Ayton suspension signals Aron Baynes' rise with Suns

Aussie big man Aron Baynes is set to take on an expanded role with the Phoenix Suns, after starting centre Deandre Ayton was handed a 25 game ban for breaching the NBA's anti-drug policy. Ayton starred in the Suns' opening game of the season, recording 18 points, on 64%, and 11 rebounds in 33 minutes, helping them to a resounding win over the Sacramento Kings. But now the Suns will have to play the next quarter of their 2019/20 campaign without the 2018 number 1 overall pick, with Baynes is set to take on an integral role.

As discussed in my season preview for Baynes, he is one of the best backup centres in the league. He is a player you can promote to the starting five, who will come in and do their job and minimise the loss of a star player. After playing only nine minutes in the season opener, that is exactly what has happened. Baynes has started, playing 29 and 22 minutes in the next two games and the Suns have not missed a beat, suffering a one-point loss to contenders Denver Nuggets and securing a win over title favourites Los Angeles Clippers. With the added playing time has come increased productivity - Baynes has averaged 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in these two games played without Ayton.

The increased responsibilities have extended beyond Baynes. Starting power forward Dario Saric and backup power forward/centre Frank Kaminsky have both seen their playing time increase from around 20 minutes in game one to around 30 minutes in those next two games. Baynes appears to be third in the pecking order in this three-man big rotation but his starting role is secure and will see at least 20 minutes a night. It is likely the Suns will adjust the rotation dependant on matchups and the hot hand. Baynes is by far the best defender of the group, a distinct advantage when facing the elite big men in the west, such as Rudy Gobert, Karl Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic. Add in his improved shooting, and Baynes could be seeing upwards of 30 minutes and closing out important games.

The Suns entered the NBA 2019/20 with very little expectations. Most analysts wrote off their playoff hopes before the campaign began. However, after three games this Suns team appears different from previous iterations, and has a similar feel to the surprisingly competitive Sacramento Kings of last season. A playoff berth is still a big ask, and whilst another early lottery pick wouldn’t hurt this team's development, there is enough on the roster for the Suns to feel ready to make a push towards winning.

So far, Baynes has given them the ability to withstand the absence of one of their key players. If he can keep this up, the Suns could find themselves flirting with the eighth seed when Ayton returns.