want about Ayton’s productivity and the unfair expectations that come with being the No. 1 overall pick. If Ayton isn’t feeling challenged, fueled to greater heights by Doncic badly outpacing him and looking like Michael Jordan compared to Sam Bowie, then the game is already over and the game is already lost.
Too many have told me that Ayton is the perfect kind of heartbreak. So good but so much left on the table. A kid who became a No. 1 overall draft pick without having to break a serious sweat. The kind of player who always thinks he’s working harder than he actually is. Because he’s never known differently.
Doncic’s flame-throwing start is a test of Ayton’s thermostat, and how hot he burns. Because no great NBA player accepts defeat that easily. And no great NBA player is that unaware.
Let’s hope Monty Williams is the head coach to help change this narrative. That Rubio is the point guard to enhance Ayton’s career trajectory. And that Ayton is the kind of player ready to make a real difference when he comes back.
Someone hell-bent on redemption.
Reach Bickley at email@example.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.