This has been a fruitful offseason for the NBA Draft class of 2018.
Superstars Luka Doncic and Trae Young have each signed massive extensions, keeping them in place for the foreseeable future. Other young stars like Michael Porter Jr. and Jaren Jackson Jr. have also inked extensions. Even role players like Wendell Carter Jr. and Kevin Huerter have signed their names on dotted lines.
But as the 2021-22 season arrives, Deandre Ayton, the first player taken in 2018, remains without a deal. As a result, the Phoenix Suns could be costing themselves a franchise center and the ability to become an NBA powerhouse.
The Phoenix Suns failed to reach an agreement with Deandre Ayton
The Suns had up until October 17 to secure a contract with Ayton, the fourth-year big man from Arizona. Instead, the center will have one year remaining on his rookie deal before becoming a restricted free agent.
Ayton reportedly asked for a maximum extension, which would pay him around $172 million over five seasons. Four other players from his draft class have signed max deals; Doncic, Young, Porter Jr., and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. However, Phoenix was only willing to consider a three or four-year deal.
“We didn’t have real negotiations,” Suns general manager James Jones said one day after the deadline passed. “You talk about conversations — it was a five-year, max extension like the other peers, the other former number one picks, and that’s where the conversation started and ended. Anything less than a five-year max wasn’t something to be considered — not something to talk about. It’s evident.”
Just because the Suns didn’t hand Ayton a contract doesn’t mean they pinched their pockets all offseason. Jones signed both Mikal Bridges and Landry Shamet, two other 2018 class members. Bridges signed for four years, $90 million, while Shamet signed for a more conservative four years, $43 million.
Ayton’s unhappiness hurts the Phoenix Suns
With Devin Booker and Chris Paul serving as the star attractions, Phoenix is in solid position to repeat as Western Conference champions. But the Ayton news has plenty of potential to serve as a distraction.
“He’s really unhappy. Listen, he saw his peers — who got max deals — and look at what he’s done so far, how much he’s sacrificed. … This is going to be really interesting in Phoenix now this season. Deandre Ayton is not happy, and he’s going to have some options after the season about how to proceed with his future, whether it’s in Phoenix or somewhere else.”Adrian Wojnarowski
To Woj’s point, Ayton has had to sacrifice some of his numbers for the betterment of the team. He is the clear number three option behind Booker and Paul, averaging a career-low 14.4 points in 2020-21. But he was a huge reason Phoenix went on the playoff run it did, averaging 15.8 points and 11.8 rebounds in 22 postseason games. And unlike other players from 2018 who were paid max deals, he is the only one to make it to the NBA Finals.
With no extension in place, Ayton could make this season one giant audition for his next team.
Is Deandre Ayton a max player?
There’s no question the Suns are better with Ayton than without him. But with Booker and Paul both under contract through 2024 and Bridges now paid through 2026, should Phoenix add another big contract?
Paying Ayton his asking price of $172 million over five years would have Phoenix shelling out over $30 million a year to three players. It can certainly be done, but it would likely force the Suns to part with role players like Jae Crowder and Dario Saric. They would then have to hope they can fill the roster with cheap veterans willing to take less money in order to compete for a championship. It’s something teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets have done in recent seasons, but can a team like the Suns pull it off?
However, one thing working in Ayton’s favor is precedent. At 23 years old, the fourth-year center has proven himself as a strong two-way center at the NBA level with room to grow. Compared to other bigs making over $26 million a year like Kristaps Porzingis, Kevin Love, and Al Horford, it’s hard to say Ayton shouldn’t be making more than all of them.
It will be interesting to see Ayton’s market unfold next offseason. As a restricted free agent, the center can only sign an offer sheet, giving Phoenix the right to match. But there’s no guarantee it would match a max deal Ayton receives elsewhere, especially if the big man spends the next several months visibly unhappy.
Expect to see some drama in the desert this season.