Deandre Ayton Gets a Rare National Stage to State His Case for a Max Deal From the Phoenix Suns

Dismissed by many pundits in the offseason as a one-off success, the Phoenix Suns will take the court for their Christmas Day showdown with the Golden State Warriors with either the best or second-best record in the NBA. Center Deandre Ayton’s growth was a significant factor behind their run to the NBA Finals last season. It’s no surprise Ayton’s strong play is behind this season’s early success.

But Ayton will hit restricted free agency next summer. That assumes Phoenix extends the $16.4 million qualifying offer to retain the right of first refusal). The Suns didn’t offer the 2018 No. 1 overall pick a max extension. Now the 23-year-old Bahamian gets a chance to show a national offer why he deserves the bag.

Deandre Ayton’s performance curve mirrors that of the Phoenix Suns

Zach Lowe of ESPN reported on the rise of the Phoenix Suns. Much of that ascent centered on the NBA bubble in Orlando in 2020. The Suns were 13th in the Western Conference with only the slimmest mathematical chance of making the playoffs. But they got a bubble invitation and made the most of it.

Few players took as much advantage of the eight games in Orlando as did Deandre Ayton. Phoenix was one of the few teams with large groups attending optional practice slots in the evenings on non-game days.

Ayton acknowledged his time in those extra sessions with assistant coach Mark Bryant was essential to his development.

“The bubble gave me time to lock in,” Ayton said.

The Suns went 8–0 in the bubble, just missing a play-in opportunity. After adding Chris Paul, Phoenix tore through the NBA last season, going 51–21 and making the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Once in the postseason, the Suns reached their first NBA Finals since 1993.

Ayton matured into an offensive force, a rim-runner with soft hands, and his defensive game grew to the point he could hold his own when opponents went small.

Critics pointed to injuries incurred by the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, and LA Clippers as the luck that powered Phoenix’s Finals run. Their start this season has quieted much of that discussion.

Because of their status, Ayton gets a chance to show the nation what he can do.

The Phoenix Suns play on Christmas Day for the first time in 12 years

Hall of Famer Steve Nash, the coach of the Brooklyn Nets, led the Phoenix Suns on the floor the last time they appeared on Christmas Day. That was 2009, months before Phoenix made a run to the Western Conference Finals. It would be the franchise’s last playoff appearance before last season.

The Suns host the Warriors. It’s the first time the teams with the two best records in the NBA face off on Christmas since 2005.

It is a perfect national stage for Deandre Ayton to show the NBA why he deserves a big contract.

The Suns won the draft lottery in 2018 and took Ayton, the Pac-12 Player of the Year at the University of Arizona. He’s become an afterthought in a draft class headlined by third-overall pick Luka Dončić and the player traded for him on draft night, Trae Young, who went at No. 5.

But as of Dec. 22, Ayton is second in the 2018 draft class with 20.3 Win Shares, trailing only Dončić’s 22.9. Young is third with 20.0.

The Suns also came out of that draft with 10th-overall selection Mikal Bridges. He’s a defensive wonder who landed a lucrative Phoenix extension. Bridges agreed to a four-year, $90 million deal on Oct. 18; the last day teams could extend first-round picks from 2018.

Deandre Ayton’s options in free agency

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton becomes a free agent this summer and gets a national stage on Christmas Day to make his case for a megadeal.
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton becomes a free agent this summer and gets a national stage on Christmas Day to make his case for a megadeal. | Steph Chambers/Getty Images

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When Deandre Ayton hits free agency, he’ll have a couple of options. He can sign the one-year, $16.4 million qualifying offer and play for unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2023.

Otherwise, he can see if he can get a four-year, $127.9 million max offer sheet from another team. The Phoenix Suns can offer five years and $172.6 million next summer.

Bryan Toporek of Forbes speculated the best option for Ayton might be to seek a four-year deal that includes a player option for 2025–26. That would allow him the chance to opt out and become an unrestricted free agent. At the same time, NBA’s new national television deals begin.

That led to a fountain of free agency cash for the 2016 free agency class (hello, Kevin Durant). Unless the players’ union agrees to smooth the impact of the increased revenue (extremely unlikely), the new TV deals will trigger a one-year spike in the salary cap along the lines of what we saw in 2016. That year it jumped from $70 million to $94.1 million.

In September, Morten Jensen of Forbes reported the cap could jump to more than $170 million in 2025–26. That would make Ayton eligible for a max with the Suns of five years and $297.4 million. Other teams could offer four years and a paltry $220.6 million by comparison under that cap scenario.

Deandre Ayton is on the cusp of a massive payday. He can make the Phoenix Suns pay for not getting an extension done before the deadline in October. Whether that payment comes from seeing Ayton walk away for nothing or signing larger checks remains to be seen.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and Contract information courtesy of Spotrac.