MILWAUKEE - When the Phoenix Suns acquired Aron Baynes via trade, many expected the Australian big man would quickly be on the move to a contending team.
Instead, Baynes started the season in career-best form, seeing significant increases in playing time and usage; the Suns unleashed the 33-year-old and he picked up right where he had left off at the FIBA World Cup with the Boomers.
Speaking at Suns' practice at Marquette University in Milwaukee, coach Monty Williams spoke glowingly about Baynes' addition to the roster.
"Aron's been good for us, he brings a bit of that national team flavour. Those guys are unifiers, connectors," Williams said.
"He's had a few injuries that have held him back but he brings a life to the team that at times we need and I just like the guys that play on the national teams because they tend to bring some of that to their NBA team, it's always good."
The injuries Williams speaks of are a frustrating continuation of his Baynes' final season in Boston, when multiple nagging ailments kept him to just 51 appearances. So far this season, he has missed 16 games, with hip soreness keeping him out of the last seven.
After completing a workout in the gym while his teammates got shots up after practice, the sidelined Baynes spoke to the difficulties of being kept off the floor.
"It's frustrating, I haven't been able to get out there and go to war with these guys over the last little bit and it's definitely frustrating but we have that next man up mentality and the guys are making the most of their opportunities they are getting as well. That will help us be a better team down the stretch any way," Baynes told ESPN.
After an 8-8 start, the Suns have gone just 12-21 since, as the early season momentum has fizzled out and the NBA regular season grind has taken hold.
Despite the tough stretch, the Suns find themselves just 4.0 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff seed as they chase their first playoff appearance since 2010 - two seasons before Baynes entered the league.
Missing the postseason just once in his first seven NBA seasons, the threat of an early vacation is unfamiliar territory for Baynes, though he remains focused on the immediate future, identifying what needs to happen for his postseason run to continue.
"We aren't worried about the outside expectations; we are worried about what we can do within our locker room and what we need to improve on. We are trying to get better every single game and it's a focus of ours to stay within that."
According to Baynes, the Suns' struggles have partly come through a lack of consistency, an issue he continues to stress across the squad.
"When we stay within Monty's system, we see how good we can be but when we go off and do our own thing our consistency isn't there. It's definitely something we are learning from and we are all trying to get better and trying to put together a full 48 minutes which we still haven't done. There is still a lot of room for improvement which is a good thing for us, but we are trying to make those steps."
The added reliance on Baynes through the start of the season was amplified through due to the 25-game suspension to 2018 No. 1 overall pick, Deandre Ayton. Ayton was suspended just hours after the Suns season opener for violating the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Program by testing positive for a diuretic.
As a fellow big man, having Baynes as a mentor has been a major positive for the rising star.
"Aron is positive. Aron is smart. He knows this league and he knows the emotion that is going through me so he loves when I express it but he wants me to channel it, he wants me to channel my energy, how I feel and that's what I learn from him," Ayton told ESPN after the Suns' 129-108 loss to the Bucks on Super Bowl Sunday.
While the mental aspect has been a key part of the relationship between the two, Ayton is quick to note the importance of the on-court competitiveness Baynes is renowned for.
"We go at it all the time. He's super strong. He's strong as s---," Ayton said.
"He sets screens, he spaces the floor well, better than me. He knows where he fits, he knows where to move if he doesn't have the ball."
"The dude is smart. When I come off the court, he tells me what's open, he tells me what's available. He just gives those pointers and it works; I get good looks out of that."
The Suns are in a rut right now, but even while sidelined, Baynes "the connector" is doing all he can to ensure playoff basketball returns to Arizona.