Suns get their coveted center Ayton to anchor young squad

PHOENIX — For most of their half-century in existence, the Phoenix Suns have coveted a big-time center.

In 1969, they lost the coin flip with Milwaukee for Lew Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and chose Neal Walk at No. 2. The closest they came was Alvan Adams, an All-Star on some very good teams. Shaquille O’Neal made a cameo appearance late in his career.

But a big, young franchise center to build around eluded them — until now.

With the first overall pick in the draft for the first time in franchise history, the Suns believe they have their man in 7-foot-1, 250-pound Deandre Ayton, whose size, athleticism and multiple skills made him the obvious No 1 overall pick Thursday night.

There was a big cheer from the crowd gathered at Talking Stick Resort Arena for a party to celebrate the highest pick in franchise history. They’ve chosen second overall twice.

“Having my name called to be the first pick for the Phoenix Suns was mind-blowing,” Ayton said. “Having all the confidence and leading up to that point when I saw (NBA Commissioner) Adam Silver came out, I was just waiting for my name, and when he called it, my mind went blank. … and I saw the reaction on my mom’s face. It was just priceless.”

The Suns also got the 10th overall pick, moving up six spots in a trade with Philadelphia to get guard/forward Mikal Bridges of Villanova. Phoenix sent the No. 16 pick, guard Zhaire Smith of Texas Tech, to the 76ers along with Miami’s unprotected first-round pick in 2021.

Ayton will join Devin Booker and Josh Jackson as the core of young talent that the Suns hope will pull them out of their long decline. Phoenix has missed the playoffs the last eight seasons and their 21-61 record last season was the worst in the NBA and second-worst in franchise history.

“The team in general is a very young and hungry team,” Ayton said. “We just have to stick together, get a great chemistry and start a winning legacy in Phoenix.”

In Brooklyn for the announcement, Ayton wore a sports jacket with an array of colors on the inside lining.

“There’s a few flags in there,” Ayton said. “My dad is from Nigeria, my mom is Jamaican and Bahamian, so I’m helping all those countries in one. I’m not just a Bahamian. I’m Nigerian and Jamaican. So I just want to let the world know that.”

Ayton was born in the Bahamas but left at age 12, a basketball prodigy who stayed in several Southern California homes and played with various basketball programs, including a season as a teammate of Marvin Bagley III at Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix.

Ayton, a month shy of his 20th birthday, was the Pac-12 player of the year at Arizona last season, averaging 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. But the Wildcats made an early exit in the NCAA Tournament, losing to Buffalo. Ayton also had to tune out the noise from a federal investigation that ensnared an Arizona assistant coach.

But he emerged above the rest in the pre-draft process.

Ayton worked out for only one team, the Suns, and turned on the charm with the media afterward.

Don’t worry, Ayton assured everyone that day, “I know I’m going No. 1.”

Of course, he was right.

The 6-foot-7 Bridges is a bonus, a third-team All-American and a member of the 2018 all-Final Four team. When the 76ers drafted him, it looked like a feel-good hometown story since he’s from Philadelphia and his mother Tyneeha Rivers was vice president for human resources for the 76ers.

Bridges even appeared at a news conference to talk about staying in Philadelphia.

Someone finally pulled him aside and let him know he’d been traded. And Bridges was bound for the desert.