Sudden impact: Suns hope top pick Ayton difference-maker on, off court
PHOENIX – A No. 1 draft pick. A new head coach. A University of Arizona player returning home. All form the start of what the Phoenix Suns hope to be a winning legacy.
With the Suns selecting Arizona freshman Deandre Ayton as the first pick in the 2018 NBA draft, the team is looking for success in 2018.
On and off the court.
“The only thing I can possibly do is really help the team start a winning legacy,” Ayton said at the Suns press conference Friday at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
The 7-foot-1 center, who became the team’s first No.1 pick in franchise history, has ties to the state that run deeper than his year at the University of Arizona. Ayton spent the 2015-16 academic year at Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix.
“As soon as my mom and I made a decision that we were going to stay here and make Arizona our second home, we had to adapt to how American life is,” Ayton said. “Going through the process of going to the U of A and the fans support me, it was just phenomenal.”
President and CEO of the Suns, Jason Rowley, believes Ayton’s Arizona ties may prove to be financially beneficial for the franchise.
“Obviously for any sports team, getting a No. 1 pick is a big opportunity from a business standpoint. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had a very strong fan base even through some of the tough times here,” Rowley said.
Rowley said Ayton has a presence in Phoenix, having gone to high school in the community and attending school in Tucson. His pride for Arizona and his pride for his birthplace in the Bahamas connects with fans, Rowley believes.
“If you listen to how he talks and his discussion about wanting to come and help us build something, wanting to connect to the fan base and wanting to give back to this community, that kind of personality resonates with people. You don’t always see it in professional sports,” Rowley said.
During the Suns’ draft party on Thursday night, fans had the chance to preorder Ayton’s jersey. Rowley said the team has other plans to boost fan attendance, such as season ticket packages or college student ticket deals.
The team has already seen a 300 percent increase in sales growth, Rowley said.
“What’s more is it gives us relevancy points talking to fans,” Rowley said of Ayton’s impact on growth. “Certainly, last night we had a bunch of people preorder. This is the kind of runway you’d really like to have.”
Rowley hopes Ayton’s presence on the team will boost the Suns’ relationship with Tucson, something that the president, who grew up in Tucson, has been trying to build and grow.
“I’ve always wanted to find a way to do a better job of connecting Phoenix and connecting the Suns to the Tucson market, because they’ve always had such a strong basketball program down there,” Rowley said. “Deandre has even said that he felt like that fan base, the University of Arizona, really supported him through tough times. Again, that kind of resonates with people.”
Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough said the impression Ayton left during his solo workout solidified his selection as the No. 1 pick, setting a bar that McDonough said may have been impossible to top.
“We’ve watched him from his time at Hillcrest through a year at the U of A. He came in and blew us away in his workout and interview,” McDonough said. “He was always the front-runner by the end of last week. We were very comfortable he was the guy.”
New coach Igor Kokoskov described Ayton as having the talent potential and productivity higher than some of the elite defenders in the NBA. Kokoskov hopes that Arizona coach Sean Miller will help his former player and the rest of the Suns team.
“Deandre was saying that coach was a big part of his developing process, and he’s got a lot of respect for him, so we have to help him, too,” Kokoskov said. “The door is going to be open, and he’s going to be more than welcome to join us.”
Though the Suns ranked in the bottom third of NBA teams in fan attendance in six of the last seven seasons, Ayton and the Suns’ three other draft picks hope to change that statistic.
The Suns traded with the 76ers to get Villanova’s Mikal Bridges in the first round. In the second round, they drafted point guard Elie Okobo and Colorado wing George King, who played against Ayton in college.
“We’re young, but we’re very hungry. I think we have great chemistry and the work ethic that we have especially us young guys coming in,” Ayton said. “We’ve got young legs. We can run all day.”
Calling Arizona the best fans in the world, Ayton believes success in the Suns franchise is possible with this draft group.
“We’ll make history. We can really start a winning legacy,” Ayton said.