FLAGSTAFF – After the final practice of the Phoenix Suns’ 2018 training camp, first-year head coach Igor Kokoskov didn’t hold back his expectations – and hopes – for rookie center Deandre Ayton.
“He should be mentioned in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year,” Kokoskov said. “Maybe this year, next year, three years from now, it’s really up to him.”
A Defensive Player of the Year candidate, or any plus-defender, would be a marked improvement for the Suns, who finished 30th in the NBA in defensive rating last season, according to NBA.com.
The Suns’ past defensive shortcomings have been noted and Kokoskov, in molding his young team, emphasized reversing that trend and building on a strong defensive foundation. Ayton’s development as a player and his role in the defense will be key components in that.
“He should take it really, really personal and take some pride in that and be one of the best defensive players,” Kokoskov said at media day.
Ayton, the 7-foot-1 center the Suns selected No. 1 in this summer’s draft, possesses the physical tools and makeup of a defensive stalwart, despite showing inconsistent defense during his lone collegiate season at the University of Arizona.
Kokoskov sees Ayton as the team’s defensive focal point, its “anchor,” a role which Ayton agreed with and echoed.
“I’m the anchor,” Ayton said. “I’ve got to protect the paint, I’ve got to be my guards’ eyes in the back of their heads. Always have to be in their ear, tell them what to do.”
Communication among the team and on defense especially is one of the points Kokoskov emphasized in training camp.
“Being vocal and staying in shape,” Ayton said. “Not just running shape for two minutes but being in game-ready shape to where you could bang with somebody and run out for an outlet. And being talkative on the defensive end as well.”
Kokoskov is familiar with building a strong defense around a dominant center. During his three seasons as an assistant coach with the Utah Jazz, the Jazz defense, built around center Rudy Gobert, improved from eighth to third to second in the NBA in defensive rating, according to NBA.com.
Like Gobert, Ayton is a long 7-footer with a solid frame who fits the mold of an ideal rim-protector in the modern NBA.
“Especially the way the game is played right now, when you’re trying to defend and protect the three-point line and the rim,” Kokoskov said. “Having a rim-protector is a huge value for the team, especially our franchise.”
Whether or not Ayton becomes the defensive anchor the Suns need is yet to be seen. The Suns are a young team, currently carrying five rookies on their preseason roster, and growing pains are to be expected this season as the new coach, new players and new offensive and defensive systems take time to jell together.
“You build chemistry through winning games. If you win games, you have great chemistry, and if you lose games then you don’t have great chemistry,” Kokoskov quipped. “So far we haven’t lost any games so our chemistry is pretty good.”
Ayton’s Defensive Player of the Year candidacy will have to wait for the regular season, but for now, he is embracing his role as the Suns’ defensive leader. Whether it’s calling out screens or protecting the paint, he is ready to help his teammates out however is needed.
“If they have any issues with somebody on the wing, tell them send them to me, you know, so I can send their stuff in the stands,” Ayton said. “Stuff like that.”
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