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How Aron Baynes went from role player to star for the Suns

Aron Baynes is the living embodiment of a basketball journeyman. But at age 32, on the eighth stop of his pro career, Baynes is turning in a remarkable breakout season for the Phoenix Suns that no one can truthfully say they saw coming.

Baynes arrived in the United States from Australia in 2005 to play for Washington State. After a solid, but unspectacular, four-year college career, he went undrafted in 2009. Baynes took his game to Europe, starting with a stint in Lithuania that led him to the German league, the Greek League, and the Slovenian league before he finally got an NBA shot in 2013 with the San Antonio Spurs.

Baynes would spend three seasons in San Antonio as a sparingly used bench big who provided some hard fouls, rebounding, and little else. He then moved to the Detroit Pistons for two seasons before signing with the Boston Celtics and becoming a spot-starter who would do the the dirty work next to Al Horford.

The Celtics’ decision to trade Baynes during the 2019 draft for a future protected first-round pick and cap relief barely registered as a blip on the radar when it happened. It turned out to be one of the most important moves of the offseason. Baynes is having a career year across the board in Phoenix for a surprising Suns team that looks poised to stay in the Western Conference playoff race. Baynes’ play has become even more critical since former No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Deandre Ayton was suspended for using a banned substance.

Baynes isn’t just having an impressive year by his own standards. He’s legitimately been one of the most impactful players in the NBA at the start of this season. This is how he’s doing it.

Baynes has expanded his offensive game, starting with his jump shot

Entering this season, Baynes had never averaged more than 6.6 points per game. So far, he’s averaging 16.2 points per game for the Suns. The biggest reason for his offensive improvement? Baynes has come out of nowhere to become a knockdown shooter.

Baynes is hitting 50 percent of his threes this season on 4.4 attempts per game. Phoenix is getting him catch-and-shoot looks from the top of the key, and he’s draining them with a slow but accurate release. It’s an extraordinary development for a player who was a career 28 percent three-point shooter coming into the year.

Baynes started to gain confidence in his three-point ball with the Celtics last season, but he’s taking it to new levels this year. More than 44 percent of his field-goal attempts have been threes. He’s made 22 threes through the first 10 games of this season after making only 25 threes in entire career before moving to Phoenix.

There are two other big pieces to Baynes’ offensive improvement. The first is that he’s finishing at the rim better than ever before. Baynes is making 69.4 percent of his shots within three feet this season after making only 56 percent of them the last two years in Boston. With the ball in his hands more often, he’s also growing as a passer. Baynes had never posted an assist rate above 9.9 percent before this season. Now he’s assisting on 20.5 percent of Phoenix’s buckets when he’s in the game.

Baynes is taking 80 percent of his shots at the rim or from three-point range this year. He’s more comfortable making passes than ever before. His true shooting percentage of 71.6 percent is the second highest in the entire NBA, behind only Dwight Howard. This is how a career role player takes his offense to unseen levels.

Baynes’ defense is elite, too

The Suns are routinely among the worst defenses in the NBA. After finishing No. 29 in defensive efficiency last season and dead last the year before that, Phoenix is now No. 13 in defensive efficiency this season. Baynes’ presence has a lot to do with it.

For all of Ayton’s offensive talent that got him picked No. 1 overall ahead of Luka Doncic, his defense is constantly maligned. Baynes has shored up that end of the floor since taking over the starting spot following Ayton’s suspension. Right now, Phoenix is more than nine points per 100 possessions better with Baynes on the floor.

Baynes is quick enough to hedge ball screens, strong enough to absorb contact at the rim, and smart enough to make his rotations on time. Having a defensive upgrade like this in the middle has been monumental for the Suns.

Baynes was always known as a quality rebounder and defender before this year. That’s remained true even amid his offensive growth.

Baynes really is playing like a superstar this year

Baynes has to be the front-runner for the Most Improved Player award early in the season. Should his praise go even beyond that? According to ESPN’s RAPTOR metric, Baynes has been the seventh most valuable player in the NBA this season. The only names in front of him are Jimmy Butler, James Harden, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Will Barton, and Doncic.

Want more advanced stats? Baynes is No. 5 in the league in box score plus-minus, No. 2 behind Giannis Antetokounmpo in win shares per-48, and top-10 in value over replacement player. No matter which all-in-one stat you prefer, Baynes is grading out as one of the most impactful players in the league in all of them.

Imagine if the Celtics kept him. Boston already looks like a Finals contender in the East, but their biggest issue is in the middle. Baynes would have been the perfect solution.

The Suns will have a dilemma on their hands when Ayton returns. Ayton is the future of Phoenix, but the Suns are so much better with Baynes on the floor. If nothing else, Phoenix will have the best one-two punch at center in the NBA when Ayton returns to bolster the rotation, regardless of who starts.

There might not be a better story in the league than Baynes this season. As long as he keeps playing like this, the Suns are for real.

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