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Deandre Ayton ain’t mad at Luka Doncic

Suns’ rookie sensation discusses the hype surrounding Dallas’ phenom

PHOENIX — Deandre Ayton wants to be clear. The No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft strongly respects fellow rookie Luka Doncic’s popularity and success. But the Phoenix Suns center finds the lack of fanfare for his own impressive season somewhat disappointing.

“I cringe a little bit,” Ayton told The Undefeated. “I have family and friends who always talk about it. I hear them. I try not to really buy into that stuff. Obviously, it gives me a little edge. I just want to go out there for my teammates and just play.”

Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks forward, quickly became an NBA sensation this season with his scoring ability, 3-point shooting and flashy game.

Deandre Ayton said Luka Doncic is a “beast.”

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

The third overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft from Slovenia is averaging a rookie-best 19.6 points per game, along with 6.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists. He has a chance to join Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and Grant Hill as the only rookies to average 19 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Fans are noticing too. In the early returns for NBA All-Star voting, Doncic had the second-most votes among Western Conference frontcourt players, sandwiched between superstars LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

“I watch his games all the time. He’s a beast,” Ayton said of Doncic, who played for Real Madrid CF last season. “I’m like, ‘Aw, what the heck, there is no way Doncic is a rookie.’ That is what I say sometimes when I watch him play. He’s been there [professionally]. He’s been in situations like this.”

Ayton, meanwhile, leads all rookies in rebounds per game (10.7) and field goal percentage (60.6) while also averaging 16.7 points and 2.2 assists. The Bahamian big man would be the first rookie in NBA history to average 16-10 on 60 percent shooting.

So why hasn’t Ayton garnered much notice individually?

“I’ve always been under the radar,” said Ayton, who scored a career-high 33 points against the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 29, 2018. “Everybody knows what type of player I am. They just don’t want to give me the credit, I guess. I had to work very hard to deserve everything I have now. I don’t see what the issue is. I just got to keep working.”

More importantly, perhaps, his team needs to start winning. The Suns are the Western Conference’s worst team with a 10-32 record, having lost six straight games. Doncic’s Mavericks have double the Suns’ win total (18-22), although they are struggling as well after losing three straight.

“I don’t really care about any type of attention I’m not getting,” Ayton said. “I just want to win. When you win, that’s how you get your attention. With team success comes individual accolades. We definitely need some wins. I am not complaining about anything. I just want to come out here and get W’s.”

Despite Phoenix’s overall struggles, teammates and opponents have been impressed with Ayton’s play.

“Ayton is even better than I thought,” said Suns veteran Jamal Crawford, who joined the team on Oct. 17. “He is so unselfish, easily one of the best passing bigs in the game. He has a great understanding of the game for such a young guy. He has no agenda besides winning. He will be one of the faces of the league for years to come.”

Said Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr: “He looks like he is more comfortable with his movement and his offensive confidence, his skill set. He has a ton of talent, and it’s coming together now.”

Ayton and Doncic will play each other for the third time this season when the Suns visit Dallas on Wednesday. The Suns won the first two contests, with Ayton averaging 12.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists and Doncic averaging 11.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5 assists.

Top NBA prospects pose for a photo before the 2018 NBA draft at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, on June 21. From left to right, front row: Collin Sexton, Trae Young and Luka Doncic; left to right, back row: Marvin Bagley III, Deandre Ayton and Mohamed Bamba.

Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Off the court, Ayton and Doncic are represented by the same agency, Bill Duffy’s BDA Sports. It is through that agency that Ayton says the two rookie standouts began building a friendship last offseason.

“I don’t talk to him every day, but we’re pretty cool,” Ayton said. “The respect level is right there. I first got to know him during Rookie Transition [camp]. During pre-draft I was looking for agents, and we finally chose BDA. That’s when I realized, ‘Yo, Luka and I have the same agent.’ I looked at BDA’s social media and I saw Doncic. I was like, ‘Yo, we are the youngest cats in this agency right now.’ That is pretty cool.

“[BDA Sports senior director of communications] Alyson [Furch] always tells me, ‘He always tells me to tell you good luck in the games.’ I see him giving me social media love, liking my pictures and leaving comments. We started clicking after that. We did a WhatsApp number exchange.”

While Ayton is waiting for some of the national attention to come his way, he is happy for his rookie classmate.

“I wish the very best for everybody in this draft,” Ayton said. “I want this to be the best draft ever.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.