Suns match Pacers' offer for Ayton and keep core intact

PHOENIX — Deandre Ayton finally has his new contract with the Phoenix Suns, who just weren’t about to let him go for nothing.

A person with knowledge of the situation said the Suns quickly decided to match a four-year, $133 million offer Ayton agreed to Thursday with the Indiana Pacers. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the Suns had not publicly announced the decision.

The Athletic first reported that Phoenix matched the offer. ESPN first reported that Ayton had agreed with the Pacers.

The move means the Suns, at least for now, keep their core of Ayton and the All-Star backcourt of Devin Booker and Chris Paul. The trio led Phoenix to the 2021 NBA Finals and a franchise-record 64 wins during the most recent regular season.

Ayton, the first pick in the 2018 draft, was eligible for an extension from Phoenix last summer.

That didn’t happen, and he became a restricted free agent this summer, meaning Phoenix had a chance to match any offer. Once Indiana made its move, the Suns responded quickly.

Phoenix has been linked with interest in acquiring Brooklyn star Kevin Durant during the offseason, but Ayton can’t be used as trade bait because of the new deal.

The Suns’ move is a blow to the Pacers, who had hoped to add Ayton as a key player in a promising young core that includes 22-year-old point guard Tyrese Haliburton, who was acquired in a February trade with Sacramento.

Ayton, who turns 24 later this month, got off to a shaky start to his career but became a critical component in the Suns’ run to the Finals. He is part of the 2018 draft class that includes Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Atlanta’s Trae Young.

The athletic 6-foot-11 Ayton is powerful in the low post and has developed a strong midrange game. He averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game last season on 63.4% shooting from the field and 36.8% shooting from 3-point range.

Much of the criticism of Ayton has focused on his maturity. The NBA suspended him 25 games without pay in 2019 for violating the league’s Anti-Drug Program by testing positive for a diuretic. He, too, was benched for part of Game 7 of the team’s second-round loss to Dallas earlier this year after appearing to have exchanged words with coach Monty Williams.

Still, he is generally popular with his teammates. Booker and Paul often praised Ayton, who did a lot of the little things to help the team win.

Even without Ayton, Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard may not be done with negotiations. Indiana has three potential first-round picks in next year’s draft and enough players and assets to help other teams looking for a salary-cap dunk.

The Pacers announced Thursday that they have waived four players: Duane Washington Jr., Nik Stauskas, Malik Fitts and Juwan Morgan. They were part of the trade from Indiana that sent guard Malcolm Brogdon to Boston, clearing enough cap space to make the search for Ayton or other players realistic.

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