“I have principles when it comes to this game,” Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton said. So when others don’t seem to, he said, “I don’t watch it at all.”
Do not ask Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton to watch the N.B.A. away from work. He doesn’t want to see other teams play.
“I just can’t watch it because I have principles when it comes to this game,” Ayton said in a recent interview after practice. “And, you know, I’ve just seen too many principles and bad habits that it messes with me. So I don’t watch it at all.”
This is a far cry from early in Ayton’s career. He was selected with the first pick in the 2018 N.B.A. draft and was, at first, receiving attention for not matching the production of two players drafted soon after him: Luka Doncic at No. 3 and Trae Young at No. 5. It didn’t help that in his second season, Ayton was suspended for 25 games for testing positive for a diuretic, a violation of the league’s antidrug program.
Since then, Ayton has blossomed into one of the best centers in the N.B.A. and a key part of Phoenix’s quest to win a championship. Ayton is one of the few throwback big men who have thrived in the contemporary N.B.A. by focusing on post-ups and rebounding, one who could’ve fit in just as well in the 1990s as he does now.
The Suns raised eyebrows by not offering Ayton a maximum contract before the season, making him a restricted free agent this summer, one year after he helped them make the N.B.A. finals. Outwardly, Ayton shrugged it off and went on to have the best regular season of his four-year career, averaging 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds on a career-high 63.4 percent shooting. He has expanded his offensive game beyond just dunks and has been a key partner for Chris Paul, the team’s All-Star point guard.
Ayton, who grew up in the Bahamas, has been a fixture in the Phoenix area since he was a teenager at Hillcrest Prep Academy for part of high school. He then went to the University of Arizona, in Tucson, for one year. Now the Suns are facing the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of the N.B.A. playoffs.
In an interview, Ayton discussed his impending free agency, one particular challenge of chasing a championship with Paul and how fatherhood has changed him.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Are there watch parties going on in the Bahamas right now? How is your playoff run being viewed at home?
Some of my friends that are still back home down there, they have their watch parties. Everybody gets together and watches some of the games during work. They send you pictures of newspapers, so they’re definitely tuned in, for sure, because I represent the Bahamas everywhere I go.
How does this playoff run mentally compare to last year’s run for you?
It’s a lot more different. At first, last year, I was building confidence as we got further and further in the playoffs and going to the finals. But this, confidence isn’t a thing no more. That’s out the window. I’ve seen it all. I know what I can do.
How much, if any, extra motivation do you have going up against Luka Doncic, given that you were both drafted in the same class and that you’re constantly being compared to him?
There’s not motivation. I’m happy for the man, regardless of wherever it takes us, because I take pride in being a part of this class and us being the best draft class of all time. Obviously, through the competing, we’re trying to beat each other up, but at the end of the day I’m never motivated by somebody else’s success.
You became a father last year. What has fatherhood taught you about yourself?
I definitely stopped a lot of bad habits early.
Like the way I eat. The way I sleep at night. Just being mindful of time. I’m very, very cautious about time and knowing time and place, especially with a child. And just representing myself the best way I can, on and off the court.
Is your son going to play ball like you?
Oh, yes! Once he sees a ball, he’s looking for his hoop, like: “Where’s the hoop? Where’s the hoop? I’m ready.” Then you pass it to him. I say: “Go to alley oop. Go to alley oop.” And he catches it and dunks it at 1 year old.
Do you ever see Jayson Tatum and go, “Listen, my kid’s going to be a better baller than Deuce?” [Deuce — Jayson Tatum Jr. — is the toddler son of the Boston Celtics star.]
I say that about all the dudes. All the players’ kids: “My son, we’re going to see your son. Regardless, you’re going to see him. You’re going to have to see him, man.”
You’ve talked in interviews about how pride is an identifying feature of being from the islands and how much confidence you have in yourself. Honestly, how upset were you that the Suns weren’t willing to give you a maximum contract before the season?
I’ve been at the bottom of the barrel in my life so many times, and I’ve been through so many disappointments. And it wasn’t nothing to me. I was more motivated with my back against the wall, knowing who I truly am. And the decision they made, it was out of my control, and all I can do is really just continue to play because at the end of the day, you can be mad all you want. But negotiating, that’s a business at the end of the day. So what? You’ve still got to go play.
I had teammates around me that put a smile on my face every day. Coaches would put a smile on my face every day. Front office, it was still the same energy. Nothing changed. It didn’t happen. All right. On to the next one. Now we’re here. No. 1 team in the league. And now we’re on a mission.
Given how you played this year, what is your optimism on getting the contract that you feel that you deserve from Phoenix?
I put that in God’s hands and my agent’s hands. I’ve just got to do my part and make sure we’re the last team standing in this thing when it is all said and done. The only thing I can control is getting a dub.
How has your relationship with Chris Paul evolved now that you’re more experienced in the league?
That’s big bro. That’s my brother because we come to each other with anything, to be honest, and we have a huge chemistry going on in the pick-and-roll and to where we don’t even have to talk.
Let me ask it this way: Does he yell at you less now?
Oh, hell yeah, he still yells. What?! He yells. He yells, man. He’s yelling with you more than at you, but he’s yelling for sure. You’re going to hear what he has to say, period. Nothing changes about C.P.
Is there anything you want to do off the court outside of basketball?
I’m a gamer.
Who’s the best gamer on the Suns? Is it you or Devin Booker?
Me. Book doesn’t play games I play. Book plays “Call of Duty.” I play the game we play in real life. I play basketball. I play NBA 2K. He wants to freaking jump out of airplanes and have parachutes and shoot.
Do you play as yourself in 2K?
I have imagination. I’m playing as a 6-foot-3 point guard who got unlimited dribble moves and beyond shooting like Steph Curry, period.
You’re, at this point, a pillar of the franchise. With the allegations that were made against the owner of the team, Robert Sarver, do you have any discomfort with remaining for the franchise if it is owned by him going forward?
[Sarver, the owner of the Suns, is under investigation by the N.B.A. after several current and former employees accused him of saying racial slurs and making other inappropriate comments.]
I’ve never had any problem with Sarver. He’s never shown me any of those ways, to be honest. He’s always treated me well. And I’ve been to his house for dinner and, you know, just sometimes he’ll call me over his house just to chop it up and see how I’m doing. He always asks about my family. So, I mean, Sarver has never done me wrong. Me, I was just blinded by all that stuff that came out, to be honest.