Suns introduce Ayton, new era
In selecting Deandre Ayton with the first overall pick in the NBA draft, the Suns finally put the ghost of Kareem to rest
You can call it a homecoming. The Phoenix Suns introduced Deandre Ayton in front of local and national media for the first time during a press conference Friday, June 22.
For Ayton, it marked a return to the city he played his high school basketball in, and the state he made national headlines in as an Arizona Wildcat.
“It was mind-blowing; it was a dream come true. Seeing the reactions on my parent’s faces was unreal,” Ayton said of the moment he was selected.
For the Suns, losers of the most famous coin flip in NBA history, the organization finally landed its Big Man. In Ayton, the Suns received an instant upgrade to a front court that last season saw soon-to-be 36-year-old Tyson Chandler as its steadiest producer.
First-year Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov said he would help to empower and establish Ayton, with the season acting as both player and coach’s rookie year.
“The competitiveness and leadership that he brings is huge,” Kokoskov said. “We’re going to encourage him to be the voice of this team.”
For a franchise whose early years were marred by losing out on UCLA’s Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul Jabbar) in a coin flip to the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969, the selection felt like a long time coming.
“I think it was apparent early in the workout,” Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough said of Ayton’s pre-draft workout. “We put him through the ringer to push him. He responded extremely well … he blew us away.”
The Suns have recently fallen on hard times. After languishing in a tough Western Conference for the better part of a decade, the team finally hit rock bottom last season, finishing with a record of 21-61, worst in the NBA.
Still, there have been signs of hope. Drafted in 2015, Devin Booker has electrified at times in his three seasons, erupting for a career high of 70 points in a single game during the 2016-2017 season. A young core that includes wingman Josh Jackson and rising scoring threat TJ Warren could make the young Suns dangerous.
It’s that young core of players Ayton will be expected to lead, according to McDonough. Even though the Suns ended the season as the youngest team by average roster age in the NBA, Ayton didn’t seem fazed when asked what it would mean to lead such a young team.
“We got young legs. We can run all day,” Ayton said, referring specifically to Booker and Jackson. “You just have to have great chemistry on and off the court and be the best teammates we can. We can make history. We can really start a winning legacy.”
Ayton had previously mentioned Booker in an interview before the draft, saying the two could be “Shaq and Kobe 2.0,” a reference to the legendary Lakers’ duo of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, who three-peated their way to dominating the NBA in the early 2000s.
Questions went primarily to the number one pick, however, the Suns’ 13th pick — Mikal Bridges, who was traded for 10th pick Zhaire Smith — was also introduced, as well as second-round pickups George King from Colorado and French guard Elie Okobo.
Ayton and Bridges seemed to have an instant chemistry, both mentioning how they had come to be friends during the draft process.
“Going to events, being in the hotel, going on the bus, being around each other all the time cracking jokes, we built that chemistry,” Ayton said. “He’s a cool guy.”
In the funniest moment of the press conference, King, the one player with experience against Ayton, offered up the advice he was given to stop the former UA center while at Colorado.
“Try your best,” King responded dryly.
The expectations that accompany the first pick were evident for Ayton. His new coach saw it, too.
“He’s got a lot of potential with his size, length, ability as a rim protector, ability to protect the paint, so we’re going to go step-by-step with him,” Kokoskov said.
Ayton said he welcomes the coming scrutiny.
“This is the part of my life I have to get used to, and I’m ready,” he said.
Follow Eddie Celaya on Twitter