Deandre Ayton has accepted a lot of pressure in life. He embraced the demands of being a No. 1 NBA draft pick, the responsibility of being the face of basketball in the Bahamas and the challenge that comes with anchoring one of the NBA’s newest title contenders. Lessons of sacrifice are far from new to Ayton.
As a 12-year-old, Ayton and his family realized his basketball dreams required the kind of decision that so few are able or willing to make. In order for Deandre to reach the highest level, he needed to leave his family and his home for the United States.
“My mother sacrificed so much, sending me off at age 12 to come to the United States for school and education and eventually playing basketball,” Ayton said in a phone call with The Athletic last week. “Sending her firstborn off was a big sacrifice. A big, big sacrifice. I was her first child, and it meant a lot. I couldn’t take it for granted. Coming to the United States, I was living a different world.
“I won’t say the pressure has gotten to me, but I know there’s a lot on my shoulders. If there wasn’t anything on my shoulders or plate, I don’t know what I would be fighting for. Knowing where I came from and where I am now, I have so much further to go because I’m around so many great players and this league is full of great players. There’s a lot to prove. The playoffs are a stage where you can set it off and start doing things that people will know you for.”
Back then, Ayton’s mother sent her son off to the States where he attended high school in San Diego and Phoenix before making the move to the University of Arizona, where he was heralded as the sport’s next great center. He had the length and size, footwork and skill, fluidity and work ethic, a smile and desire to be his best self on and off the court.
Now, Ayton, 22, is one of the NBA’s rising stars, a 7-foot, two-way big man who is a franchise centerpiece alongside Suns All-Star guards Devin Booker and Chris Paul. His team, fresh off an eye-opening regular season campaign that netted them the second-best record in the NBA, just defeated the defending champion Lakers in a message-sending Game 1 playoff victory. Ayton made 10 of his 11 shots from the field while matched up against Anthony Davis, finishing with 21 points to go with his 16 boards as he and Booker carved up the top defense in the league this year.
A season ago, Ayton crept closer to the 20-and-10 averages (18.2 points, 11.5 rebounds) most team executives and scouts have projected for him for his entire career. In his third season, Ayton has honed in on his strengths amid the most winning this Suns franchise has experienced in over a decade, thanks largely in part to a more talented roster around him with Booker and Paul, an emerging Mikal Bridges, a proven veteran in Jae Crowder and a deep bench. He’s had to adapt to no longer being the focal point of the offense as he was throughout his high school and college career as well as his early days in the NBA when he and Booker were the main threats. Ayton has transformed into an elite rim-runner, defender and finisher in pick-and-roll and post-up situations.