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Slide over Luka Doncic, Deandre Ayton has joined you in Tier 1

Arizona’s dominant big man is starting to flash more defensive potential that vaults him into the top tier.

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It’s rare you see a big man with the speed of a guard and have the build of a David Robinson clone without lifting weights before college, but here we are with Arizona’s Deandre Ayton.

After once again demolishing Arizona State earlier this week — admittingly it's a matchup where Ayton could feast with their lack of size usually running out four players 6’6 and under — to the tune of 25 points, 16 rebounds, and 4 blocks on 8-12 field goal attempts.

In conference play alone, Ayton has turned it up a notch on both ends, including showing flashes of rim protection ability I barely saw in nonconference bouts.

Since the Wildcats first faced off with the Sun Devils on Dec. 30, the beginning of their PAC-12 slate, Ayton has been a nearly walking 20 and 10 in terms of production. Arizona’s 7’1 Bahamian big is averaging 19.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 2.3 blocks per game on top of an outstanding true shooting percentage of 63.9%.

Elite. And I’m having a hard time drawing a comparison to him that isn’t some sort of name that vaults up to primary star in an organization.

Robinson? Hakeem Olajuwon? Shaquille O’Neal? This is where I’m going compared to other modern bigs, but unlike those post-bound Hall of Famers, Ayton can stretch his offense comfortably out to the perimeter. That is an area that should be utilized way more often by this time next season.

If you have followed along with my draft stories throughout the season (check out Lottery Big Board 1.0 and 2.0 here), Real Madrid combo guard Luka Doncic has been atop the board all season long, let alone in his own tier.

This 6’8 18-year-old basketball savant out of Slovenia has been on NBA radars since he was 15, and he’s been steadily dominating in the world’s second-most competitive league outside of where he’s headed this summer. In the EuroLeague, Doncic is amassing a line of 23.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes.

Doncic dazzles with his playmaking ability, basketball IQ, and ability to consistently score from all three levels of the floor, but he does lack the elite athleticism Ayton possesses. We’re just nitpicking here between two franchise-altering prospects because whichever one a team landed is going to be head over heels in joy once they submit their pick.

As remains the case, for now, Doncic remains at No. 1 on my big board but Ayton has steadily closed the gap to a minuscule distance. It’s hard to deny at this point that he is a special prospect, a big man prospect the league hasn’t come across since Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns, but I believe there’s even more potential in Ayton’s profile.

If you give Ayton the right coach, an area that Phoenix will need to hit out of the park this summer, he could tap into becoming a two-way monster many predicted after watching him at Hillcrest Prep and way before then, too. His skills should translate relatively easy, because he’s going to have a pure power and size advantage on most nights, even against NBA talent.

Outside of being a rim protector, Ayton has flashed enough times where I’m comfortable allowing him to stick with guards on the perimeter. He can easily switch in most scenarios, and in a pinch, he could switch 1-5 with just how much of a freak he is athletically.

In terms of a fit in Phoenix, it’s a great one, especially if Ayton can reach a certain level defensively and maintain that consistency on a game-by-game basis.

Ayton would become a threat on the block the Suns have honestly never had. Amare Stoudemire at his peak was fun and O’Neal brought some moments, but Ayton is a different animal altogether.

Again, a 7’1 big who can run the floor at the speed of a guard and comfortably carry an offense does not come around often.

Placing Ayton alongside a lineup of Elfrid Payton (depending on cost in restricted free agency), Booker, Josh Jackson, and Dragan Bender would be a dream from a spacing perspective. Ayton would feast down low on the block while Bender stretches his big out to 20+ feet, allowing the likes of Jackson and T.J. Warren to feast on cuts to the rim for easy looks.

Meanwhile, Booker then has optimum room to operate from all three levels, and however general manager Ryan McDonough supplies the other pieces around him could lead to a national breakout in his fourth season.

I see Ayton alongside many of the prospects in this year’s top seven as “can’t-fail” types. I sense all of them carving out primary roles somewhere, and possibly see multiple All-Star appearances.

Having a young building block trio of Booker, Jackson, and Ayton is a great place to be in terms of wanting to attract a star free agent once 2019 rolls around after seeing a year of them gelling and yielding results. Even if it is Doncic instead of Ayton, that still gives Phoenix the best wing trio 21-and-under in the league to move forward with long-term.

Ayton has joined Doncic in Tier 1, but here’s who is featured in Tier 2.0 as Lottery Big Board 3.0 will be unveiled right before March Madness (alphabetical order, not my ranking):

Mohamed Bamba, Big, Texas

Marvin Bagley III, Big, Duke

Jaren Jackson Jr., Big, Michigan State

Michael Porter Jr., Wing, Missouri

Trae Young, Ball Handler, Oklahoma

Doncic and Ayton sit at No. 1 and No. 2 on my board, but as you all know, these remain fluid.

If Arizona rides Ayton to a deep tournament run feeding him on the block almost every possession (if you aren’t doing this Sean Miller, what are you doing?), Ayton could be well in line to vaulting above Doncic.

Either way, both of these players will change the fortunes of whatever franchise they land on once June 21 rolls around. Whoever is lucky enough to land a top-two pick in this year’s draft should see their long-term outlooks change for the greater good immediately.

I for one can’t wait for whenever Ayton and Embiid battle for the first time. That will be a true clash of the titans right there.

Now, the real question is will Ayton be donning a Suns uniform in the process?

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