- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
DURING DEANDRE AYTON’S one-on-zero pre-draft workout with the Phoenix Suns, Igor Kokoskov, then the Suns’ coach, concocted a surprise to test Ayton’s reaction time.
Standing 10 or 15 feet from Ayton, and without warning, Kokoskov dropped a ball, and on its bounce back up, kicked it — soccer-style — as hard as he could at Ayton. Ayton reached out one of his giant hands and snagged it in midair.
“I just caught the ball and was like, ‘What was that about?'” Ayton said, laughing.
Most witnesses remember Kokoskov firing a few more kicks at Ayton — with the then-teenage big man either catching or saving all of them.
“He looked like Kasper Schmeichel,” said Ryan McDonough, then the Suns’ GM, referencing the star Danish goalkeeper.
The Suns put Ayton through more drills to test physical skills and endurance: snaring rebounds from above the square on the backboard, and shuttling back-and-forth between each block — plucking a ball from the ground and dunking it each time.
The Suns’ brain trust was aware before then that Ayton had tremendous ability: a rare combination of size, powerful explosion, and the right kind of softness — magnet hands, a silky touch around the basket, and feet so nimble they seem to press into and then spring from the floor as if it were pliable grass and not hardwood.
Intel coming from the University of Arizona portrayed a positive spirit and willing worker eager to address weaknesses — including uneven pick-and-roll defense.
For the Suns, Ayton was something of a lump of clay on both ends — a prospect both exciting and fraught. Should the Suns make him a pick-and-pop center bombing 3s, or a screen-and-dive fiend? Should he facilitate from the elbows like Nikola Jokic? What if he stretched in every direction at once — becoming decent at everything but great at nothing, failing to develop a foundational identity?
Ayton has received a ton of deserved credit during this magical playoff run for subsuming any ambitions of all-around offensive stardom and embracing a less glamorous role that works for this roster. He is posting up less, shooting fewer long 2s, screening-and-diving more — with more force. It is the right fit for a team with two elite pick-and-roll ball handlers — Devin Booker and Chris Paul — and four shooters around Ayton.
But the Suns would be nowhere close to the Finals without Ayton undergoing the same transformation on defense — toggling between schemes, failing and learning, and finding a comfort zone that worked for everyone.
Phoenix has good defensive talent across the roster, and the ability to switch across three or four positions against some lineups. But if the keystone cracks, it all falls apart.
The Suns ranked sixth in points allowed per possession in the regular season. They are No. 3 in the playoffs. They are two wins from the title because of their defense as much as anything, and that is where it is because Ayton has improved more from his rookie season through his third year than almost any big man in recent memory.
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