The Phoenix Suns expected big things out of second-year center Deandre Ayton this season.
Instead, the former No. 1 overall pick missed 30 of the first 32 games of the season, but Ayton is finally starting to show off his considerable talent.
Not much was expected of Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard Luguentz Dort.
Dort went undrafted after leaving Arizona State following his freshman season, and he eventually signed a two-way contract with the Thunder.
But Dort, pressed into significant action with the seven-game absence of Terrance Ferguson, has been a pleasant surprise.
Friday night in Phoenix, the Suns and Thunder will meet for the second time this season, with their surging youngsters ready to take center stage.
The Suns are coming off a 133-104 win Tuesday in Dallas, and Ayton had a season-high 31 points on 13-of-15 shooting.
“His ability to drive and force guys to help, and then we got 3s on the backside or him just driving and finishing or just him posting up,” Suns coach Monty Williams said of the way Ayton changes the game. “That’s who we want to see him be consistently.”
Friday’s home game comes between a pair of three-game road trips for the Suns. Phoenix is in a stretch of playing 13 of 19 games away from home.
Williams changed up his starting lineup against the Mavericks, going bigger with forward Mikal Bridges as a starter. Williams had used the lineup late in games but hadn’t deployed it to start.
The result was an early lead and eventually a comfortable victory for the young Suns.
“It says a lot about where we’re going as an organization, the leadership on our team, the people that surround these guys every day,” Williams said after Tuesday’s win.
For the Thunder, Dort spent much of the first part of the season in the G League, not making his debut until early December.
After playing a season-high 32 minutes in Oklahoma City’s comeback in Houston on Jan. 20 with Ferguson out for personal reasons, Dort moved into the starting lineup for the last six.
Ferguson’s timetable for return is unknown.
Dort more than doubled his previous high with 23 points in Wednesday’s win in Sacramento. In that game, Dort went 5 of 6 from 3-point range.
“As long as he’s taking the right shots … he’s a good shooter,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I think the biggest thing for young players is, ‘When do I shoot? When do I pass? When do I drive?’ And I think these are things that Lu is learning.”
In the teams’ first meeting, Dec. 20 in Oklahoma City, the Thunder pulled out a 126-108 victory thanks to 32 points from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Ayton missed that game with a sprained ankle.
The Thunder come into Friday’s game having won six consecutive on the road to tie the second-longest streak in Oklahoma City history. The Thunder have won 11 of their last 12 on the road, a dramatic turnaround after losing their first six away from home.
“I think to win on the road, you’ve gotta be a together team,” Donovan said. “I think this group is together.”
–Field Level Media