Every rookie goes through a slight adjustment period early on, but Deandre Ayton’s was a little more obvious than the usual No. 1 pick. Of course, it wasn’t as bad as Markelle Fultz forgetting how to shoot and Ben Simmons missing his entire rookie campaign to then win Rookie of the Year his sophomore season (all jokes aside, Simmons indeed deserved RoY over Donovan Mitchell), but Ayton did go through some growing pains during the first quarter of the Suns’ season.
Much of Ayton’s struggle came from having an inconsistent motor. Outside of flashes here and there, the University of Arizona version of Ayton had yet to show itself. However, head coach Igor Kokoskov seemed to motivate the Suns’ first No. 1 pick in franchise history.
Ayton’s latest outing versus Brooklyn — 26 points, 18 rebounds, 2 steals, and 3 blocks on 13-16 shooting — showcased exactly that. Kokoskov even came out and said publicly to the media afterwards Ayton shouldn’t be forgotten in this year’s Rookie of the Year race alongside Luka Doncic, who he coached previously during Slovenia’s magical EuroBasket run last year.
Following Ayton’s surprising benching at Portland — Richaun Holmes started in his place for the first couple of minutes and then did so again to begin the second half — he has started to look more and more like the dominant big man who could singlehandedly swing the pendulum back towards prioritizing these types of prospects.
Whatever Kokoskov said, it definitely paid off in spades with further development of the big fella.
Since Ayton was benched on Dec. 6, he has put together monstrous numbers averaging 18.8 points, 13 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.3 blocks while shooting an elite 62 percent. Only MVP candidate Anthony Davis has exceeded those numbers over the past two-plus weeks.
If you haven’t paid attention from the outside looking in on Ayton’s improvements, please start doing so because it’s been a complete 180 degree turn right before the calendar moves into 2019.
It should be noted though that Ayton — outside of two or three game lulls here and there before his benching — has been so consistent even through apparent on-court struggles. Just take a glance below at his numbers month-by-month. It paints an easy picture as to why Ayton is 1B to Doncic’s 1A right now in their race for RoY.
October: 16.9 points, 10 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.6 blocks, 61.6 FG%
November: 16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 blocks, 60.9 FG%
December: 16.7 points, 12 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.2 blocks, 57.8 FG%
Not only is Ayton getting more comfortable each passing week as a primary scoring option alongside Devin Booker, but his rim protection, even with maddening lapses, has been noticeably improved as he’s currently carrying a surprising defended field goal percentage (DFG%) of 45.1 percent during the month of December. For reference, Rudy Gobert is carrying a DFG% of 43.2 percent over the same span. That number has slowly gone down from 57.7 percent in October. Ayton is on track, if he keeps up this development within Kokoskov’s defensive scheme to be an average to above-average one-on-one defender by seasons end.
Who would’ve thought that would even be a sentence I would be writing less than six weeks ago. The growth is great to watch, and it shows how truly coachable Ayton is.
With Ayton’s pure talent package alone, many of his teammates are holding him to a high standard. We haven’t gotten the 20-point, 20-rebound game many have been clamoring for, but he’s ended up so close recently. Especially over his last three against Boston, Washington, and Brooklyn.
Another facet of Ayton’s development on the professional level has been his willingness to crash the offensive glass at extremely high rates recently. In the month of December alone, Ayton has risen his offensive rebounds per game up to 3.8. Going up from 2.1 in October to 2.8 in November, something must’ve clicked for the Suns’ big man after his worst week-long stretch of the season spanning from the end of November through the beginning of December averaging just over 10 points and 9 rebounds per game on sub-45 percent shooting.
And over the last five games where he’s really started to assert himself as a force to be reckoned with, Ayton has snatched on average six offensive rebounds. That figure is only barely exceeded by Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams for most successful attacks of the glass on scoring possessions.
That is exactly the type of production we’ve come to expect from Ayton, especially after he was able to make upperclassmen in the PAC-12 look like pipsqueaks compared to him when going hard on the boards.
Also, another area that I’ve started to pick up on as well comes when Ayton has his second go-around versus a matchup. It was tough sledding in Round 1 for the 7’1” Bahamian, but Round 2 was usually taken back by him, except the Suns’ second win over Dallas earlier this month where he shot 3-13 from the floor. From Boban Marjanovic to LaMarcus Aldridge and Jarrett Allen, Ayton is starting to pick up on their tendencies 48 minutes at a time. And it could pay off huge for Phoenix if Ayton has a similar second-year explosion to someone like Davis.
(If you were wondering, Davis’ scoring jumped up from 13.5 points to 20.8 while also seeing his defensive awareness take another step forward. He led the league in blocks with 2.8 after logging 1.8 as a rookie. Finally, Davis struggled to get to the free throw line just like Ayton has averaging 3.5 free throw attempts. In his second season, it jumped all the way up to 6.6. Could we be going down a similar path with Ayton?)
Whether it was the infectious hustle from Holmes, Mikal Bridges, Josh Jackson, and De’Anthony Melton that finally helped tap into Ayton’s potential, or Kokoskov working magic like he did in Utah with names like Ricky Rubio, everything is starting to click at the perfect time for Ayton.
There’s no mistaking we are on the verge of Ayton having a breakout second half of the season. The proof is in the pudding, and his teammates are starting to notice it as well.
I thought we were going to see Ayton’s teammates feed him and get out of the way after he was on early against Brooklyn, but that moment seems to be coming sometime between now and April. There will be a game where Ayton is so unstoppable that Booker and the rest of his teammates will continuously feed him the rock.
Trust me, it will happen.
Maybe it won’t even be a 20-20 game for Ayton, but a 30-20 performance as a 20-year-old rookie flashing how scary of a player he could once he hits his prime.
Don’t hand over the accolades to Doncic just yet, everybody. Ayton is nipping at his heels for bringing home the hardware, if he continues to blossom over the next few months. There’s a reason why so many NBA executives picked Doncic to win RoY, but for Ayton to become the best prospect from the 2018 draft five years from now.
The Suns’ ingredients are starting to cook together for a sustainable contender throughout the 2020s. Flanked by Booker, Ayton is firmly entrenching himself as the second vital piece to creating a formidable force.