Three years in, and you could already safely assume that the ‘18 class will be one of the best from their decade.
Between Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, and Mikal Bridges producing at a high level in these playoffs… with Luka Dončić arguably being a top 5-to-10 NBA player already… add in Michael Porter Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Collin Sexton, and Jaren Jackson Jr., who could be future stars… plus Miles Bridges and Devonte’ Graham, Wendell Carter III, Shake Milton, Jalen Brunson, and Marvin Bagley Jr., among others, being productive prospects to this point, even as some (Bagley especially) draw mixed reactions.
But at the literal center of attention heading into the 2018 Draft was Deandre Ayton — a Bahamian-born big man who averaged 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds for a Pac-12 Champion Arizona Wildcats team — who went No. 1 overall.
At the time, some people didn’t know what to make of Dončić, who fell to No. 3, and Young, who went fifth overall. The Dallas Mavericks got to the playoffs in Dončić’s second year, and both he and Young became All-Star starters that same season. Ayton, meanwhile, had a 25-game suspension earlier that year for a banned substance. Despite posting 17 points and 10.7 rebounds per game through his first two years, while shooting 57 percent from the field and 75 percent on free throws, people already wondered if he was a bust, largely due to the comparisons. He hadn’t yet arrived.
But now? Now!? He’s here.
Ayton might not ever be as good as Dončić or Young in a wing-driven league that’s primarily built around ball handlers. Why else do you think all the point guards are averaging more points and fewer assists than usual? That said, Ayton could still be No. 1-pick worthy because of the massive significance he’s already played with a full-fledged NBA championship contender. He might get a max or max-like extension this summer, and despite not putting up gaudy numbers like his contemporaries, or even compared to himself earlier, he’s playing more meaningful basketball.
That said, his numbers last night were pretty awesome, too.
Ayton recorded 14.4 points and 10.5 rebounds per game this season, but shot a career-high 63 percent from the field and 77 percent on free throws. In the playoffs, he’s up to 16.3 points and 10.8 rebounds per contest on 73 percent shooting from the floor. (Just 64 percent on free throws.) He’s also shown to be an active and improved defender, especially in the Denver Nuggets series against Nikola Jokić, who still got his numbers for the most part but had to work much harder to achieve them than he did against the Portland Trail Blazers in Round 1. Phoenix also swept Denver. Furthermore, Ayton’s presence forced the Los Angeles Clippers to start Ivica Zubac, an actual center, and it didn’t matter. Ayton had arguably his best playoff game yet, scoring a postseason best 24 points, pulling down 14 rebounds, and shooting 12-of-15 from the floor. Oh, and he had this game-winner.
With that 104-103 victory over the Clippers, Ayton and the Suns are now 10-2 in the playoffs and haven’t lost since May 27 to the Los Angeles Lakers. And, even though they might not wind up with the best player in his draft, they’ve found the guy best suited for their team, and the one they had been trying to build, which is all that matters. For all we know, drafting Dončić could’ve led to a Devin Booker trade. They wouldn’t have taken Young that high, but if they did, it probably would mean no Chris Paul. The Houston Rockets drafted Hakeem Olajuwon before Michael Jordan in 1984. The Philadelphia 76ers took Allen Iverson over Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, and Steve Nash in 1996, and Iverson was easily the consensus No. 1 going in. The Los Angeles Clippers took Blake Griffin No. 1 overall in 2019, an obvious choice at the time, even though James Harden (No. 3) and Steph Curry (No. 7) followed. Even though those teams didn’t wind up with the best player at their respective No. 1 slot, they ended with their most impactful players in franchise history, and of their particular era. If it works for you, that’s all that matters.
Just be glad Phoenix took Ayton instead of Bagley, just like Houston took Olajuwon instead of Sam Bowie, and like the Clippers took Griffin over Hasheem Thabeet. (Bagley is at least better than those two guys.)