"I remembered watching him on TV -- when it was 'Lob City' -- and I never imagined being out there with him," Ayton said. "He's made centers in this league All-Stars, and led to the biggest contracts.
"You embrace that."
Ayton cares about what people think of him. The pressure started the moment he was taken first overall in the 2018 NBA draft -- two spots ahead of Luka Doncic. Two years ago, he finished behind Doncic in Rookie of the Year voting. Last season, Ayton was hit with a 25-game suspension for violating the NBA's anti-drug policy by testing positive for a banned diuretic, followed by two ankle injuries. Meanwhile, Doncic became a legitimate MVP candidate in his second season with the Dallas Mavericks, drawing further scrutiny on the Phoenix Suns big man.
"[The criticism] bothered me, but that's the life I chose," Ayton said. "It was decisions I made and unintentional mistakes and there were consequences. I didn't put my head down -- I owned it.
"It was looking in the mirror and saying, 'I'm not that person.'"
But being overshadowed by Doncic doesn't mean Ayton is lacking potential -- far from it. There are moments when he elevates himself into the upper tier of NBA centers, a development that could reshape the future of the Western Conference.