MILWAUKEE -- Three years after being the top pick in the NBA Draft, 22-year-old Bahamian big man Deandre Ayton has fine-tuned his talents and made the Phoenix Suns a championship contender.
Ayton scored 22 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in the Suns' game-one NBA Finals win but struggled with foul trouble for the first time in the playoffs in a game three loss as Phoenix carries a 2-1 lead into Wednesday's fourth game of the best-of-seven series at Milwaukee.
The Suns, who hadn't reached the finals since 1993, could win their first title since joining the league in 1968.
Ayton shakes off pre-game goose bumps with a routine that locks him in upon the on-court challenges.
"I really just take three deep breaths, close my eyes and after that, the whole arena is really empty," he said. "I just see my teammates and my coaches. There's a task at hand after that."
Ayton's focus is on having an impact in a game, whether it means points and rebounds or defensive domination.
"Just being relentless, doing what I do best. Just being a presence on both ends," Ayton said of his style. "Defense is what gets me going."
When 16-year veteran guard Chris Paul joined the club, he showed Ayton key details that have enabled him to elevate his game.
"Really just approaching the game the right way -- always being alert, little things that matter in long stretches of the game, knowing my matchup tendencies and just being a presence on both ends of the floor," Ayton said. "Just putting pressure on the rim and also protecting the rim.
"I'm having a lot of fun because my guys in there they keep me level and they keep me intent with it."
Ayton learned how to deliver pick-and-roll plays just how Paul wants them and use positioning to enhance his physical skills.
"First thing he taught me that I'm going to need in my career for a while is learning angles, how to get people open and learn how to get open and set the screen," Ayton said.
Paul has seen the work ethic and growth in Ayton since his arrival in November.
"Just seeing the maturity in him not only as basketball player but as a person," Paul said. "He has the biggest heart, one of the best guys you'll ever meet.
"The success and the recognition that he's getting is well deserved and I couldn't be happier."
Ayton has learned how to better maximize his body and mind.
"I definitely feel every game, body hurting and all that," Ayton said. "I feel every part of this, the physicality throughout the games and just the mental stamina you have to have in between games.
Suns coach Monty Williams was glad Ayton accepted the challenge.
"I'm thankful he has allowed the staff to push him the way they needed to push him," Williams said. "I'm happy he has an effect on the game in different ways. It's not just offense.
"There are games where defensively he impacts the game and covers up a lot of mistakes we make. He's a talented player. His ability to rebound, finish around the basket and then step up and make free throws is something we don't take for granted."
- Defensive force, energy -
Ayton has become defensive dynamite, altering shots and grabbing rebounds to deny second chances.
"Defensively it's just the force and energy that he plays with every possession," Williams said. "He's just locked into the role.
"Sometimes when you tell a player he has a role they think you're limiting their ability. He understands his role and how he can affect winning on both sides of the ball."
While teammates set him up with lobs and passes, Ayton's awareness enables him to make his own opportunities.
"He's just a presence," Williams said. "Sometimes they have to run two guys at him to keep him off the glass and that allows for our wings to pick up some offensive rebounds."
© Agence France-Presse