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Deandre Ayton’s development on display as Phoenix Suns push for playoff berth in NBA restart

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NBA: Phoenix Suns at Washington Wizards Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Suns are the hottest team in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix is off to a scintillating 4-0 start in Disney World, with victories over the Washington Wizards, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers and, most recently, the Indiana Pacers.

Once considered a longshot, the Suns are now on the cusp of reaching the postseason. With four regular-season games left, they’re just 1.5 games behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the 9-seed in the Western Conference and two games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the 8-seed.

That’s a pretty good spot considering that if the 9-seed finishes within two games of the 8-seed this season—which looks all but certain at this point—the NBA will host a play-in series to determine who gets the final playoff berth. (The 9-seed gets two games to beat the 8-seed twice.)

The Suns (30-39) will not only have to beat out the Blazers and Grizzlies for one of those coveted seeds, but also the New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs, who are all within a half-game of the Suns.

But if Deandre Ayton keeps doing what he’s doing, you have to like the Suns’ chances.

The former Arizona center is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in the bubble, while shooting 59 percent from the field. Those figures are pretty much on par with his career numbers, but the former No. 1 overall pick is clearly developing.

Here’s a good example: Ayton made his first career 3-pointer in Orlando (and then two more for good measure).

The 22-year-old is progressing nicely on defense too. Ayton has always had great potential on that end because of his freakish size and athleticism, and he is starting to realize it.

The 7-footer is averaging 1.5 blocks per game in the bubble, including four in the Suns’ win over the Pacers on Thursday, putting together sequences like this:

“It’s early, but I think he’s becoming more disciplined and keeping his hands up on defense,” Suns coach Monty Williams said earlier in the week. “He’s calling out stuff earlier. His conditioning is much better than it was, so you’re seeing him sprinting back.”

For the season, Ayton is averaging 1.7 blocks per game, almost double what he averaged as a rookie, despite only a small increase in minutes.

“I can say I’ve grown up in a way to where I’m just not being a robot running the play,” Ayton said (via azcentral). “I’m the playmaker when I got the ball, for real, and just me seeing the type of dominance and the type of effect I have on both sides of the floor. Affects the whole game and the whole team has bought in.”

Considering how much adversity Ayton faced early in his second season—first being suspended 25 games for failing a drug test, then suffering a severe ankle injury—the Suns have to be pleased with the way it’s ending.

And maybe it’ll even include their first playoff appearance in a decade when all is said and done.

“I’m trying to make a statement,” Ayton said. “I’m not just here all in Orlando quarantining and all for no reason. I’m here to compete to the top level.”