During the pre-draft process, Deandre Ayton was not only lauded for his pure dominance in the post, but also because he had one of smoothest shooting strokes from a top lottery big man this millennium. His midrange prowess is legit, converting on 44 percent (74th percentile for bigs league-wide) of his opportunities so far this season in that scoring zone, per Cleaning The Glass.
During his one year with the University of Arizona, Ayton was surprisingly allowed the green light to shoot three-pointers under head coach Sean Miller. That light quickly dimmed following the Wildcats’ first 10 games, though, after he hit only 28.6 percent of his three-pointers (6/21 3PA).
Ayton’s shot mechanics are still a work in progress, sometimes flailing his feet forward or his release being too flat from being rushed, but when it’s in rhythm, it becomes a valuable weapon.
Even though Ayton has caught the ball at the top of the key plenty in a Suns uniform, he tends to either hand it off immediately or turn around completely while performing another dribble handoff. In this clip above, one of two games I went to for Bright Side to scout Ayton in-person, he showcased a guard-like feel to find openings for himself.
Prior to Miller using Ayton more exclusively inside as Arizona entered conference play, the eventual No. 1 pick floated way too often around the perimeter. Once Ayton realized how dominate he could be inside, he was a nightly 20 point and 10 rebound machine in Tucson down the stretch.
Unfortunately, we haven’t seen Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov experiment with this part of Ayton’s repertoire just yet. Don’t worry, I think it’s actually a good idea to develop Ayton slowly like this, but I was genuinely curious of their plans with this as we see other big men like Karl-Anthony Towns and Al Horford go bombs away on three-pointers.
Once the perimeter shots were more off limits for Ayton over his final 25 games, he only pulled out his three-pointer when it was needed. Only 14 attempts over that final stretch of games (0.6 3PA), but Ayton finished 42.9 percent of them. Overall, it led to Ayton finishing his one year of college hitting 34.3 percent on 35 total threes.
One instance where Ayton would pull this out of his bag would be in the two-man game with current New York Knicks rookie standout Allonzo Trier. When Trier’s drives were the main focus, it opened up the pick-and-pop game for the both of them.
When Ayton is totally in rhythm and not focusing on when to pass or if this is the right shot or not, it led to strong scoring binges under Miller at U of A.
The big question a quarter of the way through the season is whether Ayton and Devin Booker can recreate some of this on-court synergy we saw from the Bahamian’s 1-year stint on the collegiate level with Trier. It takes time, so it’s obviously coming, but maybe trusting Ayton to expand his range would help open up the floor even more for Booker and other floor spacers.
The thing is, don’t expect that range for Ayton to expand any further than the long midrange until further notice. Again, it’s for a good reason though.
Both Ayton and Kokoskov seem hand-in-hand on his development plan, which involves him being more aggressive inside before he's allowed to venture even further outside.
“He does, that would be cherry on the cake. I want to see him do 10 dunks per game, then shoot the three,” Kokoskov said. “We want him to dominate and be on ESPN’s Top 10 every night.”
Ayton is one of the most efficient scorers inside the restricted area in his rookie season, but he still struggles too often when it comes to being passive or aggressive. It’s an understandable challenge for a 20-year-old getting his feet wet against athletes who are on his level to have an adjustment period.
The Suns’ first No. 1 pick in franchise history considers himself a rhythm shooter. He won’t take a shot when someone is sagging so far off him just to take it. Three-pointers in transition when he’s a trailer could be on the horizon, but the pick-and-pop threes we saw early in Ayton’s tenure with Trier or Parker Jackson-Cartwright seem to be a thing of the past for the time being.
“Not yet, not yet,” Ayton said. “Right now, I’m still learning the personnel of my own team. Me, I’m a rhythm guy. You know, I just think, I say ‘Okay, he’s down there — should I take the shot just to take it?’ No, I mean, I take rhythm shots. If I do a pick-and-pop, I’m shooting the ball. Trail three, I’ll do that, but not right now. Still figuring my way around this league.”
Will Deandre Ayton be shooting 3s this season? Doesn’t sound like it. pic.twitter.com/AWS3WVtrUp— Evan Sidery (@esidery) December 1, 2018
When you analyze Ayton and how effective he is on the block as a post-up player, he’s already established himself alongside elite names. Only five players so far this season are shooting plus-50 percent on post-ups (minimum four post-up touches per game): Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Ayton. Fellow 2018 draft classmate to Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., barely missed qualifying for this list as well averaging 3.6 post touches.
Ayton is well on his way to going down the Joel Embiid path of post-up efficiency and frequency, which makes it hard to blame him and the Suns for how they are going about utilizing him during his rookie campaign. And when you can pull off moves like this at this stage of your career on the inside, needing to shoot three-pointers may not be needed.
Ayton launching three-pointers multiple times is probably going to happen in Year 3, maybe even Year 2 if they have the confidence in him inside and on the defensive end, but, for now, there’s no need to rush into this facet.
Kokoskov is a big component of how bigs are used in today’s NBA, but he wants his 7’1”, 250-pound anchor to dominate inside before experimenting with his three-point capabilities.
“You know, modern basketball,” Kokoskov said of how he views big men shooting from deep. “Vucevic shooting threes. Marc Gasol shoots threes. Brook Lopez shoots threes. I’m not against it — we’re going to try to follow trend in this league (bigs attempting three-pointers) — but we also want him to dominate in the paint.”
Through 22 games, Ayton is averaging 16.5 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.5 assists while carrying an elite 63.6 true shooting percentage. It’s hard to imagine the possibilities of this 7-foot dancing bear once he’s able to become a three-level scorer.