Aron Baynes enjoyed bubble experience despite not playing

Phoenix Suns veteran center Aron Baynes talks about how the 2019-20 season ended with him dealing with COVID-19 and not playing in the Orlando Bubble in Part 1 of a three-part series

Duane Rankin
 
| Arizona Republic

Aron Baynes’ career season ended on an unfortunate note.

The Phoenix Suns rugged backup big was diagnosed with COVID-19 before the team headed to the Orlando Bubble for the NBA restart in July. Then, when he appeared ready to play in the bubble, Baynes suffered another setback with a knee injury in practice that kept him sidelined.

“I figured try to play half the games out there,” Baynes said. “Then my knee took the brunt of a collision.”

By the time Baynes recovered, the Suns were going full throttle.

No need to potentially alter their winning formula by playing him.

 “I understood where Monty (Williams) was because I told him, ‘look, I’m available, if I’m needed, I’m definitely available, but I understand you really have a good thing going with these guys,’” Baynes said. “‘I don’t want to come in here and disrupt that, but I still want to be able to play.’”  

Baynes isn’t moping over that part of his first season with the Suns. The veteran center, during a 1-on-1 interview with The Arizona Republic, discussed a variety of topics that include his views on social justice, COVID-19 and his NBA future now that he is an unrestricted free agent, which we’re presenting in three-part series starting today and continuing Wednesday and Thursday. 

Baynes embraced an expanded role in Phoenix and enjoyed the magical 8-0 bubble run despite not being able to finish the season on the court setting hard screens, playing physical, knocking down 3s and having up-and-close personal words with the referees as he did earlier in the season.

“Coming from Day One up in Flagstaff to where we were able to finish it off in Orlando, it was a great thing,” Baynes said. “We showed that the whole team bought into Monty’s system and his nuttiness. Everyone found their place to contribute and so that was a great thing for us just be able to be there and be a part of it.”  

Career year

Baynes still remembers that first phone call last summer with Suns General Manager James Jones and first meeting with head coach Monty Williams upon joining Phoenix. The Suns acquired Baynes in a trade with Boston on draft day that also led to getting rookie Ty Jerome and giving the Celtics a first-round pick.

The Suns were coming off their second-worst season in franchise history. They were young and needed veteran stability and leadership.

“Trying to build a program, it starts with bringing in the right guys,” Baynes said.

An NBA champion, Baynes was one of those “right” guys Phoenix added.

Averaging a career-high 11.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, Baynes made more 3s last season (59) than in his previous seven combined (25) in shooting a career-best 35.1% from distance.

In one of his final games this season, Baynes hit a career-high nine 3s with one being a step-back on All-Star Damian Lillard in scoring a career-best 37 in a March 6 win over Portland.

“He got hot,” Trail Blazers center Hassan Whiteside said after the game. “Once he hit a step-back three over Dame, I knew he was feeling good. We were switching with him and he made some tough shots.”

Aron Baynes’ career night lifts Suns past Trail Blazers, 127-117

Aron Baynes scored 37 points, hitting 9-of-14 from 3, both career highs in leading Phoenix to 127-117 win over Portland.

COVID-19

The Suns were 26-39 when NBA commissioner Adam Silver pressed pause on the season March 11 after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus. When talks began to take place about resuming the season and Phoenix was one of the 22 teams chosen for the restart, Baynes saw Williams take the lead in getting the team ready for the opportunity to play again.

“There were teams that weren’t able to be in that situation,” Baynes said. “That was something Monty preached to us throughout our time getting ready in that four-month break between the season and the start up. It’s a get-to, not a got-to and we’ve got to really take advantage of what’s been given to us. Everybody soaked up his message and took it to heart.”

Baynes noticed in Phoenix’s first scrimmage game that ended in victory over Utah that the Suns were fully engaged and committed to maximizing the moment.

“We were playing for each other and we were playing for the betterment of the program,” Baynes said.

He was noticing it from afar, though.

Baynes tested positive for COVID-19 in June and was unable to clear NBA protocols for weeks. His wife and two kids later tested positive for the virus, but fortunately had “minimal symptoms.”

