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Why Losing Rookie of the Year is Good For Deandre Ayton

Luka Doncic took home this year’s Rookie of the Year award in a landslide. And, thanks to an incredible run of basketball after the all-star break averaging 24.7 points and 9.2 assists per game, Trae Young gobbled up almost all the second-place votes. This left Deandre Ayton on the outside looking in, barely a footnote, as he cruised into a third-place finish. It was also the best possible outcome for the Phoenix Suns center.

As a Suns fan, I still believe they made the right pick. Ayton showed us many times this season why he was picked over Doncic even though the Suns had just hired the Slovenian phenom’s former coach, Igor Kokoskov. Ayton has a very rare combination of size and agility, dropping a turn-around jumper from the post one play and then spinning through the lane like a small forward a couple plays later.

By all statistical measures, the rookie center had a very good season. He even compares favorably to the most recent big men to win the Rookie of the Year award by finishing with over 16 points and 10 rebounds to go with a sparkling 60.8% true-shooting percentage. He did this without the aid of a true NBA point guard on the roster and it is not a stretch to believe he would have averaged two to three more points per game with someone who could consistently get him the ball on the offensive end.

Comparable Rookie of the Year winners

Player Points Rebounds TS%
Karl-Anthony Towns (2016 RoY) 18.3 10.5 59.0%
Emeka Okafor (2005 RoY) 15.1 10.9 47.9%
Amar’e Stoudemire (2003 RoY) 13.5 8.8 53.0%
Deandre Ayton 16.3 10.3 60.8%

The scary thing is just how much Ayton left on the table. There were many moments where he seemed fatigued or lacked focus. He would disappear for stretches offensively and appear to be a step behind on far too many defensive possessions. For every great play, there was an equally frustrating mistake or mental lapse.

Ayton’s inconsistent stamina can partly be due to the stress felt by a rookie taking on a lead role in the franchise. I am confident he will be more physically prepared for his second season than he was for the first. It is the lack of focus and drive that worry me.

The difference between good and great

The best players in the NBA are where they are not only due to incredible talent but because they combine it with a superior will to succeed. Doncic and Young both showed this type of determination with impressive statistical improvements in the second half of the season. On the flip side, plenty of incredibly talented players go on to disappoint or even fail in the NBA due to a lack of desire.

Which player will Ayton be? The one who took over defensively in the fourth quarter of the Suns’ impressive win over the Milwaukee Bucks in March or the one who allowed easy layups on numerous occasions over his rookie campaign? Either he coasts to a decent, yet disappointing career as a serviceable center or he kicks it into another gear and rides his generational talent to a career full of awards and all-star games.

Winning the Rookie of the Year award would have been a detriment to that future. It would have led to a false sense of accomplishment at a pivotal point in his young career. He needs to be digging deep and grinding every day to prove he was the best player in this draft. The existence of Doncic and Young is going to make it a very difficult task. The type that will show us what Ayton is truly made of.

So, thank you Luka Doncic and Trae Young. You deserve all the praise coming your way. If Suns fans are lucky, Deandre Ayton will use it to push himself to his limits. He has already shown us glimpses of something special. If he finds a way to truly harness that ability, he won’t be overlooked again.

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