LOS ANGELES — Deandre Ayton had to wait a little bit longer than he would have liked before finally returning from his 25-game suspension.
On the way to Staples Center to face the LA Clippers on Tuesday, Ayton and the Phoenix Suns’ second bus got stuck for about 90 minutes in typical L.A. traffic. But Ayton made it to the arena over an hour before tip and could not wait to resume his second season, which was put on hold after just one game due to a suspension for violating the terms of the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug program and testing positive for a diuretic.
“It’s frustrating and I know what I did and it was the biggest mistake and unintentional mistake that happened in my life,” Ayton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, said of his time away from playing. “It was something to learn from and build from it. It’s a mistake and everybody makes mistakes. It’s just how you bounce back really. I think that is what everybody is waiting for. I did my time so I’m here.”
Ayton played 24 minutes Tuesday, finishing with 18 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and a block in the Suns’ 120-99 loss to the Clippers. He said that it’ll take some to get his conditioning back to game shape.
“How’d I feel? At first I felt like this court is like a soccer field,” said Ayton, who tweaked his ankle during the game but said he is fine. “Then I started to get my second wind. … Then I felt a little normal when I got subbed out. Came back in and was back in a rhythm and found my groove a little bit.”
“These dudes are moving the ball, man,” Ayton added when asked what he learned while watching the Suns during his suspension. “They’re kind of fast. So our pace, I got to hurry up and wake up to the pace of the offense because three swings and my legs were burning after two screens. So I’m like all right, got to get back in my groove.”
Ayton said he didn’t appeal his suspension because he wanted to focus on getting better and not be a distraction to the team. During the suspension he was able to stay close to the team and practice while working on his game and his body. He said he’s grateful to the Suns for sticking by him.
“This organization that I am part of really loves me and supports me,” Ayton said. “They helped me through this journey, and I matured a lot.”
“It was tough when they played and I had to leave the arena on a game day,” Ayton added. “Practicing with them and talking to the guys and being a part of the practice, didn’t really keep me far. The guys talking to me, not leaving me out, stuff like that. They handled their business [without me].”
The Suns have exceeded expectations this season with their 11-15 start entering their game against the Clippers. Now they get to add a 7-footer who had 18 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocks in the season opener.
“He’s not a normal player or athlete,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “He’s 7 feet tall, a freak athlete, who can shoot the ball, block shots, how many times can you get that 25-26 games into the year without making a trade?”
“… He was in the weight room a ton,” Williams added. “His body has changed a little bit.”
Ayton said he used the time off to work on his face-up game and dribbling. And he also learned some hard lessons on how to take care of his body more.
“I did not know what I put in my body,” Ayton said. “I was guilty of it and it is what it is.
“Closing the circle much tighter and probably cooking my own food maybe,” Ayton added on how to avoid repeating the mistake. “That’s about it.”