Bigs take longer to develop. That's an oft-repeated notion in the NBA, and perhaps why 2018 No. 1 pick center Deandre Ayton was quickly overshadowed by his ball-handling classmates Luka Doncic (No. 3) and Trae Young (No. 5).
And while Doncic and Young are at the forefront of their respective playoff battles with the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks, Ayton is calmly helping the Phoenix Suns destroy LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Through his playoff debut (3-2 over the Lakers thus far), Ayton is averaging 17.4 points and 12.2 rebounds while shooting a ridiculous 80 percent from the field on 10 attempts a night. He's anchoring the Suns' defense while staying out of foul trouble, averaging more minutes than any center in the postseason at 37.2 minutes per game, per NBA.com.
No one (at any position) is close to Ayton's minutes and level of efficiency. He's helped the Suns stay competitive with teammates Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges searching for shooting consistency from game to game and for Chris Paul to work through a shoulder injury.
Anthony Davis' groin injury has hampered the Lakers. Still, Ayton was the same dominating presence against Davis, Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol and just about anyone else Los Angeles has thrown at him. He's been a constant for Phoenix, dating back to the regular season where his team finished with the second-best record in the NBA.
Stars raise their game in the playoffs, and perhaps for the first time in his professional career, Ayton is showing a broad audience how talented—and valuable—he is at just 22 years old.
Soon, it will be time for the Suns to consider precisely just how valuable he is. Both Ayton and Bridges are eligible for extensions this offseason.
Without a deal locked in before the start of the 2021-22 season, both will be restricted free agents in the summer of 2022.
The franchise believed in Ayton enough to draft him ahead of Doncic and Young, each a lock to sign maximum (potentially supermax) extensions. Ayton is going to be looking for similar money.
"He's worth the max," agreed three different NBA sources.
But isn't the center position dying in the NBA?
That doesn't seem to be the case this postseason with the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, the Philadelphia 76ers and Joel Embiid and the Utah Jazz with Rudy Gobert. The first two are set to earn $31.6 million next season, and Gobert, the least offensive-minded of the three, is projected to take home $35.3 million.
A max extension for Ayton would start at approximately $28.9 million with the 2022-23 season (almost $168 million, if over five years). If the Suns were willing to make him supermax-eligible, his deal could climb to about $34.7 million in the first season (around $201 million over five), but only if he qualified by winning league MVP, defensive player of the year or an All-NBA first-, second- or third-team designation through the 2021-22 season (assuming he doesn't win any of those honors for the most recent regular season).
Other young centers of note who aren't earning the max include Clint Capela of the Atlanta Hawks. He's under contract for $17.1 million next season and is currently averaging 9.0 points and 13.0 rebounds a game while shooting 61.5 percent from the field. He's been huge for Atlanta, but Ayton's been even better for the Suns.
Bam Adebayo will start his extension next year at approximately $28.1 million with the Miami Heat. His team is already out of the playoffs despite his 15.5 points (45.6 percent shooting) and 9.3 rebounds a game.
Nikola Vucevic will earn $24 million with the Chicago Bulls next season, after averaging 23.4 points and 11.7 rebounds a game (splitting time with the Orlando Magic). Kristaps Porzingis will be at $31.7 million with the Dallas Mavericks and is averaging 15.3 points and 4.0 rebounds in the postseason. Jonas Valanciunas will be at an economical $14 million with the Memphis Grizzlies while contributing 14.3 points and 10.8 rebounds per playoff game thus far.
Meanwhile, Ayton may have the most potential as a two-way player, impacting both offensively and defensively. Jokic, Embiid and Gobert are more seasoned, but they're also more expensive than Ayton's potential max.
Ayton's future is one of several decisions the Suns are likely to make this offseason. Paul has a $44.4 million player option, which according to several sources, he intends to decline with hopes of inking a new multiyear deal (perhaps in the $100 million range over three seasons). It's unclear if his recent shoulder injury changes his plans. Gordon Hayward, who has battled more severe injuries than Paul, made a similar decision this past offseason, opting out of his final year with the Boston Celtics to sign a four-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.
In addition to Ayton and Paul, Bridges won't be cheap, with his next contract likely to be higher than the $20 million a year Jerami Grant got with the Detroit Pistons. He too may seek a maximum deal, which could eventually prove problematic for the Suns if Ayton, Booker, Paul and Bridges are all on lucrative contracts.
But the Suns should want to pay the luxury tax, if it means their team is a contender. The squad tackled the regular season with force. They have challenged the Lakers and look like one of the brightest young teams in the NBA, with the older vet in Paul guiding the way. Ayton is the team's defensive anchor and a steady, reliable scorer at the basket.
The New York Knicks appear to be a player away from being a competitive playoff team in the East. With Paul's relationship with former CAA agent Leon Rose, now president of the Knicks, the Suns may have some competition for the veteran's services next season.
Phoenix would be wise to keep Paul, even at 36 years old. The Suns need his leadership for the next few years. And since Ayton and Bridges' potential extensions won't kick in until the 2022-23 season, the possible luxury tax issues are a future concern. Teams shouldn't sacrifice today because it might be too expensive tomorrow.
By the time the Suns face the prospect of luxury taxes, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association may be working through a new collective bargaining agreement. The Suns can shed salary down the line via trade, be it Dario Saric, Jae Crowder or Jevon Carter.
Now that the decade-long playoff drought is over, Phoenix better not let finances get in the way of something special brewing in the Valley of the Sun. That would mean a max extension for the emerging center in Ayton, a sizable deal for Bridges and a renewed commitment to Paul.
Email Eric Pincus at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.