Saying the virus “put him on his butt for a week” and he mostly slept for four days straight, Baynes eventually was cleared and made his way to Florida in July.

He missed the scrimmages, but Baynes was available for Phoenix’s restart opener against Washington.

“The thing that got me through COVID was the prospect of being able to play basketball again,” Baynes said. “Just trying to stay ready. You worked for five-and-half months at that point to be able to step on an NBA court.”

Phoenix Suns big Aron Baynes trying to work his way back in NBA restart

Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams talks about backup big man Aron Baynes looking to make his NBA restart debut after a bout with COVID-19.

Another setback

Baynes still needed to get in shape as he went a month without touching a basketball.

“There was a bit of a wind issue when I got there,” Baynes said. “I hadn’t played up-and-down, I hadn’t run up-and-down with guys competitively, but we were able to get some up-and-downs, 4-on-4, but we still able to get up-and-down (the court).”

Williams was glad to have Baynes back, but wasn’t ready to play him right away.

“He looked in great shape,” Williams said a day before the opener. “His body always looks pretty toned and defined. He certainly doesn’t have the wind to play the way that we play.”  

Baynes personally targeted a return Aug. 8 against Miami as he wanted to play half the eight “seeding” games. The Heat were Game 5 for the Suns.

Right before that, Baynes said he collided knees with a teammate in practice.

Not good. Not good at all.

“Unfortunate accident in practice and it set me back again,” Baynes said.  “I kind of limped around campus for a couple of days.” 

Then by the time he got over that, Phoenix was cooking at 6-0. No need to change what was working even if it meant keeping one of its best players sidelined.

“We were playing so well that I was just trying to help the guys out,” Baynes said. “Talk to them and try to contribute in my own way even though I wasn’t on the court.”

Unbeaten Bubble Boyz

Baynes didn’t play, but he remained his usual active self from the bench.

Celebrating with teammates. Shouting to the ceiling.

“I didn’t want to be upset and have a sour look on my face,” Baynes said.

Stirring it up with the refs, too. Without fans in attendance, Baynes could be heard loud and clear.

“I had a lot of fun out there even if I was just talking crap to the referees,” Baynes said laughing. “Trying to get one or two more calls from one of them.”  

The Suns emerged as the only unbeaten team in the “seeding” games. They played their best basketball in recent memory, were the talk of the bubble, but came up short of reaching the play-in tournament and learned a lesson about the importance of never taking a game for granted.

“We understand that OK, now we can’t have those slip ups where we do give away one game next year,” Baynes said. “As much as you tell someone, look, it can come down to one game because anyone who has been in the playoffs understands that home-court advantage can be with that one-game scenario or you can be within one game of making it like we were this year.”

Baynes said he enjoyed his time in the bubble. With all the teams in one location, Baynes said the players found themselves hanging out in groups.

“There’d be 20 other people running around the campus with you,” Baynes said.

‘Once-in-a-lifetime’ 

The bubble setting enabled Baynes to catch up with his friend and fellow Aussie bro, Patty Mills, as the Suns and San Antonio Spurs were both in the Yacht Club.

“Mostly every other night, we were probably hanging out,” he said. “Whenever we didn’t have a game or if they had an early game or if we had the day off, we’d pass each or we’d meet up in the restaurant every now and then.”

A little fish. A little glass of wine.

A little better than the buffet for sure.

“As much as they tried to do well by the players with the buffet, I commend them for outsourcing and figuring ways to get things done, it’s still nothing like going to a restaurant as that what they do night in and night out throughout the year,” Baynes said. “It’s going to be a different level.”

Mills only played three games in the bubble and looked more like an assistant coach than a player for the Spurs.

Better Mills than Baynes on this one.

“I was just lucky they didn’t put a pen and paper in my hand like they did him when I was on the bench,” Baynes said.

Baynes called the bubble an “awesome atmosphere,” but he hopes it’s a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience.

“I hope they can figure out a way to play in front of fans next year,” he said.

(Coming Wednesday: For Baynes, COVID-19 and divisiveness in United States both hit close to home.)

Have opinion about current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at dmrankin@gannett.com or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on Twitter at @DuaneRankin.

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