“I’m tired of hearing that,” Ayton tells me. “I went through that in college, and I’m going through it in the NBA. I don’t know what you guys want from me. I’m 7’1″ and I’m guarding point guards. I don’t understand how much I have to show. I’m guarding the perimeter, running after guards across screens, pin downs, running through dribble-hand-offs and pick-and-roll ball screens – as a seven-foot player! In the NBA I have to protect the rim. I love defense. I’m not struggling on defense. I love to make my opponent look bad.”
He pauses for emphasis: “I love defense.”
Clearly, this perception of him as a subpar defender is something that gets under Ayton’s skin. It’s not exactly a new phenomenon with him. “Shows average awareness defensively,” read DraftExpress.com’s 2016 scouting report on Ayton, when he was a high school junior. “Doesn’t really know how to play strong defense yet without fouling.” His profile on NBADraft.net hammered him for defense in the lead-up to the 2018 draft, where Ayton would become the No. 1 overall pick: “For a player with such elite physical gifts, his shot blocking ability is curiously average…needs to do better as a help defender…seemed to look to preserve energy (and fouls) on the defensive end.”
Sometimes reputations can be hard to shake, whether they’re true or not. There’s certainly some truth to this reputation – although part of the reason there is that reputation in the first place is because Ayton is often judged by people who look at his Adonis-like physical gifts and wonder why he hasn’t already become David Robinson or Dikembe Mutombo on defense. Ayton averaged 1.9 blocks per game in his one-and-done season at Arizona, and he’s averaging only .9 blocks per game in his rookie season for the Suns. Among centers who are averaging more than 15 minutes per game, Ayton ranks 57th out of 86 in block percentage, roughly the same as Nikola Vucevic and DeMarcus Cousins.
But defense is about more than blocking shots, and Ayton insists that playing good team defense is something he’s good at and constantly improving on.
“They don’t have nothing bad to say about my game, so they pick and choose,” Ayton said, talking about those who criticize him on defense. “People can’t find what my weakness is, so I think they just pick that. I am the (defensive) anchor on the team. I know everybody’s spots, where everyone’s going to be going. I talk all the time.”
And Ayton has a point. Even though the lion’s share of the rookie attention has gone to No. 3 overall pick Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks, Ayton’s rookie season has been nothing short of a success, even as his young team continues to struggle, currently on a 14-game losing streak and giving up more points than all but two teams in the NBA. Ayton is averaging 16.5 points per game and 10.5 rebounds per game. He ranks first among rookie in rebound percentage and third in true shooting percentage. Advanced metrics score him favorably as well: His player impact estimate is just behind Doncic’s for tops among rookies, per NBA.com, and only Doncic and Mitchell Robinson of the New York Knicks top Ayton in BasketballReference.com’s value over replacement player metric.
Ayton is enjoying life as an NBA player. He spends most of his free time with his three best friends from the Bahamas, who came to Phoenix with him. They play Fortnite together in the game room in Ayton’s house. Ayton prides himself on being a great freestyle rapper, so when the friends play Fortnite, they blast some instrumental beats on the stereo and rap about life and how they all got here together. He’s focused on perfecting his body – the Suns’ training staff turned him on to the high-protein Rockin’ Protein milk drink, and he’s so addicted to it now, drinking three or four before and after workouts, that he recently signed an endorsement deal with the company – and expanding his game. At first, he stayed focused on the interior, but he’s already moving his game further out.
“I wanted everyone to see this low-post scorer, but I had to show my jumper, my 17- to 20-footer, because they weren’t respecting it,” Ayton said. He’s been shooting more and more threes in practices, and he expects to start shooting them in games at some point. (So far, he’s attempted only four and made none.) He’s studying the greats, modeling his footwork after Hakeem Olajuwon and modeling his alpha-dog mentality after Kevin Garnett.
Sure, the losing wears on him. It would wear on anybody. But Ayton feels that he’s in the midst of building something impressive in Phoenix, both as an individual and as a team.
“Let me tell you a little secret – this team I’m on is actually a pretty good team,” Ayton said. “We just need a little bit more resources to help us when guys are tired. The coaching staff is working hard on making sure we compete every day. It’s a fun environment. We might be losing, but just being a part of this – I want to be a trendsetter. I’m happy and ready to go every game. The Denver Nuggets, they went through the pain and the struggle – they weren’t always the team they are today. That’s how I see these other teams coming along. Just growing with each other and playing for each other.”