The first 28 games of Deandre Ayton’s rookie season have been an exploration of player development and human mentality shrouded in a culture of losing. The 2018 No. 1 overall pick is averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds and three assists per game, numbers that any team would be proud to get from their top selection, but many of the same instinctive gaffes that limited him at Arizona as a freshman followed him to the NBA.
Despite a developed frame and incredible athleticism, Ayton rarely creates easy situations for himself as a scorer. Propped up by a preposterous 74 percent shooting at the rim, Ayton is shooting nearly 60 percent overall from the field but many nights this season his presence on offense has been quiet. He doesn’t overpower mismatches or fly past lumbering bigs — he sits back for opportunities to come to him, an odd instinct from someone with 3-point range and otherworldly coordination for his size.
Brooklyn treated Ayton like Tony Allen in early November, going further than any team to capitalize on Ayton’s tentativeness as a scorer. The rookie was flustered but adjusted in the second half, fighting for better post position and scoring easily through Nets big man Jarrett Allen. Despite scoring just 15 points on 6-17 shooting, Ayton showed that night what could happen if he plays smarter, simplifies things and adjusts within games.
Not all opponents will dare Ayton to take the midrange jumper. He’s nailing those shots at a solid 42 percent clip on a steady volume this year. But he needs to fill out the rest of his game as well.
“Overall, good things and a couple bad possessions that he has to take it to the basket,” coach Igor Kokoskov said of Ayton’s performance against Los Angeles on Monday. “He’s gotta get to the free throw line more, which proves that he’s more aggressive.”
Ayton draws fouls on just 7.4 percent of shots, putting him in the 18th percentile among bigs according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s a glaring weakness, but it shows that Ayton is not far away from being the 20-10 big man optimists expected coming into his rookie season if he can get opposing centers in foul trouble and get easy points at the line.
Navigating between aggressiveness and patience is Ayton’s biggest problem. Only recently has last year’s top-five pick, Josh Jackson, begun opening up about his own struggles finding and making the right shots on the court. Against the Magic on Nov. 30, Jackson went 5-21 from the field in a 14-point loss. He said postgame, “I think a few of my shots were kind of questionable, came at bad times.” That type of introspection (Jackson hasn’t taken more than 14 shots since) would help Ayton, who often praises Jackson’s leadership in the locker room.
Ayton mentioned after a loss to the Kings on Dec. 4 in which the Suns put up just nine points in the first quarter without Devin Booker or T.J. Warren that, “it seems like teams have less confidence in our shooters around the perimeter so they focus all the pressure down low. Every time I try to post up I feel like I have two guys on me.”
Getting Booker and Warren back will free Ayton up inside, but he is one of the Suns’ best offensive weapons as well. There will be pressure inside every night that the rookie will have to fight through but he just hasn’t shown he can overcome it yet, nor has he consistently taken on that nightly scoring burden.
Ayton only dug back through the Kings’ aggressive defense in that loss after first noting how impossible it would have been for the Suns to recover from the huge first quarter deficit. The clip went viral. It’s part of what makes Ayton difficult to read: Is his honesty holding him back or propelling him forward with the perspective that comes with being open?
He’s right that few teams in the NBA come back when down 30. But to dig your heels in and seemingly give in is what makes some worry about Ayton’s ability to grow as a player in the face of individual and team failures.
Kokoskov knows his big man’s weaknesses but has stuck to the plan of developing Ayton from the ground up despite the growing pains along the way.
“He has to find a way to dominate the game so they have to adjust,” Kokoskov noted after a close-fought loss to the Clippers on Monday night in which reserve center Richaun Holmes played the majority of the fourth quarter and overtime despite a strong overall game from Ayton. The rookie took advantage of his matchup with Boban Marjanovic that night, beating the Clippers’ center down the floor and leaping over the defense for lobs. But his lack of containment switching against the Clippers’ smaller lineups coupled with his inability to attack the 6’9” Danilo Gallinari in the paint led Kokoskov to stick with Holmes.
Ayton told The Athletic’s Gina Mizell two weeks into his career, “They preach (aggressiveness) to me every time but at the end of the day, I gotta be in a certain mind frame, as well.” Later that month, after a massive and-one dunk over the Spurs’ Davis Bertans, he told Mizell, “I just got tired of hearing people say I’m not aggressive. (The dunk is) basically a statement. That’s gonna be consistent for the rest of my career, until I can’t jump.”
Much like the characters Ayton plays for his teammates, there sometimes seems to be two Aytons on the court: The aggressive athlete who enforces his will on the game and the frustrated rookie whose emotions get the best of him. The Suns didn’t draft that down-on-his-luck kid, but that’s the Ayton they’ve become all too familiar with during the many low points of the season. Ayton may have been right that the Suns were too far in the hole to beat the Kings, but the NBA season is long. He has time to get comfortable with the other half of himself and remind everyone what made him the top pick.