NBA, Phoenix Suns

Deandre Ayton is just getting started

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For a No. 1 overall pick who is averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 assists per game while shooting better than 60 percent from the field, Deandre Ayton catches a whole lot of criticism in certain corners of the basketball internet. Whether it’s for lackadaisical pick-and-roll defense or poor rim-protection numbers or simply having the gall to be Not Luka Doncic and still have been selected first in the draft, it seems that pretty much everyone has one issue or another with Ayton right now.

Some of the criticism of Ayton is justified. Certainly, he has not been a good or even average defender during the first 37 games of his career.

Ayton has a tendency to stick either too long or not long enough with a pick-and-roll ball-handler coming around a screen set by his own man, which too often leads to the Suns giving up wide-open driving layups and/or elbow jumpers. He has not yet mastered — or even really discovered — the art of “two-point nine-ing,” or hanging in the paint for as close to three seconds as possible before ducking out so as to not be called for a defensive three-second violation, and then darting back in to continue muddying up driving lanes. His overall help defense leaves a lot to be desired, with similar timing issues cropping up and affecting his ability to challenge or alter shots, which at this moment does not come close to matching his combination of height, length, and athleticism.

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To wit: Among the 40 players challenging at least 4 shots per game at the rim, per Second Spectrum data on NBA.com, Ayton’s field goal percentage allowed (64.8) when he’s within five feet of both the shooter and the basket at the time of release ranks 37th. And his block rate of 2.5 percent ranks 20th among the 25 centers playing at least 20 minutes per game this season.

Accordingly, Phoenix has allowed 3.7 points fewer per 100 possessions with Ayton off the floor than when he’s been in the game, even though his backup, Richaun Holmes, is nobody’s idea of a defensive stopper. Ayton also currently ranks 48th out of 60 centers in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus, putting him in the company of such defensive luminaries as Greg Monroe and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Taken in the context of the pre-draft scouting consensus that Ayton would be a negative defender, it looks like he is living down to low expectations. The pre-draft idea that Ayton had the potential to be one of the very worst defenders in the league appears to have been a rather extreme exaggeration, however. They aren’t yet there consistently, but Ayton has shown occasional flashes of knowing what he’s doing, and of having the kind of instincts/athleticism combination that can at least yield some defensive impact — even if it’s not of the game-changing variety. None of this is to say that Ayton is or will be a good defender, but there are certainly signs that he can be Not Terrible.

And if Ayton can merely be Not Terrible on defense, he is going to be one heck of a player for a very long time. If he can get to average or better eventually, he’s going to be a consistent All-Star type of force. Because this is a guy who has just about every single skill you want a big man to have on the other end of the floor.

Ayton is at his best when operating as the screener in pick-and-roll situations, showing excellent timing, balance, and dexterity around the rim. He has the sense of when to flip his screen to get the ball-handler moving in the other direction, and the instincts regarding when to roll, when to pop, and when to head for the nail with a short roll. Oh, and he’s able to catch and finish on the move, and with rare creativity for a player his size.

The Suns love to set things up for him to duck into the post in the middle of the lane, seal his man, and get an easy bucket.

Ayton establishes a wide base to provide an opening for guards and wings to enter the ball, and he does a good job of keeping the ball high above his head while making most of his moves. He can finish over either shoulder, though right now he prefers to go to his strong right hand. Even if he initially gets pushed off his spot on one of his duck-ins, he continues to fight to establish position and is able to hold off even older, stouter defenders to get to his spots.

When he puts it all together, as he did during a career performance against the Nuggets on Saturday (33 points and 14 rebounds, 10 of them on the offensive end, while shooting 16 of 20 from the field), it can look completely electric. In the clip below, Ayton a) sets a drag screen in transition and slips into open space, where he catches the ball, spots and evades a help defender and finishes over the top; b) rolls into open space near the elbow, keeps the ball high and finishes over multiple defenders; c) displays fantastic timing and elite athleticism while crashing the offensive glass for a tip-dunk over Nikola Jokic; and d) forces a switch in the pick-and-roll, seals his man along the baseline, quickly faces up, gives a quick dribble move, backs Trey Lyles under the rim, and finishes with a pump-fake and then hook shot over the top.

That is all really good stuff, and Ayton is just 37 games into his career. Being able to do all that, plus stretch his jumper out to around 15-18 feet or so, is why Ayton is able to carry a 21 percent usage rate and post a true shooting percentage of 0.628. That’s the second-best true shooting percentage ever for any rookie with a 20 percent usage rate. (Karl-Anthony Towns, who received plaudits after his debut season for having arguably the best rookie year for any big man since Tim Duncan, had a 0.590 true shooting mark.)

If Ayton maintains his current averages of 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 assists per game, it’ll be just the 23rd time in NBA history that’s ever been done by a rookie. If he also continues to shoot 60 percent from the field, he’ll be the first rookie and fifth player ever to hit all those marks and shoot that well from the field. The others on said list?

  • 1966-67 Wilt Chamberlain
  • 1979-80 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • 1980-81 Artis Gilmore
  • 2004-05 Shaquille O’Neal

That’s the kind of list you want your rookie big man to be on. Especially when you consider that all those players were hitting the tail end of their primes before they got to 16-10-2 on 60 percent from the other. (Each of them was either 30, 31, or 32 years old.)

While Ayton, like those big men, currently does most of his work near the basket (72.4 percent of his shots have come within 10 feet of the rim, per Basketball-Reference), he has shown the ability to step out and hit the occasional jumper. His release is smooth and he looks comfortable near the elbows for now, and it’s not difficult to see him extending his range closer and closer to the 3-point line as he grows more and more comfortable. (His strong free-throw shooting — 75.6 percent so far — augurs well for his ability to add range to the jumper.)

Even if he never quite becomes a true “stretch 5” type, he is able to work from enough areas of the floor that he’ll never come anywhere close to being an offensive liability. He needs to be guarded when he catches the ball near the elbows or the nail already, and that threat range will only expand as he continues to grow his game. He’s also self-creating nearly 30 percent of his baskets, a very healthy number for a rookie big men. If and when he expands his post game and his off-the-dribble moves from the elbows, look out.

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In other words, Ayton is already damn good. And he’s going to get better. Even if you accept that Doncic should have gone No. 1 overall and not Ayton, well, it’s not exactly Ayton’s fault that he was a tantalizing enough prospect who was good enough at a college that was in-Arizona-enough for the Suns to draft him No. 1 anyway. Right now, he has the look of an offensive star in the making, the kind of rare talent who completely warps a defense’s scheme if and when he reaches his ceiling. There are a lot of things for him to work in order to reach “playable in a playoff series” on defense, but there is also plenty of time for him to do that work. If he merely reaches that level then the Suns will surely be content with the kind of player they got. If he surpasses it, they could be much more than that.

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