NBA Finals: How Suns’ Deandre Ayton and former player Mychal Thompson share special bond as native Bahamians
MILWAUKEE — If only family and friends could engage with NBA players at games the same way they did before the pandemic.
Perhaps then former Los Angeles Lakers player and team broadcaster Mychal Thompson might be here so he could embrace Phoenix Suns third-year center Deandre Ayton before playing the Milwaukee Bucks in Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals. After all, Thompson often greeted Ayton before the Suns played the Lakers to further cement their bond as native Bahamians.
"I tell him how proud I am of him and to keep going," Thompson told USA TODAY Sports. "He’s the greatest player we’ve ever had from the Bahamas."
Ayton and Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield represent the lone current NBA players born in the Bahamas, but Hield has never appeared in the playoffs. Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, one of Mychal’s sons, has won three NBA titles and shattered numerous shooting records, but he was born in Los Angeles. Ayton and Mychal Thompson have the strongest connection to the Bahamas.
"He will be the main sports ambassador in the Bahamas for the next 15 years," Thompson said of Ayton. "He has that kind of potential to represent the Bahamas and carry the flag for the Bahamas in sports for the next 15 years. I expect him to."
Ayton and Thompson are the only Bahamian-born players to play in the NBA Finals. They are also the only Bahamian-born players to be selected No. 1 in the NBA draft. But as Thompson stressed, "I don’t compare to him." Thompson, who won two NBA championships in three Finals appearances with the Lakers (1987, 1988, 1991), predicted Ayton will collect more rings than him. Thompson, who had a 12-year NBA career with Portland, San Antonio and the Lakers (1978-1991), predicted Ayton will have a much more substantial résumé than his.
"He’s going to become a multiple-time All-Star," Thompson said. "He’s going to be a Hall-of-Famer. So he’s the best basketball player we’ve ever produced in the islands."
Thompson considers Ayton to be the NBA’s third-best center behind the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid and the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, who won this year’s regular-season MVP. The 22-year-old Ayton reminds Thompson of San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson, who collected two NBA titles, an NBA Defensive Player of the Year award and 10 All-Star nods during a 14-year career (1989-2003).
"He can run the floor, block shots and has a nice mid-range game like Robinson," Thompson said of Ayton. "He just has everything that David Robinson had at that age. If he keeps progressing and staying hungry and healthy like he’s showing, he can get to that level."
Ayton’s eyes lit up and his smile widened when he learned about Thompson’s praise of his current skills and long-term trajectory.
"That's big time," Ayton said. "All I have to do is make sure I put my head down and make sure I keep working. With wins, individual accolades come. I just have to keep working and keep winning."
How Ayton has impressed Thompson
The Suns and Ayton are heading in that direction.
Phoenix has a 2-0 Finals series lead against Milwaukee entering Game 3 on Sunday after dispatching last year’s NBA champions (Lakers), the team with this year’s MVP (Nuggets) and another championship contender (Clippers). Ayton has become one of seven players in NBA history to have 12 double-doubles in their first 17 career playoff games. He also has recorded an NBA playoff record for the highest field-goal percentage through that same sample size (71.1%).
With his native country celebrating its Independence Day on Saturday, Ayton conceded that his current motivations go beyond winning his first NBA championship. It also traces back to how Ayton wants to honor the Bahamas.
"There's a lot of people back home supporting me and watching," Ayton said. "I want to put on a show for them and make sure this thing happens. Every game I'm going, I'm bringing the Bahamas with me."
Thompson saw at an early age that Ayton could inspire his home country.
Thompson first met Ayton as a 12-year-old when he visited the Jeff Rogers celebrity camp in Nassau, Bahamas, when Klay Thompson also attended following his rookie season (2012-13). After marveling at the attention Klay received, Ayton aspired to follow his path. By that point, Mychal did not notice anything particular about Ayton’s game that suggested stardom. But considering Ayton already stood 6-4, Mychal sensed it would still happen.
"We knew he had a future because of his size and his love of the game," Thompson said. "We knew if he continued to grow, he would have a nice future in basketball."
