Within the span of two weeks, two of the premier young talents in the NBA were suspended for violating the terms of the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Program. Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton tested positive for a diuretic, and Atlanta Hawks power forward John Collins tested positive for Growth hormone-releasing peptide known as pralmorelin.
Each player received a 25-game suspension, but the direct effect on their respective teams has been very different.
The Hawks were crippled by the loss of their second-best player, who was expected to have a breakout year. The dynamic duo of Collins and Trae Young were off to a terrific start before the suspension was handed out. Five games into his third season, Collins was averaging 17 points, 9 rebounds, two assists and two blocks per game.
The Suns were able to replace their young center with a solid veteran in Aron Baynes. Not only did Baynes fill the void left by the second-year pro, but he thrived in the starting role. It was a much different player than the player we saw in Boston, Detroit and San Antonio. Through 15 games this season, the 33-year old is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds and assists. His 14.3 ppg average is 7.7 points more than his previous high.
Both players are due back before Christmas — Ayton eligible to return on Tuesday against the Los Angeles Clippers and Collins on Dec. 23. After being absent for most of the season to date, how will their returns immediately affect their teams? Do their long-term plans change?
Phoenix has been the darling team early on this season. They started the year winning five of their first seven games, which included victories over the Philadelphia 76ers and the Clippers. Even the two losses were one-point losses to the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz. Expectations were for them to be one of the worst teams in the league yet again, but they were actually one of the five best teams in the Western Conference early on.
The Suns seem to have plateaued since then, but they still sit in 8th place in the playoff race. Their 111.4 offensive rating is the sixth-best in the NBA and they have the fifth-best scoring offense. Those things could change with the return of Ayton, as will their pace which ranks eighth.
All indications from head coach Monty Williams are that Ayton will return as the starting center once he is able to return to the floor. Fortunately for Phoenix, Baynes is accustomed to a reserve role off of the bench, so that shouldn’t be a concern.
Baynes himself missed nine games, which killed their defense. In the time that he missed, their defensive rating fell to 116.1 which was 25th in the league. While defense may not be the calling card for Ayton, he is much more capable of defending than Frank Kaminsky.
On the offensive side of the ball, Phoenix will miss the three-point threat of Baynes with the first unit, but it may ultimately make the second unit that much better. While the ball movement and pace may slow, the Suns will benefit from Ayton getting touches inside. His post game has progressed quite nicely throughout his rookie season, and he should have more moves in his arsenal this season.
The Suns are no longer a team where everything runs through Devin Booker. The scoring sensation has been much more of a facilitator this year than in previous years. His usage has gone down with the addition of Ricky Rubio and role players are stepping up and contributing more. Having Ayton back manning the middle, this type of play should continue.
Oddly enough, Phoenix was not expected to make the postseason but they seem to have a legitimate chance. The story playing out in Atlanta is quite the opposite.
There were hefty expectations for the Hawks heading into this season for good reason. They have an outstanding head coach in Lloyd Pierce, the roster is oozing with young talent like rookies De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. With progression from Young and Kevin Huerter, Atlanta had every reason in the world to pursue a return to the playoffs.
After winning their first two games, Atlanta began to fall. They have two wins in their last 16 games, coming against Golden State and Charlotte. The Hawks are now 6-20 and have a date with the Los Angeles Lakers, who own the best record in the league.
One of the biggest areas of concern for Atlanta is their defense. They rank 28th in opponent scoring and have the second-worst defensive rating in the league. Collins should be able to make a significant difference in this area. His shot-blocking skills are elite, and he is able to defend on the perimeter fairly well for his size. Should that translate to more fast-break opportunities for the Hawks, they’ll be in good hands with Young at the controls.
Collins will definitely have an impact on their defense, but even more so with their offense. He has been the second-leading scorer and should continue to be so once he is inserted back into the lineup. Jabari Parker stepped up quite nicely in the absence of Collins. The former top overall pick is averaging 16 points and 6.4 rebounds per game through the first 25 contests. He is shooting above 50 percent from the field and is averaging a career-high 1.4 steals per game.
Further, both Hunter and Reddish seem to have been getting more comfortable on the floor. The consistency isn’t there, but you can see the potential. Having the veteran presence of Vince Carter will help the rookies, including Bruno Fernando, as the season progresses. Better, the Hawks have already been playing more aggressively than they did the first few weeks of the season.
Ultimately, getting these two talented big men back on the floor will benefit both teams tremendously. Their poor decision making and lack of awareness is a cause for concern, but neither of these two tried to deny or downplay what happened. They have owned up to what they did, apologized and served their time. They are ready to put this behind them and get back on the floor — so are the two organizations that are aiming to turn things around at the start of the new year.
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