CHICAGO — Cam Johnson characterized the scene inside the Suns’ halftime locker room as angry. While privately gathered, Kelly Oubre Jr. may have hurled a not-safe-for-work term to describe how he and his teammates had played for the first 24 minutes against the Bulls.
Yet while the rest of the Suns prepared to re-take the floor, Deandre Ayton sat still at his locker stall.
He calls it meditation, though it’s more an exercise in reflection and self-awareness. He replayed the first-half moments when the ball fumbled out of his hands, or when his dunk attempt was blocked at the rim. He thought about the message from coach Monty Williams and his teammates — that it was time for him to take over the game. And with about a minute remaining on the halftime clock, Ayton jogged from the locker room to the court.
The Suns flipped their fortunes in an ugly 112-104 victory Saturday night at the United Center because Ayton flipped from liability to force, finishing with 28 points (12-of-20 shooting) and 19 rebounds. The performance was the most recent example of how Ayton can be dominant and frustrating and wow-inducing and puzzling all in the same night. And that’s why the athletic 7-footer is one of the NBA’s more intriguing players to follow over the regular season’s stretch run.
“It shouldn’t be like that to where somebody has to throw the first punch at me, but it (is) sometimes,” Ayton acknowledged. “My teammates woke me up, like always. Coach (Williams) got on me. Coach (Mark) Bryant got on me. And, yeah, I answered.”
It’s important to remember the competition while evaluating Ayton’s productive outing. The Bulls (19-38) have now lost eight games in a row and are in contention to land another top-5 draft pick. Saturday night, frontcourt players Wendell Carter, Luke Kornet, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter were all out with injuries.
Yet Ayton is averaging 19 points and 12.2 rebounds while shooting 54.3 percent from the floor over his 25 games played in a second NBA season shortened by suspension and ankle injuries. He has totaled at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in five of his past seven games. Advanced metrics and the eye test also illustrate Ayton has improved his impact on the defensive end, where he most struggled last season.
Saturday, though, began poorly for both Ayton and the Suns (23-34).
Daniel Gafford blocked an Ayton dunk attempt during the closing seconds of the first quarter, leaving Ayton surprised. Ayton then committed four of his seven total turnovers — an offensive foul, a travel and two lost balls — during the second quarter’s opening three minutes, as Chicago began to build a 17-point lead.
But Phoenix immediately went to Ayton at the start of the third quarter, helping spark a 13-0 surge to seize the lead. He secured offensive rebounds and, rather than risk a turnover by bringing the ball down for a dribble or pass, immediately elevated for the put-back or tip-in. He swatted all three of his blocks in the second half. During the fourth quarter, he totaled 12 points (5-of-7 shooting) and eight rebounds, helping the Suns close out the victory on the second night of a back-to-back set.
“That’s a monster night,” Williams said. “I told him we need him to play with that kind of disposition every night, and we as a team need to come out with that urgency.”
The Suns also got productive outings from Devin Booker (29 points, including 5-of-10 from 3-point distance) and Ricky Rubio (18 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds). Oubre totaled 14 points, five rebounds and three assists, and threw down a thunderous dunk in transition during crunch time. Johnson spaced the floor with 11 points off the bench, including a 3-of-6 mark from beyond the arc.
Oubre, though, said Ayton’s play “changed the game for us in the second half.”
At best, Ayton’s development as a young pro has been heavily tracked. At worst, it has been heavily scrutinized.
That’s life as a former No. 1 overall draft pick, particularly from a 2018 class that has already seen Luka Doncic and Trae Young become All-Stars in their second seasons.
Williams is practicing patience with Ayton, gleaning from his past experiences working with Anthony Davis and LaMarcus Aldridge early in their careers. But Williams, along with Ayton’s teammates, have delivered constant motivational reminders about the potential Ayton has flashed while playing with an emphatic mindset.
Williams stresses Ayton does not need to be an outwardly ferocious chest-thumper. The coach cites his up-close view of Tim Duncan while a San Antonio assistant as evidence that a superstar big man can possess a reserved demeanor. Ayton’s personality is typically more gregarious and zany, which was most recently exhibited by his decision to blast — and dance to — rapper YoungBoy Never Broke Again’s newly released “Still Flexin, Still Steppin” album in the locker room prior to Friday’s loss in Toronto.
Williams, though, wants Ayton’s work with the ball in his hands to be 80 percent “beast” (at the rim) and 20 percent jumper. Booker added that, when Toronto subbed in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson after Serge Ibaka picked up his fifth foul midway through Friday’s third quarter, Ayton “should (feel) disrespected” and turn physically imposing.
“He took it personal,” Booker said of Ayton. “And (he) showed them that, ‘I’m bigger than you.’ It’s as simple as that.”
With 25 games to play, the Suns still have much to figure out.
Though the roster is nearly back to full health, rotations are now a bit unpredictable. Phoenix’s only bench points Saturday came from Johnson and Aron Baynes (four). The Suns rank in the NBA’s bottom third in 3-point shooting (34.5 percent).
Yet a strong Ayton presence unlocks so much for Phoenix, both immediately and for the franchise’s deeper rebuild. He, like his team, is still on a quest for consistency. Saturday’s halftime flip was a prime example.
“Coach Bryant is always telling me to just bring it to these dudes, no matter what,” Ayton said. “He just wants me to be that relentless dude, the biggest dude out there. He just wants me to do what I look like I can do. …
“Everybody knows what I can do. I know what I can do. But it’s to a point where (teammates ask), ‘How consistent can you do it, DA?'”