Winning Olympic pre-qualifying tournament for Bahamas rejuvenates Phoenix Suns big Deandre Ayton

Deandre Ayton fully extended the Bahamas national flag Sunday night behind his head with that 7-foot, 6-inch wingspan accompanied by a smile that stretched even wider.

The Phoenix Suns big played a major role in his country completing its best run ever in men’s international basketball competition with a comeback victory over host Argentina, 82-75, in the Olympic pre-qualifying tournament title game.

Averaging 15.5 points and 13.7 rebounds in Bahamas’ impressive 4-0 run, Ayton posted 10 points and 21 rebounds in Sunday’s championship game.

After making history, Ayton couldn’t contain his excitement

He danced around the court with his national flag. He hugged his Bahamian brothers.

He sat on the court in front of the “Boarding Pass” sign as the Bahamas advanced to next year’s Olympic qualifying tournaments. The winners of those will earn a spot in the 2024 Paris Olympics.

He needed this.

“I don’t even know how to feel the most incredible feeling,” Ayton said after the game in the interview with “A kid growing up. A dream to be honest. You don’t even know if it’s a dream unless you’re in it.”

Ayton has been criticized for his play with the Suns and what some consider a lack of, or inconsistent, competitiveness. Earlier this summer, he said it reached the point where he felt “the whole world” hated him.

“I’m the guy a lot of people point at and I see it and feel it, but mainly what I’ve been working on five to six days a week since we’ve lost is just motivating myself to change the narrative of what people think about me,” Ayton said in a 37-second video clip Eyewitness News Bahamas tweeted last month.

Ayton was referring to the eventual NBA champion Denver Nuggets eliminating the Suns from the playoffs in six games. Ayton sat out Game 6 at home with a rib injury he suffered in Game 5 in Denver. The Suns lost by 25 points.

“No matter how you put it, I feel like I have no fans out there and I can feel it because the whole world is saying it,” Ayton continued. “My goal is, over the summer, is to change the narrative. Just unlock whatever it is and just completely just focus on me and change the whole thing.”

In a month’s time, he’s gone from that emotional low to complete jubilation in helping his native country take a huge step towards playing in the Olympics for the first time ever in men’s basketball.

“The big man is special," Indiana Pacers guard Buddy Hield said in an interview with 10thyearseniors. "Shoutout to DA coming out and sacrificing for the better good of the country and he knows what's at stake.”

Home is more than just where the heart is.

Deandre Ayton gives five to Kentwan Smith during Bahamas win Sunday over Argentina.
Deandre Ayton gives five to Kentwan Smith during Bahamas win Sunday over Argentina.

It’s also where a person can heal and regroup. A place one can rediscover himself, be in familiar surroundings and around friends, family and those who knew him from Day 1.

Ayton has experienced all those things being back in the Bahamas and representing his country in the Olympic pre-qualifying tournament.

"The best teammates I've ever been around on and off the court," Ayton said after the game. "Just understanding how it feels to fight for your country and everybody on the same mission. It was a phenomenal feeling."

That comment has already created a stir on social media over whether he’s taking a jab at the Suns or just an emotional reaction to making history for his country.

Ayton was part of trade talks this summer, but he’ll enter training camp as someone new Suns teammate Eric Gordon believes will be an important cog to the Suns success.

“It’s big, it’s big. Without him we don’t have a chance,” said Gordon about Ayton in an interview with 10thyearseniors after scoring 27 points for Bahamas in the tournament title game. “Everybody just has to have the right attitude, right demeanor this upcoming season and sky’s the limit for us.”

The Suns have three All-Stars in Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal, but Ayton remains the team’s most polarizing player.

He received a heap of praise on social media for how he played in the Olympic pre-qualifying tournament and for the intense vocal leadership he displayed during timeouts.

In turn, he received a ton of criticism for only scoring eight points in the semifinal win over Uruguay as fans brought up his subpar play against the Nuggets.

There were rational critiques on Twitter as well over the course of the four games, but even when Ayton made a great play, the reaction was mixed.

Against Cuba, Ayton drove past a defender from the 3-point line, took two dribbles and dunked on the other side of the rim one-handed. He’s never made a play like this in an NBA game.

While some on social media loved it, others commented on how he mishandled the ball on the catch and said it was against Cuba, calling the opposition "car wash attendants" and "plumbers."

Yes, the competition in that tournament, especially at his position, wasn’t at an NBA level. Didn’t go up against anyone who came remotely close to Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jokic or anyone other quality NBA big, but Ayton has already shown he can play in the league and have dominant stretches.

The biggest knocks on him are inconsistency, lacking a full-time motor and not playing to his potential.

Ayton wasn’t full tilt every second of the tournament, but he proved to be a difference maker on a winning team.

Not so sure Bahamas make history without him.

Beyond that, Ayton rediscovered that joy for the game in representing his country and felt much love.

He needed that.

Deandre Ayton to the rim in leading Bahamas past Argentina in Olympic pre-qualifying tournament Wednesday.
Deandre Ayton to the rim in leading Bahamas past Argentina in Olympic pre-qualifying tournament Wednesday.

Whether this all carries over into the start of the season for the Suns is truly anyone’s guess. He’ll shoulder a huge chunk of that, but so will his teammates and new head coach Frank Vogel.

Look, the dude is going to hear and see criticism no matter what. That’s just part of being a professional athlete, especially one who is the top overall pick in a draft and is very talented.

He’ll never be able to do enough for some, but Ayton showed in the tournament qualities that can contribute to a championship team that needs him to play well to prevail.

Whether he wins an NBA championship in Phoenix remains to be seen. Whether he’s even in Phoenix for the entire season is in question.

This is what is known.

Ayton rediscovered joy and happiness back home representing his country and playing a major role in winning a tournament – and making history.

He has every reason to smile, be proud and feel good about himself right now.

The whole world doesn't hate him. This experience should help him realize that.

Have opinion about current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, at @DuaneRankin.

Support local journalism. Start your online subscription.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Winning Olympic pre-qualifying for Bahamas rejuvenates Suns big Deandre Ayton