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LAS VEGAS — His first summer league game didn’t come close to matching the excitement that preceded it, and all Deandre Ayton could think about was how the relatively quiet debut would affect his NBA2K rating.
“Ronnie!” Ayton shouted last Saturday in reference to Ronnie Singh, a gaming employee and social-media presence for 2K Sports who goes by the name “Ronnie 2K.” “Please don’t rate me off that game! Rate me off college!”
Walking through the bowels of the Thomas & Mack Center to partake in a trading-card signing with Panini America and a graphic-imaging photo shoot for another gaming system, EA Sports, Ayton blurted out his frustration over a performance that would’ve been completely forgettable if he hadn’t announced his arrival as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft with an emphatic alley-oop dunk. Ayton spent most of the game flustered and confused as he dealt with double-teams and aggressive ball-denials, and his teammates on the Phoenix Suns summer-league squad appeared incapable of working the ball inside to him.
“Let me tell you something, man. College is totally different. In college, you can’t touch nobody. I mean, it’s dudes trying to bury his chest in my soul [in the NBA],” Ayton joked after scoring just 10 points in a Suns win over the Dallas Mavericks. “I thought it was going to be different in the league. That’s crazy.”
Ayton is the most physically imposing specimen to enter the league since Joel Embiid. With a chiseled frame, broad shoulders and a nasty mean streak, Ayton can play bully ball with the best of them. But he also possesses a soft touch on his jump shot, nimble footwork and the uncommon versatility of the previous two big men to go first overall in Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. Throw in some comedic timing, an infectious charm and a fearless embrace of outsized expectations, and it’s easy to understand why the Suns are enthused about Ayton’s star potential. The native of the Bahamas has big plans for the NBA that match his towering size.
“I’m trying to be Rookie of the Year and the first rookie [since Blake Griffin] to be an All-Star,” Ayton told Yahoo Sports. “Just putting that pressure on me so I can go hard everyday. I won’t necessarily say it’s pressure. I’ll just say it’s one of my goals or one of the achievements I hope to accomplish. It’s no pressure at all, it’s just, you’ve got to be in the gym, you’ve got to work, because if you don’t, it’s going to be exposed.”
‘Butterflies is real, y’all’
Ayton showed up to the EA Sports booth first and noticed a stack of video games on the table. When he was told that the games were a gift for participating, Ayton studied the table, grabbed three and handed them to a Suns staffer to place in his oversized Gucci backpack. “Good thing I got a haircut,” Ayton said as he waited to be digitally immortalized for the NBA Live video game.
The multi-camera machine that was meant to capture Ayton’s face, however, was experiencing some technical difficulties that would postpone the shoot for another day. So, Ayton made his way over to the Panini signing in an adjacent cubicle beneath the arena stands. Ayton has to slide a dozen Arizona jerseys that will later be cut up and used in a “game worn” card set. As he slides the jerseys on and off in rapid-fire fashion, Ayton tells the Panini staffers, “I’m not going to lie to you, this is a little bit of a shoulder workout. I’m like Karate Kid — wax on, wax off.”
Unable to let a silent moment drag on for long, Ayton starts explaining to anyone willing to listen why his first summer league game was absent the force with which he usually plays. “Butterflies is real, y’all,” Ayton said, adding that he hadn’t felt that nervous for a game since the last time he was in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament at T-Mobile Arena, with its 20,000-seat capacity. On that night, Ayton missed 10 of 14 shots and scored just 10 points in Arizona’s win. “I played like garbage. I still had a double-double in my sleep. But I was sleeping that game. I don’t know why. I just was, like, frightened. The environment is crazy. That thing was packed. I’m looking around, staring at the crowd in the middle of the game. I was starstruck a little bit.”
The crowd wasn’t necessarily a factor last Saturday. But Ayton’s desire to have an impact from the jump, in a nationally televised game, had him so out of whack that he forgot two plays and asked out of the game after three minutes to “get my mind right.” Ayton vowed that his next game would be different and it was, as he relaxed into a more familiar, dominant effort in a win over Sacramento and former high school teammate Marvin Bagley III. He backed that up with another encouraging effort against Orlando and longtime rival Mo Bamba.
“I didn’t want to go out there and prove to everyone, or try to prove people wrong, or what I can do, I just wanted to play my best, and, if I’m gassing at the end of the game, then that means I did a good job,” Ayton told Yahoo Sports. “You’ve just got to play up to the hype and play to the top level at all times because people are ready for you to fall down.”
