Suns’ Deandre Ayton to begin NBA career against friend and rival Luka Doncic

Top NBA draft pick Deandre Ayton (second from right) and No. 3 pick Luka Doncic (right) will square off Wednesday in the Phoenix Suns season opener. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – When Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton and Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic see each other this week in the first game of their NBA careers, basketball may not be the first order of business.

According to Ayton, Doncic has a debt to repay first.

“He owes me a thousand dollars, too,” Ayton said. “From ping-pong.”

Ayton and Doncic, who both are represented by agent Bill Duffy, bonded with each other over ping-pong, video games and, of course, basketball this summer during the pre-draft process.

Phoenix selected Ayton No.1 overall, and Doncic found his way to Dallas after being selected third overall by the Atlanta Hawks and then traded to the Mavericks on draft night.

“He’s a kid as well,” Ayton said. “He plays Fortnite a lot just like me. We just bond. We’re both competitors but we just bond from there, but once we’re on the floor we know it’s all business. We’re just trying to help our teams to win.”

The two rookie phenoms play their first NBA game Wednesday night when the Suns host the Mavericks at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

Leading up to the draft, there was widespread debate over which of the two would be the best player in the draft before Sacramento selected Marvin Bagley III in the No 2 spot.

Still, the debate over Ayton and Doncic will continue well beyond the first matchup that tips off their NBA careers.

Although they both are regarded as premier players, their talents differ almost as much as their paths to the NBA.

Ayton, 20, is a 7-foot-1, 250-pound center with a strong inside presence who is fresh off of a dominating season in his only year at the University of Arizona.

Ayton has a soft touch around the rim that complements his post-game, a rare skill given his size and age. He also showed the ability to shoot outside of the paint, a skill that if improved, could make him a dangerous outside threat. His size and strength have drawn comparisons to Hall of Famers such as Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson.

No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton said he is excited to start the regular season for the Phoenix Suns. (Photo by Jordan Kaye/Cronkite News)

The 19-year-old Doncic is a 6-7 guard, who is built more like a forward. He has played basketball professionally in Europe since he was 16.

Doncic’s court vision and playmaking ability is unique for his size. He demonstrated the ability to dominate some of the best competition in the world as a teenager playing in the EuroLeague, and has a combination of size and passing ability reminiscent of Larry Bird.

“He’s very humble,” Ayton said. “See, me, I think he runs Europe. European basketball. He’s an icon over there. So for him to be that humble and at that age, being around that type of hype and being a pro from so young, it’s really amazing to be around people like that and learn from them.”

Doncic won the EuroLeague Most Valuable Player award last season while also leading his team, Real Madrid, to a EuroLeague championship. The previous summer, Doncic played alongside Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic, and led the Slovenian national team to a gold medal at FIBA EuroBasket 2017.

Suns coach Igor Kokoskov coached Doncic on the Slovenian national team, so he is very familiar with the crafty rookie guard’s unique skill set. However, Kokoskov is focused on his new team’s performance on opening night, and less concerned with the potential threat of his former player.

“I don’t think about Luka Doncic,” Kokoskov said. “Defensively, yes. He’s very talented. He’s also a rookie. It’s the first NBA game for him. But we’re focusing on ourselves right now.

“We have a game plan. We have a scouting report. He’s going to be part of the scouting report. I’m not losing too much sleep over Luka Doncic. You know, just good player, good kid, big part of my growth as a coach, and I wish him nothing but the best.”

Both Ayton and Doncic joined Western Conference teams that are hoping to improve on losing seasons last year. The Suns finished last season 21-61, and the Mavericks were only slightly better, ending their year with a 24-58 record.

Both players bear the heavy weight of expectations that come with players taken so high in the draft.

There is an expectation to win, to live up to the promise of their potential, and to ultimately become cornerstones of franchises striving to return to past winning ways.

Reversing a losing culture has to start somewhere and the Suns and Mavericks are hoping it starts in the first meeting between Ayton and Doncic.

“No pressure at all,” Ayton said. “My main goal is just competing.”

Wednesday’s match-up will be the first of many to come between the two young rookies. But, whether Doncic will honor his overdue ping pong wager remains to be seen.

“He better have the money,” Ayton said playfully after Monday’s practice. “Probably tomorrow, I’ll FaceTime him, say ‘Hey, I need my money, bro.’ ”

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