NBA playoffs: Suns’ Deandre Ayton has lived up to ‘Dominator’ nickname in postseason debut

LOS ANGELES – As the Phoenix Suns gathered for their morning shootaround, third-year center Deandre Ayton gave veteran point guard Chris Paul a message.

“You stay out there,” Ayton told Paul, as he looked out at the perimeter before pointing to the painted area. “I got all of this in here.”

Later that night, Ayton backed up his words. The Suns finished with a 84-80 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, with Ayton contributing 19 points, four blocks and a playoff career-high 22 rebounds.

The Suns enter Game 5 on Monday in Phoenix with a 3-1 series lead partly because of Ayton’s season-long improvement with his consistent play and preparation. After selecting Ayton at No. 1 in the 2018 NBA Draft, the Suns have marveled at how their 22-year-old center has taken a substantial leap in his development. So much that the Suns have nicknamed Ayton the “Dominator.”

Deandre Ayton (right) called Chris Paul’s presence “the best thing that happened in my career.” (Photo: Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images)

“To see his growth? Man, I get goose bumps, seriously,” Paul said. “I genuinely love him. The person that he is and to see everything that's coming to him, national audience getting to see who he is and why he's the No. 1 pick, I couldn't be happier for him.”

Paul revealed that the two “had some heated conversations this season.” Though Paul did not share specifics, Ayton gushed that Paul had talked with him extensively in training camp about the importance of mastering angles on setting screens, posting up and defending opponents. While Ayton called Paul’s presence “the best thing that happened in my career,” the Suns’ center sounded just as grateful that Suns coach Monty Williams “definitely made me a super gym rat.”

“It’s not like he was ever a bad worker. But we just felt like he has the kind of ability that, if he puts in the kind of work that I’ve seen guys with this type of ability to put in, he can be a dominant player,” Williams said. “He knows that it takes a lot to be really good in this league. He’s a guy that’s willing to do all the extra stuff. We just want him to be a better version of himself.”

Consider it done.

In the regular season, Ayton became one of six players in the NBA to rank in the top 20 in shooting percentage (a career-high 62.6%), rebounds (10.5) and blocks (1.2). In the playoffs, Ayton became the first player in 38 years to shoot at least 50% in his first 14 career playoff games (70.9%) and became the 10th player in 21 years to record at least nine double-doubles in their first 14 career playoff games. In Game 2 against the Clippers, Ayton scored on a lob off Jae Crowder’s inbounds pass with .7 seconds left.

Still, Ayton contended that “he got outplayed” in Game 3 after Clippers center Ivica Zubac outrebounded him (16-9). All of which prompted Ayton’s declaration to Paul at Saturday morning shootaround that he would own the paint.

“Honestly, the world having me as a question mark in the playoffs, that got to me a little bit,” Ayton said. “I just wanted to change that and prove everyone wrong.”

Ayton admitted he occasionally did not go to the Suns’ practice facility on off days. That violated a not so subtle rule that young players are still expected to study game footage and complete player development drills even if the team cancels practice.

So, Ayton listened to Williams’ suggestion to “smell the gym.” During that time, Ayton has studied games extensively with Suns assistant coach Mark Bryant, who had a 15-year NBA career. Paul and Suns guard Devin Booker also noticed that Ayton has increased his NBA game-viewing habits even outside of film sessions.

“Him having to grow up on the fly in this short amount of time is very impressive,” Booker said. “You see him putting in the time in off the floor. I don't know how much basketball he watched prior. But he comes up to me about every game now and the conversation is something we didn't have in the past. So, I know he's tuned.”

This growth might not necessarily reflect the boxscores. Ayton has averaged career-lows this season in points (14.4) and shot attempts (10), marking a noticeable decrease from his output during his rookie season (16.3 points on 12.3 shot attempts) and his second year (18.2 points on 14.9 shot attempts). Though he has prodded Ayton occasionally to become more aggressive with his finishing, Williams mostly attributed to those decreased numbers for Paul’s arrival and growth among Cameron Payne, Cam Johnson and Mikel Bridges.

Therefore, Williams praised Ayton for pumping his fist after a teammate makes a spectacular play more often than after he completes a highlight reel play.

“He's unselfish,” Williams said. “He doesn't talk about that. He makes the right plays and he cares about winning.”

In his first playoffs, Deandre Ayton became the first player in 38 years to shoot at least 50% in his first 14 career playoff games (70.9%). (Photo: Gary A. Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)

Not that this surprises the Suns.

Phoenix selected Ayton at No. 1 following his freshman at the University of Arizona where he set a program and Pac-12 freshman record for most double-doubles (24). Ayton also earned Pac-12 Player of the Year honors.

But Ayton received immediate comparisons with others in his draft class, including Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic and Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young. While Doncic and Young are the leaders of their team, Ayton is considered a secondary option. Up until this season, it also appeared unclear if the Suns could make a post-season run faster than Dallas or Atlanta. The Mavericks have experienced two consecutive first-round playoff exits with Doncic lacking much help. Just like the Hawks, the Suns have a chance to win an NBA title.

“We're all different players. I'm a seven-footer, a big man and play with two point guards. I don't know what you can compare it to,” Ayton said. “I play as hard as I can. I dominate the best way I can for this team and I try to take this team as far as I can. Other than that, I trust my work, I trust my work ethic, I trust my craft, and I work very hard at it.”

Granted, Ayton has still displayed his playful side. Before and after Game 4, Ayton wore a T-Shirt with an image of Booker’s battered nose after he and Clippers guard Patrick Beverley inadvertently butted heads in Game 2. Ayton had a friend named “Brand C” design the shirt. Booker mused that Ayton hid his shirt from him while they rode the team bus together.

Deandre Ayton with the Devin Booker shirt

“I like it. Now people know Book is tough. They know he's a scorer but he's legit,” Ayton said. “We're going to take a punch in the face, but we will throw one back.”

That includes Ayton, whose shootaround declaration to a demanding teammate captured his intent on living up to his “Dominator” nickname consistently.

“I learned I could keep going,” Williams said. “I reached the next level that I really need to be at at this level when it comes to competing.”

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