Best in history? That’s what Suns’ Ayton thinks about 2018 NBA draft class

What NBA draft class is the best in history? The Suns’ Deandre Ayton believes it’s his 2018 group, even thought Kobe Bryant’s 1996 class might argue with that. (File photo by Justin Parham/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – During the Suns’ successful quest to eliminate the Lakers in the Western Conference quarterfinals, Phoenix center Deandre Ayton averaged 15.8 points and earned a shooting percentage of 77.6. He is not the only member of the 2018 NBA draft class putting up eye-popping numbers in the postseason this year.

Ayton, teammate Mikal Bridges, Luka Dončić, Michael Porter Jr. and Trae Young all have made headlines this postseason, each scoring more than 20 points in at least one game. Ayton was the first pick in 2018, Dončić was third, Young fifth, Bridges 10th and Porter 14th.

“I think it’s the best class in NBA history,” Ayton said.

If not history, they are making a strong case for this decade.

Despite Dončić’s 46-point effort in Game 7 of the Western Conference quarterfinals, the Mavericks were eliminated by the Clippers. Young put up 21 points or more in all seven playoff games for the Hawks, who are tied 1-1 with the 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The richest series for the 2018 class is the Western Conference semifinal between the Suns and the Nuggets. The series features Ayton, Bridges and Porter as starters.

This 2018 draft class has had an impressive postseason.

Porter has the most playoff experience, mainly resulting from Denver’s run in the bubble last season when it reached the Western Conference finals. His more extensive experience may be why he leads the group in steals, blocks and rebounds.

Young has played in the least games with seven to Ayton and Bridges’ eight, Dončić’s 13 and Porter’s 27. Young’s 202 points in those seven games puts him at a similar clip to Dončić, who has scored 436 points in his 13 games. Young, who plays point guard, is the only member of the group not to record a block.

Ayton has not attempted a 3-point shot in either postseason series. His shooting percentage is 79.3%, almost 30% higher than Dončić, the next closest at 49.4%.

Bridges has only one free throw attempt in the postseason. He made the shot, giving him a 100% success rate.

Bridges scored a playoff high 23 points in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals. The two other members of the 2018 draft class in the game gave him the momentum he needed. In the first quarter, Ayton dunked over Porter, earning a free throw to cap the play. After the game, Bridges said Ayton’s dunk got him going.

Ayton ended the night with 20 points while Porter scored 15 in the Suns’ 122-105 win. Porter also suffered a minor back injury.

Game 2 saw another night where the 2018 draft class trio all scored double digits. Bridges led with 16, Ayton had 15 and Porter tallied 11. The other three Suns starters, Devin Booker, Jae Crowder and Chris Paul, also put up double digit nights. Again, the Suns earned a resounding victory, defeating the Nuggets 123-98.

Paul credits Ayton with much of the team’s success.

“You can’t ask for more from somebody,” Paul said. “He’s literally been our MVP in the postseason.”

Competing against Nuggets center and league MVP Nikola Jokić, Ayton has held his own. Jokić averaged 33 points in the conference quarterfinals. In the two games this series, he scored 22 and 24. In Game 2, Porter’s 11 points were the second-most-scored after Jokić, illustrating the Suns’ defensive dominance.

Torrey Craig, who spent three seasons in Denver and now plays for the Suns, specifically mentioned Ayton’s defensive positioning as part of the reason the Suns were able to limit the Nuggets’ scoring in both games.

Craig and Porter are best friends, stemming from their time in Denver. Craig said the two still talk almost every day and he knows the next two road games in Denver will be tough because of the mile-high altitude and the environment. He also said the Suns are aware of how big a threat Porter could pose if he gets the chance.

“Porter can really light it up, so we just try not to give him any clean looks,” Craig said.

Craig said the Phoenix defense contributed to the Nuggets’ lack of scoring, especially when it came to holding Denver to 32.6% from 3-point range, but he noted that Denver missed a lot of open shots.

Ayton picked up two personal fouls in the first quarter of Game 2, causing concern he might foul out of the game. Suns coach Monty Williams took Ayton out of the game briefly, and after that, Ayton didn’t foul the rest of the game.

“It’s a growth moment for him for sure to do that on that stage, and we’re going to need to have that kind of awareness when we go on the road,” Williams said.

Ayton called on his teammates to step up their game after his early fouls, Paul said.

“He was mad at us and I loved it,” Paul said. “He was right. We’ve got to protect him. We’ve got to help him.”

Ayton believes the 2018 draft class still has more to give beyond what he, Dončić, Porter and Young already have accomplished. He said there’s still more players from their draft who have yet to break out.

“It’s a new generation in the league,” Ayton said.

Catie Cheshire kay-tee che-shire (she/her)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Catie Cheshire expects to graduate in August 2021 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Cheshire is a graduate assistant at the National Center for Disability and Journalism.