Thompson predicted correctly. Ayton moved to San Diego to study and play basketball at Balboa City School. He then played two more years at Hillcrest Prep Academy in Phoenix, which led to the University of Arizona giving him a scholarship. He then set a program and Pac-12 record for most double-doubles (25) along with Pac-12 Player of the Year honors. It's no wonder the Suns selected Ayton with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft.
As Ayton grew in height and stature, Thompson occasionally gave Ayton what he called "words of wisdom."
"The only thing I told him when he was in high school was stay humble and just be willing to listen and work hard," Thompson said. "You could tell that he was eager to play. So I didn’t have to give much advice. He had good people advising him already and a good family. He had all the support he needed."
Therefore, Thompson did not become worried with some of the hiccups Ayton experienced once he entered the NBA.
Ayton sparked immediate comparisons to others in his draft class, including Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic and Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young. Though Ayton plays a different position, questions emerged on whether the Suns would have been better off selecting either guard instead. After all, the Suns had failed to make the playoffs since 2010.
Ayton also sparked questions about his consistent production and commitment. Though the Suns have always praised Ayton for his play and attitude, they conceded he still faced a learning curve with how he trained on the practice court, weight room and film room. Ayton faced a 25-game suspension to open the 2019-20 season for violating the terms of the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug program after testing positive for a diuretic.
"He’s a great kid. I wasn’t worried about him at all," Thompson said. "He’s got such a good strong family structure behind him and such good coaches around him. So I knew he was going to be fine."
Thompson often resisted peppering him with too much feedback. He credited Suns guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker for both demanding and encouraging Ayton to elevate his game. He praised Suns coach Monty Williams for empowering Ayton with constructive feedback, some of which was recently captured in the Suns’ Game 2 win over the Buck.
Yet, Thompson argued that more could be done to bring out the best in Ayton.
"Sometimes he gets ignored too much, and the Suns don’t tap into his fuel that he has in the paint," Thompson said. "This guy is unstoppable in the paint as he has been showing. So they got to treat him like he’s a hyper giant star."
They did so when Ayton threw down a game-winning lob off an inbounds pass with 0.7 seconds left in a Game 2 win over the Clippers. Thompson likened that play to when former Chicago Bulls forward Toni Kukoc and former Lakers guard Derek Fisher made winning shots in playoff games off inbounds passes with little time left on the clock. Otherwise, Ayton still has cemented career-lows this season in points (14.6) and shot attempts (10.5) because of the team’s depth.
"They have such a dynamic backcourt and outside shooters that sometimes you can fall in love with the 3 and not realize the weapon that you have in the paint," Thompson said. "It’s a delicate balance that the Suns need to concentrate on. Deandre is so skilled in the paint with his jump hook and his turnaround shots."
Despite the bullishness on Ayton’s potential, even Thompson has his limits.
He conceded uncertainty on whether Ayton could supplant Embiid and Jokic soon as the NBA’s best center.
"Embiid and Jokic are pretty special, but Deandre can push them," Thompson said. "He can push them for that honor. From now on, he should be no worse than the third-best center going forward for the next few years with a chance to get on that second or first team."
"I hope so, but those are lofty levels," Thompson said. "You’re talking about five of the greatest ever there. But he’s going to be a Hall-of-Famer. No question about it. How great he wants to be is up to him on how hungry he wants to be and how hard he wants to work."
Ayton has wanted to work hard partly to make Thompson proud.
"He's been holding it down for me, supporting me all the way to here," Ayton said. "He’s keeping me in high spirits."
Meanwhile, Thompson sounded in high spirits when talking about Ayton and the influence he has had on him.
"For him to even acknowledge me and know who I am is very flattering," Thompson said. "It’s a huge accomplishment. He’s already exceeded anything I’ve ever done at this age. At 22, I was in college trying to figure out the next test I was going to have. To see him at 22? He’s two wins away from an NBA championship and is one of the main reasons why. He has far exceeded anything that I’ve ever done and will have ever done in basketball."