There was a lot to unpack in the Phoenix Suns' season-opening shellacking of the Dallas Mavericks, like the fact that Devin Booker actually looked like the next coming of James Harden, or that Josh Jackson was a roving two-way menace, or that the Suns matched their highest assist total (35) of the post-Nash era, or that Ryan Anderson was a plus-22.
But what made this a spicy matchup to begin with were the two phenoms, picked first and third overall in this year's draft, making their NBA regular-season debuts. There's a particular thrill to watching rookies play their first games, even knowing that the vast majority of them don't start out as good NBAers. With no sample of meaningful NBA action to draw on, everything they do, good or bad, comes as something of a surprise. There will never be any big-picture conclusions to draw from 48 minutes of basketball, but in a game that officially launched the careers of Suns center Deandre Ayton and Mavs point-forward Luka Doncic, most of the surprises were pleasant.
The game didn't really pit the two against each other. There were a few moments when they went head to head - Doncic drove on Ayton out of the pick-and-roll and wrapped a pass around him to DeAndre Jordan for a dunk; Ayton went right through Doncic in the post; Doncic left Ayton in the dust in transition - but for the most part they operated independently of each other, which is how it should be. The two are strikingly different as basketball archetypes; Doncic the wing-sized point guard who does a bit of everything and slings passes that have eyes of their own, Ayton the gargantuan but fluid pivot with ball skills and nimble feet and a feathery touch. It was the big man who carried the day in their first meeting.
Ayton was calm, measured, and assured. It helped, of course, that he wasn't relied upon to handle the ball. Doncic was, and so he looked a bit more skittish, a bit less within himself. All told, Ayton finished with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting, with 10 rebounds, six assists, a steal, a block, no turnovers, and a plus-17 rating in the win. Doncic went for 10 points on 5-of-16 (including 0-5 from deep), with eight rebounds, four assists, four turnovers, and a minus-18 in the loss.
The biggest knocks on Doncic weren't exactly dispelled. He struggled to create separation, or break down his man off the bounce. He didn't look particularly comfortable defending in space. But his feel and passing made up for a lot. On top of making Ayton look like he was running in cement when he zoomed past him on the break, Doncic showed a nice chemistry with DeAndre Jordan, to whom he threw a gorgeous look-off-the-defense lob and this slick behind-the-back bounce pass in the first half:
The most glaring issue for Doncic in this game was that his jumper (particularly his step-back, which he went to numerous times) wasn't there. But that shouldn't be a recurring theme. Perhaps more vexing is that he wasn't effective at all when playing off the ball; his cuts lacked purpose, direction, or zip. His defense, too, is probably going to take some time.
Meanwhile, Ayton, whose defense was also tabbed as an area of concern going into the draft, held his own at that end of the floor. He used his insane reach to corral ball-handlers on switches, and while he predictably struggled in most one-on-two situations as the drop man against the pick-and-roll, he played it perfectly in a couple cases, busting up a pair of would-be alley-oops.
The first thing you notice about Ayton is how much space he can carve out. Whether it's with screens, handoffs, or box-outs, it just seems to be extremely hard to get around him. (Which made it kind of frustrating when he slipped a bunch of screens or rolled before making them connect.) The Suns leveraged the threat of Ayton as the roll man, but hardly ever actually had him finish on the roll. Instead, they forced switches and then had Ayton post up mismatches, which he feasted on. His post game is already pretty refined, not only in terms of scoring but also making prompt kickout passes when he gets doubled.
Booker was ultimately the story of the game, but his pullup heroics owed a lot to Ayton's space-cleaving grunt work. The two played nearly all of their minutes together, and when Booker went bonkers in the fourth quarter, most of his shots came directly out of the two-man game with Ayton. They ran a dribble-handoff that led to a Booker three, and moments later produced another off-the-bounce Booker dagger when Ayton freed him up with a screen that involved a nice bit of misdirection.
On another fourth-quarter possession, Ayton managed to corral an errant entry pass and kick out of a double-team to set up a Jackson triple. All three of Ayton's assists in the final frame led to 3-pointers. Six assists for the game looks gaudy, but he didn't make any exceptional passes - just a bunch of correct ones. Suffice it to say he outplayed the other DeAndre.
The Suns as a team shot ridiculously and unsustainably well (19-of-34 from 3-point range), and they're still glaringly light on creators, but it's clear that a spread pick-and-roll orchestrated by Booker and Ayton can be a freaking problem. In the 22 minutes those two shared the floor with Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza, the Suns produced a tidy 150 offensive rating.
It's easy when Booker is so molten-hot that he takes pressure off Ayton to do much more than screen, kick out, and attempt only the highest-percentage shots. A lot of nights, his burden will be heavier. Conversely, Doncic is going to have games where his jumper is humming, and the Mavs' opponents miss a bunch more shots and give him more opportunity to get out in transition, and he looks like the star that his unprecedented teenaged EuroLeague exploits portended.
These two have long seasons and, presumably, long careers ahead of them. This game will quickly become a speck, receding from view. For now, though, everything is new, and everything is surprising. How can you not be excited to see what comes next?