It is clear he is comfortable operating in lofty surroundings, even on a morning in the mountains of Flagstaff, despite a sign on the wall that warned of the dangers of physical exertion at 7,000 feet of altitude.
“What’s that, 7,000? Nah, I need more like 15. That was pretty light,” Ayton quipped. “I don’t have that little chest burn feeling when you’re at such a high altitude. It was fun.”
So is winning. And the expectations are high for the former No. 1 draft pick, who is part of a promising 2018 NBA draft class that teams are looking at becoming the faces of rebuilding franchises.
Dallas guard Luka Doncic was the rookie of the year after averaging 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and six assists per game. Atlanta’s Trae Young finished second in the voting, averaging 19.1 points and 8.1 assists. Ayton was third.
“This summer, I’ve never worked so hard in a gym before in my life,” said the 21-year-old Ayton, who averaged 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds. “I’ve seen these lines so many times, I see them in regular life now. They beat me to the ground this summer.”
First-year Suns coach Monty Williams said Ayton’s development isn’t as much about his physical skills because those have been evident all along. He said the guys who develop into great players are the ones who recognize the sweat equity involved.
“They realize early in their first year that it takes a lot of work to be good, so their work ethic goes up that summer,” Williams said. “You see more consistent work from guys and a different mentality in the weight room. They take coaching a lot better because they know more stuff.”
A look at some of the top second-year players in the NBA:
DONCIC, DALLAS MAVERICKS
The 6-foot-7 Doncic wowed the NBA with his combination of shooting, passing and knack for producing in clutch moments. And he’s just 20 years old.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle expects improvement from Doncic in year two, but it might look a little different than others are expecting.
“He’s playing with more players and more better players,” Carlisle said. “And he’s playing with another star-caliber player with (Kristaps) Porzingis. The dynamics of the stats are going to be way different. I don’t know what the whole thing’s going to look like.”
YOUNG, ATLANTA HAWKS
The 6-2 guard got off to a slow start as a rookie, which led to plenty of talk that the draft day Doncic-for-Young swap was going to end up heavily in favor of the Mavericks.
But Young bounced back with an encouraging second half. He averaged more than 23 points and nine assists over his final 31 games.
“I know it’s going to be even tougher this year, but that’s something you work on during the summer and something I knew I needed to be even more prepared for,” Young said.
Marvin Bagley III, SACRAMENTO KINGS
The 6-11 Bagley was much like Young in that he pushed through an up-and-down first half of the season before finishing with an impressive second half.
The No. 2 pick averaged about 18 points and nine rebounds over the season’s final two months despite coming off the bench in most games. He made the All-Rookie team along with Doncic, Ayton, Young and Memphis’ Jaren Jackson.
“Not making the playoffs was something I thought about all summer,” Bagley said. “I just had that in the back of my mind that we still gotta get to the playoffs and show everybody what we can do.”
Jaren Jackson Jr., MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Last year’s No. 4 pick showed plenty of potential, averaging 13.8 points and 4.7 rebounds over 58 games despite missing time with a quadriceps injury. The 6-11 forward just turned 20 years old.
He’ll team with this year’s No. 2 overall pick, Ja Morant, on a remade Memphis roster.
“You can’t be predictable, you’ve got to grow and find other ways to get to the basket,” Jackson said. “I know a lot of the ways I scored before aren’t always going to work just because people get better and scout better.”
Collin Sexton, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Sexton was a bright spot on a bad Cavaliers team. The 6-2 guard, the No. 8 pick, averaged 16.7 points and three assists per game.
He said he spent the offseason watching hours of film and getting stronger in the weight room.
“I felt like I needed to be stronger to finish at the rim a lot better,” Sexton said. “And I want to be able to fight over screens, instead of getting hit on them.”