Deandre Ayton’s eyes light up any time he’s asked about learning from any of the NBA’s star big men.
The Phoenix Suns center takes pride in stealing little tricks from each of them.
After battling Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic in Game 3 of the conference semifinals last week, for example, Ayton couldn’t help but shake his head reading the MVP’s stat line.
Jokic has held Ayton’s respect since the Suns center’s rookie year, which is why what Ayton acquired following Phoenix’s elimination of the Nuggets is likely so much more special.
It wasn’t just more affirmation that Ayton could sign a monster extension this summer or more experience against one of the league’s best players.
Ayton got an uplifting message from Jokic written on the Denver center’s jersey. He has earned the league MVP’s respect.
“To my brother DA … U are beast !!!” the signed jersey said. “Keep up the good work !!!”
Jokic averaged 29.8 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.0 assists in the Nuggets’ 10-game postseason run.
Ayton had a field day in the paint in the Suns’ first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, but his work against Jokic in the second round was arguably more impressive.
The third-year pro is now averaging 15.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game on 72% shooting this playoff run. His individual defensive efforts against Jokic stood out, even as the Nuggets big man continued to put up video-game numbers.
Jokic wasn’t shy about letting Ayton know how well he put up a fight.
Suns forward Jae Crowder told Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta on Thursday that should mean more than anything.
“I told him to his face I’m proud of him,” Crowder said of Ayton. “Especially after Game 4 in Denver, I told him I’m proud of him. ‘That jersey Jokic sent … showed his respect for you. You got that by playing basketball, not by talking, not by anything but between the lines, mutual respect.’
“That’s the highest respect you can get from your peers, is respect on the court. He just earned him one by the league MVP.”