Sports

Ayton a part of big lineup for the Suns

With the big man back in the lineup, the Phoenix Suns are looking to make the most out of the talent on their roster and make a run at the playoffs.

Bahamian DeAndre Ayton has played the last four games for the Suns and has led them in rebounding each time. He is averaging 12.75 points and 12.75 rebounds since returning from an ankle sprain at the end of 2019.

Ayton and the Suns currently sit in the 12th spot in the Western Conference of the National Basketball Association (NBA) with a 14-22 win-loss record, but are just a game out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the west. Remarkably, seven teams are separated by just three games for that final playoff position and the Suns are right in the midst.

Particularly of optimism for the Suns is that they were able to stay in contention for a playoff spot throughout Ayton’s 25-game suspension for a violation of the NBA’s drug policy. Now with Ayton back in the fold, and averaging a double-double, they feel the time is now to make a serious push in the west. Prior to Sunday’s 121-114 home loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, the Suns had won three of their previous four games. They host Bahamian Chavano “Buddy” Hield and the Sacramento Kings at the Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona, tonight.

Grizzlies’ big man Jonas Valanciunas was a challenge for Ayton and the Suns in their latest loss, scoring 20 first-half points and finishing with 30 in total.

The Suns have gone with a bigger line-up in their last two games, starting Ayton alongside Aron Baynes in the front court. Baynes helped fill the void in Ayton’s absence but it was expected that he would return to the bench once the Bahamian big man returned. However, Phoenix Suns Head Coach Monty Williams recently announced the switch and expects it to pay dividends for the Suns in the long run.

It worked against the New York Knicks last Friday, but Valanciunas was a challenge for the Suns on Sunday as they fell to the Grizzlies. Ayton is now starting at the four, while Baynes remains the starting center.

Against the Knicks, both Ayton and Baynes notched double-doubles. Baynes had 20 points and 12 rebounds, and Ayton contributed 15 points and 13 rebounds. This season, Ayton has five double-doubles in six games and is averaging 14.5 points and 12.3 rebounds on the season. He is the only player on the Suns averaging a double-double, and has 10-plus boards in each of his first six games becoming the first Suns player to do so since Shawn Marion in 2007-08.

Ayton welcomes the change, believing that the Suns will benefit from the big line-up.

“I think the league is changing to where dudes are big and strong and versatile as well,” said Ayton in a recent interview. “We want to be the same thing and we want to join them, so just us putting pressure on the rim, protecting the rim and cleaning up the glass.”

Teammate Kelly Oubre Jr., who remains in the starting line-up, approves of the switch as well.

“I love it – a lot of size, a lot of length, athleticism. We’ve got athletes,” he said. “We’ve got strong, physical specimens like Aron Baynes. It’s just amazing that we can switch up the line-ups and still play the right way.”

The Suns have struggled a bit defensively since the switch, but with additional practice with the new rotation, they expect their fortunes to change for the better. They are expected to improve defensively as the season progresses, particularly around the rim.

Hield and the Kings come into tonight’s game in the mix in the west as well. They are just a game behind the Suns at 13-23, making tonight’s game of vital importance. Ayton and the Suns lead the season series two games to one, and they meet for a fourth and final time tonight.

So far, Ayton’s numbers are similar to a year ago when he averaged 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds in his rookie season. He was the only rookie in the league to average a double-double on the season, and finished third in voting for the Kia NBA Rookie of the Year Award. Ayton’s defense was a huge question mark throughout his rookie season and coming into this year, but he has gotten better around the rim defensively. He is averaging 1.5 blocks in six games this season, including a career-high four in their season opener against Hield and the Kings – a game they won convincingly, 124-95, in Phoenix. Ayton is shooting 50 percent from the floor as opposed to 58.5 a season ago, and is so far playing 29.7 minutes per game compared to 30.7 a year ago. However, the season is young for him.

Hield is also putting up similar numbers from a year ago. He is averaging 20.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game as compared to 20.7, 5.0 and 2.5 a year ago. Shooting-wise, he is struggling a bit, hitting just 41.4 percent of his shots including 36.8 from distance after connecting on 45.8 percent from the field including 42.7 percent from distance a year ago.

Head-to-head, Hield leads the all-time series between himself and Ayton in the NBA, three games to two. Tonight’s match-up is expected to provide fireworks.

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Sheldon Longley

Sheldon Longley joined The Nassau Guardian in January 2001 as a sports reporter. He was promoted to sports editor in 2008. Sheldon has an extensive background in sports reporting. He covered three Olympic Games and three world championships, along with multiple smaller regional and local games.

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