Ayton’s mental strength has already been put through the test, having endured a freshman year in which his name was tossed into the coverage of an FBI investigation that rocked college basketball. ESPN alleged on Feb. 23 that Arizona coach Sean Miller was caught on a wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to ensure that Ayton committed to the Wildcats. Miller and Ayton have both denied the report, which hasn’t held up through multiple corrections. But Ayton still had to play a game against Oregon the day after the news broke. Through a night of heckling, boos and a group of students in the crowd dressed as FBI agents, Ayton finished with 28 points and 18 rebounds in an overtime loss in which he played 44 of 45 minutes.
“I kept my composure and tried to destroy anyone in front of me,” Ayton told Yahoo Sports about that game. “I ain’t losing my mind. If it ain’t true, it ain’t true. Why waste your time with something that ain’t true? If you’re wasting your time, you did something. I just played my game. Obviously, all the extracurricular and all the fans got me really angry, but that will never happen to me again in my career, when the fans or the world gets the best of me.”
‘We got to win’
Ayton eventually grabbed a seat to sign nearly 400 trading cards that had an image of him preparing to make a move in the low post. After examining the picture on the card to make sure he looked right, Ayton offered a better suggestion. “Y’all need to have me dunking on the dude from Oregon [Paul White]. I don’t see that. Man, if I see that, I might take my time to sign that.”
As he whisked his initials and some squiggly lines on the cards, Ayton discussed how he developed his signature by learning to forge another. “I know this is on the record,” Ayton pauses, wondering if he should share the story before deciding he didn’t care. “I was in second grade, I was probably 8, right? And what you had to do was, in order for you to turn in your homework, you had to let your parents sign it, but I never did my homework. What I would do, I would always see my mom’s signature, I would try to copy it. I practiced hers over and over and over until I got it down. And when I was in class in primary school, I made my own [signature]: D.A.”
The Suns haven’t been relevant since two-time MVP Steve Nash became too old to carry them, but Ayton isn’t intimidated by the challenge. The No. 13 — which he wore while terrorizing rims at Arizona — is already retired for Nash in the Suns’ Ring of Honor, so Ayton said he chose No. 22 because “it’s the only number that looked good with Ayton.” Ayton has already had several conversations with shooting guard Devin Booker, who recently signed a five-year, $158 million extension to stay in Phoenix, and doesn’t expect the organization to remain down for long.
“We got to win. That’s the biggest goal for us right now,” Ayton told Yahoo Sports. “We have the talent, we’re young, we can run. Our vets can help us. I can’t wait to see Tyson Chandler to really tell me the ropes on how to defend the post and how to talk to refs certain ways, even if you’re mad or fatigued. I just want him to teach me that.”
Ayton isn’t looking forward to any particular matchups in the NBA, only to earn the reputation for being an enforcer on both ends of the floor. The modern pace-and-space NBA has de-emphasized the need for a back-to-the-basket, low-post presence. During a summer league featuring some of the best big-man talent to come along at the same time in over a decade, one of the more notable failures has been the dearth of players capable of making an entry pass near the basket. Ayton understands he’ll have to work for his touches. “To be honest, that’s up to my teammates,” Ayton told Yahoo Sports. “I need to work on calling for the ball, but my guys, they have to know my [skillset] as well. I’m a guy who can face up, I can shoot the middy, I can pick and pop. I just have to really communicate to them, when I want the ball and where I want the ball.”
To his dismay, Ayton has generated skepticism about his ability to serve as an anchor on defense. During last month’s draft, Embiid grew angry as television analysts discussed the similarities of the two and wrote from his Twitter account, “Don’t compare Ayton to me either…I play DEFENSE.” Ayton explained that he was often forced to guard players on the perimeter because Arizona had another center in Dusan Ristic. The role proved his mobility and ability to switch onto guards, even if it distorted his shot-blocking numbers. “I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about,” Ayton told Yahoo Sports about criticism of his defense. “My mom would always tell me, when you’re that good, they have to find something to talk to about.”
With the autograph signing reaching its conclusion, Ayton mentioned that he already plays as himself on NBA2K, having created a player on the game who is “a monster.” Ayton expects that it’ll take some time before the version of Ayton that appears on the video game will match what he sees in himself, but he’s not ready to grab a controller and try to manage some scrub. “It better be over an 80. Ronnie, I hope you hear this. It’d better not be no 78, 79. You better let me shoot. I’d better be a rebounding, scoring machine. Thank you very much. I’m not playing. All my badges should be silver,” Ayton said. “Ronnie, you’d better not put my defense down. My lateral quickness better be over a 70. My stamina, a 99. Because this is serious. Don’t let me see myself in that game [with a low rating].”
Ayton then popped up from his seat and strolled out of the arena, into the triple-digit heat of the night.
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