Deandre Ayton has a long ways to go in his development, even though he’s averaging 15.7 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists while carrying a 61.5 true shooting percentage. The growing pains from the Suns’ first No. 1 pick in franchise history have been evident, especially on the defensive end, but it’s his unique scoring combination we are going to focus on.
It’s rare you find a 7-footer built the way Ayton is alongside a soft touch and hands that never drop a pass. He’s truly a specimen who could swing the pendulum back toward bigs, like Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis have proved as of late.
Phoenix’s front office didn’t have much of a debate with picking either Marvin Bagley III or Luka Doncic over Ayton. The big man from The Bahamas has Hall of Fame upside, based purely off talent alone, and you can’t pass that up at No. 1.
Throughout his career, Ayton has been more of a finesse player than many realize. At Hillcrest Prep, Ayton loved to pick-and-pop. The same thing happened at Arizona under head coach Sean Miller, which might have been designed by himself playing alongside Dusan Ristic and Keanu Pinder almost all of his minutes.
He’s been more LaMarcus Aldridge than Shaquille O’Neal. That fact has been shown prior to entering the NBA. The thing is, Ayton has consistently been one of the best finishers around the basket through all of that.
Per The Stepien’s shot charts, Ayton converted 80% of his shots at the rim at Arizona — which placed him in the 93rd percentile for all college big men. Here’s the catch, though: Ayton only finished in the 40th percentile for total attempts in that area.
Something doesn’t add up with how efficient he is, yet isn’t even establishing his presence often down low.
Now, on the professional level in a small sample size of 11 games, Ayton is actually performing better than last season in Tucson. According to Cleaning The Glass, Ayton has hit on 84% of his attempts at the rim with the Suns.
Where does that place Ayton? Well, he’s one of the best in the league already in the 99th percentile. Just check out how Ayton fares in this area of the floor compared to established, known bigs around the NBA:
Anthony Davis - 68%
Joel Embiid - 69%
Nikola Jokic - 67%
Rudy Gobert - 76%
Karl-Anthony Towns - 63%
What do all of those other players have that Ayton doesn’t? A starting-caliber point guard. Elfrid Payton, Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray, Ricky Rubio, and Jeff Teague all classify as guards who could possibly have fixed one of the Suns’ biggest issues offensively. That isn’t the only issue, though, because Ayton’s own timidity has pushed this further to the surface.
Don’t get me wrong, Ayton’s effectiveness down low could push the Suns even further in the direction of making a trade for someone like Terry Rozier, but there are still plenty of issues surrounding this team in the meantime.
Cleaning The Glass also notes Ayton is only taking 51% of his shots (58th percentile) in his most effective spot, while the other 49% comes from attempting mid-range jumpers (94th percentile). Compared to an 84% conversion rate near the rim, Ayton has hit a pedestrian 34% of his mid-range attempts.
Another eye-opening trend is how often Ayton is fouled, and where it occurs on the court. Only 6.8% of Ayton’s shots have been ones where he was hacked, but on those opportunities, the Suns’ center is hitting and-1 opportunities at a 44.4% clip. Those figures place the Bahamian in the 11th and 90th percentile, respectively.
I feel like this issue with Ayton could be solved with two small tweaks. The first would be feeding Ayton down low and stop using him so often in dribble handoffs so far away from the paint. Then, it’s all on Ayton from that point to utilize his genetically gifted abilities.
On Tuesday against Brooklyn, Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson forced the Suns’ rookie to get in his own head. He dared Ayton to try to dribble toward the rim with sometimes 10-plus feet of space, but instead he settled for wide-open mid-range shots. Atkinson was the first to notice that Ayton can’t create for himself at all right now — and the numbers prove it as 76% of his makes have been assisted on so far this season.
Atkinson turned Ayton into a robot. Forcing him to either create his own shot or pass it back out because he didn’t know what to do. It was Ayton’s first dose of this treatment, but it’s definitely coming way more often over Phoenix’s next few months of action.
An over reliance on jump shots will hopefully slow down soon for Ayton. Once he slows down and realizes how unstoppable he is in post-up situations — either he makes the basket or is fouled almost all the time in these scenarios — he could flash an offensive style similar to what Embiid is showcasing right now as one of the league’s leaders in trips to the free throw line.
Speaking of Embiid, according to stats.nba.com, Ayton has performed better in these exact post-up situations. Ayton far and away has been the big who’s used post-ups most often with a frequency at 38.8%, but he’s finishing 52.9% of his looks at 1.02 points per possession. Meanwhile, Embiid does post-ups at a 30.9% clip and sits at 1.01 PPP.
When you see how Philadelphia throws the ball to Embiid down low and spaces the floor around him, this should happen more often within Igor Kokoskov’s offense when you realize Ayton is right on par with an early MVP candidate.
Devin Booker will always be the primary scoring option, but there needs to be more opportunities allowed for Ayton to play bully ball. We even saw it against the Nets when a timeout was called in the second half. Ayton was lit into by somebody on the bench, then the next three possessions he finished post-ups on the block. Maybe more of that, please?
These growing pains were to be expected, even from the No. 1 pick, but some can be easily corrected with a few changes here and there. One is using more of Ayton’s inside scoring, but the other is Ayton channeling his inner mean streak.
Little does Ayton know, but he could quickly become one of the most dominant scoring centers in the league. All he has to do is realize nobody can stop him down low, and the numbers are proving that’s exactly the case so far.
Feed the big fella early and often where he can easily convert. Good things will likely happen.