PHOENIX – Deandre Ayton described the first game winner of his life as his greatest play ever. With 0.9 seconds left in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against the LA Clippers, the Bahamian received Jae Crowder’s perfect alley-oop pass from out of bounds and slammed home the game-winning dunk, which now has the Phoenix Suns two wins away from the NBA Finals. It is arguably the greatest alley-oop in NBA history, and perhaps a defining moment in the big man’s career.
Ayton has been a force this postseason, but has been haunted by doubters early in his career.
“I still think they doubt me. I still think they don’t believe yet,” said Ayton in a phone call to after a 104-103 win on Tuesday night. “I might be turning some heads with people that know basketball, like front-office types, and people that really know the game. I know I am probably stepping into the right direction. But I don’t think the world truly, truly sees that.
“But if I can win this whole thing, that is where I can get my reputation. That is where I can be a star.”
Stardom was expected from the former University of Arizona big man when he was selected No. 1 overall in the 2018 NBA draft over the likes of Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic and Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young. Ayton has yet to be an All-Star and is widely viewed as the third-most notable player on the Suns behind All-Stars Chris Paul and Devin Booker. Meanwhile, Doncic has been an All-Star twice, and Young was an All-Star in 2020 and has led his Hawks to the Eastern Conference finals.
Ayton has averaged 16.0 points and 10.6 rebounds in his young Suns career and is well-liked by his teammates, but Doncic and Young have received the most attention among their draft class.
“People are going to have criticisms night in and night out,” Ayton said. “But you have to know what kind of player you are. Whether they view you negatively or positively, you have to work when no one is watching. You have to bring it every day with consistency.”
Ayton admittedly has had his struggles. The 6-foot-11 center had a lackluster work ethic when he arrived to Phoenix, but that has changed under head coach Monty Williams. Ayton was also suspended 25 games by the NBA on Oct. 24, 2019, for violating the terms of the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Program after testing positive for a diuretic.
Ayton views his solid play in the NBA bubble last season as the turning point. He also credits the guidance from Williams, general manager James Jones and his teammates as reasons for his new success.
“Things started turning around in the bubble,” Ayton said. “In the bubble, with the way we handled ourselves, team success comes with individual accolades. I think that is what really happened in the bubble. I saw each and every one of us really grow. We won some games and we started to put the right staff in. That is why we are here, to be honest. Whatever we are doing [now], was built in the bubble.
“Winning was contagious and we added pieces like CP, Jae [Crowder], E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and Torrey Craig. Those are guys who have been in the game and played at high levels like this. That is the best way I can think of how I turned my career into a positive one.”
Williams added that a big key to Ayton’s success was understanding that his role doesn’t limit him.
“Sometimes when you tell a guy his role, they tend to think that they can’t do anything else,” Williams said in a postgame news conference. “He just has a bigger role. Defensively, the rebounding and to be able to get the ball [for the alley-oop] where no one else can go get it says a lot about mental maturity. A lot of times you give up on plays like that with that time on the clock.
“I thought he showed a lot of stamina, too. He was running hard and rebounding. It was a physical game. I could go on and on from where he was to is now. He is turning into a really dominant player on both ends of the floor.”
Booker and Paul have also pushed Ayton to be greater. After the stunning Game 2 sans Paul, who missed his second straight game due to health and safety protocols, Booker pulled Ayton aside to offer words of encouragement before they headed to their locker room celebration.
“His growth is continuous through every game of the playoffs,” Booker said in the news conference after Game 2. “I feel like he flipped the switch. He turned it on and he doesn’t want to look back. He feels his confidence is there. He knows how big of a force he is, and he is figuring out that he is capable of being able to move and guard. But at the same time, set screens and be at the right place.
“Tonight, I saw it. He basically added his midrange [jumper], too. He can give it to you in all types of ways.”
It’s hard to envision the Suns being up 2-0 in these West finals without Ayton, especially on a night when Booker was struggling offensively. Ayton is averaging 22 points and 11.5 rebounds while shooting 75.7% from the field in two West finals games. And he relished the moment of throwing in his well-timed alley-oop dunk above the rim (which wasn’t considered goaltending due to NBA rules).
“I didn’t even know the NBA rule or that it wouldn’t be an offensive interference of the basket,” Ayton, 22, said. “I didn’t know I could touch it above the cylinder. I heard the crowd. But I was wondering if it counted. I tried to act like I had been there before. But at the same time, I really wanted to know if I made that basket. I wasn’t too sure what was going on. But then they said I made it and there was a lot of emotion and screaming. There was so much going on and I was just waiting for the officials to come out with the final confirmation with what the call was.”
While Ayton is finding his way in the NBA, he often thinks of his home in Nassau, Bahamas. After Ayton was drafted in 2018, Bahamas prime minister Hubert Minnis called him the “son of the soil.” With the Suns on a nine-game winning streak in the postseason, Ayton has dreams of bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy back home.
“Tonight felt good,” Ayton said. “It is not something I am going to try to shy away from. I know I am going to be on this stage for a long time. I just want to keep winning, and I have to embrace these moments where I was effective. …
“I’m trying to bring that ‘Larry’ back to the Bahamas. I’m trying.”