Vegas lights shine bright on Deandre Ayton in his Suns debut

LAS VEGAS - The Phoenix Suns have been the NBA’s catfish for years: bottom-feeders that rarely draw a crowd.

Friday in Las Vegas felt different.

Fans packed UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center for a chance to see the new-look Suns, led by this year’s No. 1 and No. 10 picks, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, respectively, and last year’s No. 4 pick, Josh Jackson, take on the Dallas Mavericks. The Suns won the game 92-85 in their Summer League opener.

For the first time in what seems like years – this team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010 – a Suns game was an event. Mark Cuban, Jerry West and Steve Ballmer were seated at the baseline by the Mavericks bench. Eight-time All-Star Dikembe Mutombo and Washington Wizards point guard John Wall were also in attendance.

Vegas is always chaotic, but these two weeks are littered with a different sort of energy: the NBA Summer League. Recent draftees and college players who went undrafted converge on the city for a 12-day, 82-game event culminating in a double elimination tournament.

Friday marked the start of the event, as well as the first time in the history of summer league play that all 30 teams will participate.

“I could feel the energy around,” Ayton said. “It’s fun. I heard when they called my name everybody started screaming. I love it.”

Cheers from the crowd when Ayton’s name was announced in the starting lineups dwarfed the that of any other player – including that of well-established second-year players Josh Jackson of the Suns and Dennis Smith Jr. of Dallas.

Although the Suns are favored by oddsmakers to win the whole summer league tournament, they looked a bit dazed at times during their opening game. In moments as early as the first half, Ayton looked gassed, slow to close out on threes and getting pushed around in the paint.

“The physicality (surprised me),” Ayton said. “The transition from college to the NBA, everyone is physical. Some dudes might not look strong, but they’re pretty strong.”

However, Ayton certainly had his flashes. His first professional bucket came on an alley-oop dunk from Shaquille Harrison. As he became more comfortable in the second half, his physicality and energy levels noticeably increased.

In the end, Ayton’s debut was marked by 10 points, eight rebounds and a single block. But for the Suns and (also rookie) coach Igor Kokoškov, Ayton’s debut goes beyond just the box score.

“I think he played under a lot of pressure from (the media), from the fans, from the cameras, from the TVs,” Kokoškov said. “I’m not surprised he didn’t play his best game, but there’s so many different ways how he can help the team win the games.”

The Suns’ 10th overall pick, Bridges, got hot in the second, half hitting all of his four three-pointers during that stretch. Fellow rookie second-round pick Élie Okobo seemed comfortable running the offense, amassing six assists, and connecting on a 3-pointer while falling down to beat the first-quarter buzzer.

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