The Suns have easily been the biggest surprise over the first few weeks of the NBA season. Phoenix has basically hovered around the 22-win range over the last four years, but has raced out to a 6–3 start in 2019, including wins over the 76ers, Clippers, and Nets. Two of their three losses have been by one point to presumed playoff teams (the Nuggets and Jazz.) And all of this is happening with former No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton suspended since the first game of the season.
There are—shockingly—lots of exciting things happening in Phoenix right now. Ricky Rubio is providing the most competent point guard play the franchise has seen in several seasons. Kelly Oubre Jr. is taking a major step forward. Devin Booker is currently shooting over 50% from the field and three-point range, while connecting on over 90% of his free throws. Today, however, we are actually going to focus on the subtle brilliance of center Aron Baynes, who has filled in for Ayton better than anyone could have imagined.
Baynes arrived in Phoenix this summer via trade from the Celtics, a cap-clearing move for Boston on draft night that mostly flew under the radar from the Suns’ perspective. But Baynes has been hilariously effective over the first nine games of the season. Phoenix has a 12.5 net rating with the Aussie big man on the court, and Baynes is currently obliterating many of his previous career highs in categories like field-goal attempts, points, assists, three-pointers attempted, and three-point percentage. (Baynes’s previous points-per-game high was 6.6, through nine games he’s at 15.8!)
When watching the Suns, the most impressive part of Baynes’s game is how little time he wastes on the court. In what’s basically become a hyper-offensive era in the NBA, players who have a glaring hole on that side of the floor immediately become a major target of defenses, who can use their deficiencies to muck up everything else. This can especially be a problem for centers who can’t space the floor or aren’t threats when rolling to the hoop.
But Baynes’s constant effort makes him far from a liability. He is setting heavy screens on nearly every possession, whether it’s for a pick-and-roll or someone off the ball. He moves with purpose on all of his actions, which means he always has to be accounted for. In a starting lineup with not-always-respected shooters in Oubre and Rubio, Baynes’s relentless movement helps create open looks for his teammates while not letting the defense cheat.
With the caveat that this level of production is almost certainly unsustainable, Baynes has been nothing short of incredible. He’s providing some of Phoenix’s spacing himself, shooting a whopping 47.4% on threes, all of which are of the catch-and-shoot variety. Teams are basically daring Baynes to let it fly by leaving him wide open on the perimeter, and he’s making opponents pay. Baynes is also ranked 13th among all centers with 37 screen assists, creating 89 points off his bone-crushing picks. Meanwhile, over 80% of his field goals are assisted, which shows how Baynes is almost never looking for his own shot, instead letting any offense come to him naturally.
On the defensive end of the floor, Baynes is tied for second among all players with six charges drawn. He does rack up some fouls, but many of those come from the fact that he’s willing to engage with pretty much anyone at the rim, even at the risk of getting yammed on. He’s also a decent-enough late-shot clock switcher, while burly enough to bang with opposing big on the block.
Look, Baynes isn’t going to shoot nearly 50% from three all year long, and it’s possible he loses his starting job entirely when Ayton returns. But as far as role players go, few people in the league (if any) are doing a better job of committing to their station than Baynes right now. He frees up his teammates by continuously screening defenders. He never holds the ball. He makes teams pay for not respecting his outside shooting. And he’s always in the mix defensively.
Especially in today’s game, too many big men can be played off the floor, because outside of the very elite, most of them are specialists. Baynes doesn’t have to continue to play like an All-Star to be effective. But the fact that he’s managed to be well-rounded while playing entirely within himself gives him a leg up on so many other centers of his ilk. At $5.9 million, Baynes could be half as good and still wildly underpaid, simply because of how much baseline adequacy he has in so many areas. (And while this is still probably a conversation for another time worthy of its own story, Baynes’s production may call into question how to handle Ayton when he returns.)
The Suns, as a whole, will likely come back down to earth sooner rather than later. They’re getting hot shooting from typically not great shooters. Teams will start to take them more seriously. The overwhelming quality of the West also typically wins out. But for now, Phoenix is improbably one of the most fun teams in the NBA to watch on a nightly basis. And while he may not stand out at first blush, a huge factor in that early success has been the play of Baynes. Even when he regresses to something resembling normal, his all-around effectiveness shouldn‘t be overlooked.