PHOENIX >> Since the heady days of Steve Nash came to an end, there have been few signs of joy from a dwindling fan base that watched the Phoenix Suns tumble to the bottom of the NBA standings and miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.
Then came the announcement that Deandre Ayton would go to the Suns with the first overall pick. A huge cheer went up from the several thousand fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday night for the draft party. General manager Ryan McDonough, owner Robert Sarver and coach Igor Kokoskov came out of their meeting room to watch and bask in that rare moment of sheer joy from the fans.
“It was a pretty special moment for our franchise,” McDonough said.
Not only that, but McDonough engineered a last-minute trade for swingman Mikal Bridges of Villanova, the 10th pick. It was a spendy move because Philadelphia demanded and got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. But the Suns are weary of stockpiling assets. It’s time to cash in, they figured, and did it with that trade.
“We weighed the pros and cons of trading it heavily and carefully,” McDonough said. “We were only going to put it in play if we had a chance to get a special player and that’s how we feel about Mikal.”
All four of the Suns’ picks showed up on a crowded dais in Phoenix on Friday — Ayton, Bridges, French point guard Elie Okobo (chosen 31st) and forward George King of Colorado (the 59th selection).
The 7-foot-1 Ayton towered over the others, in a white unbuttoned collared shirt and a sharp blue suit, but he looked and sounded a bit weary from the whirlwind of being the No. 1 draft pick. His only sleep lately, he said, was a couple of hours on the plane ride from New York on Tuesday.
“I’m just excited to finally get a jersey on and be able to play five-on-five again,” Ayton said.
Ayton had been the frontrunner for the No. 1 pick ever since the draft lottery, and any doubts were erased when he went through an individual workout with the Suns, the only team for which he did.
McDonough said that Ayton’s workout “in and of itself was as impressive as I’ve ever seen in my 16 drafts in the NBA.”
Ayton is seen as strictly a center, so how does he fit in the modern style of the NBA, when center play is diminished and players are essentially interchangeable, is a question. Ayton replied that he’s no ordinary center.
“I don’t like it when people think I’m just a guy down low,” he said. “They haven’t watched me shoot the basketball.”
Ayton and Bridges say they got to know each other well at the college awards ceremony in Los Angeles but never figured they’d be on the same team.
“It’s like I’ve known him my whole life,” Bridges said.
Now comes the hard work, molding a team with Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. A billboard of those three already has been erected downtown.
The Suns, so bad for so long, seem on the brink of being relevant.
“We’re very hungry,” Ayton said. “I think the great team chemistry and the work ethic that we have, especially us guys coming in, we’re going to bring it to the next level. We’ve got young guys. We can run all day. … We can really start a winning legacy.”
And Ayton is the reason for the sudden leap in optimism, even though he won’t turn 20 until next month.
“I embrace it a lot,” he said of the expectations placed upon him. “Through my career I’ve always had that on my shoulder, the expectations. I represent a whole nation (Bahamas). I just do that the best that I can and just help this community start over and be the best player I can possibly be. I just want to be the best great player.”
Kokoskov says Ayton possesses “a unique talent for the decades.”
Ayton said he wants “to be the best person on and off the court.”
Now the Suns move on to the next phase. Free agency starts July 1 and McDonough wants some veteran players to add to this very young core. He said the team should have $15 million to $20 million to spend.
“We were aggressive last night with the picks and the trade up to get Mikal,” McDonough said. “We’re going to continue to be aggressive for the next couple of weeks in free agency. We’ve got some money to spend and we’re looking to spend it on the best players we can get.”