Struggling Suns hope Ayton’s return provides boost

PHOENIX (AP) — Starting center Deandre Ayton is returning from his 25-game suspension at a good time for the Suns.

Phoenix has been a surprisingly competitive team in the Western Conference through the season’s first seven weeks, fighting through its schedule with an 11-15 record despite a patchwork frontcourt that’s included Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky III and Dario Saric.

But the Suns could use a boost after losing four of their past five games. Ayton’s expected return Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Clippers could provide it, especially since it comes just 24 hours after a frustrating 111-110 loss to Portland.

“It’ll give us a shot of energy, it’s exciting,” Suns forward Cameron Johnson said. “You know his energy is going to be really high right now. It’s exciting to get one of your brothers back.”

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Ayton played the season’s opening game on Oct. 23 — scoring 18 points and grabbing 11 rebounds — before being suspended for violating the terms of the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Program after testing positive for a diuretic. The 6-foot-11, 250-pounder averaged 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds last year as a rookie.

“I’m hopeful that we don’t rely on anybody to be the savior,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “I’m hopeful that our style of play stays the same and that he fits right in and makes it even better, if that makes sense.”

Baynes, Kaminsky and Saric have all been productive in Ayton’s absence, but it’s Baynes’ great start that might be the most surprising.

The 6-foot-10, 260-pound veteran has been a valuable role player throughout his career, including with the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs, but the 33-year-old’s production has spiked in his first season with the Suns.

He’s averaging a career-high 14 points while providing his trademark bruising defensive presence in the lane. Kaminsky and Saric are both averaging about 11 points per game.

But none of them possess Ayton’s athleticism. There’s little doubt the Suns have missed him.

“He is a rim protector, he can rebound, he can score and we certainly need that pressure on the rim on offense,” Williams said. “All of that stuff along with moving the ball, I am hopeful that it translates into us playing even better than we have.”

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