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Deandre Ayton: The No. 1 Pick & His Role

Ayton got important Pick & Roll reps in Vegas, and his impact goes far beyond what the box score will tell you.

2018 NBA Summer League - Las Vegas - Orlando Magic v Phoenix Suns Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Perhaps no single player arrived in Las Vegas with more anticipation than Deandre Ayton.

Although media and fans alike wondered how much Ayton might dominate against his competition, the Suns brass may have been more curious to see how he would play as an NBA center in a style very different than that to which he had become accustomed to.

As new head coach Igor Kokoskov notes in the below clip, the pick & roll is one of the most powerful parts of NBA basketball, and Ayton simply hasn’t had a lot of exposure to it.

In the NCAA last season, Ayton guarded just 69 pick & roll finishing possessions against either the ball-handler or roll man (per Synergy). On the other end, Ayton finished only 88 possessions out of the pick & roll. That represents just 157 total pick & roll repetitions in 1,172 minutes on either end ending in either a shot, foul or turnover.

Not to mention, Ayton played a large portion of his minutes at power forward. It’s not pure hyperbole to suggest that Phoenix’s new franchise big is learning to play his position from scratch.

In other words, the Suns’ number one pick is finding his role. And roll, he did. Ayton walked away from Summer League after four games, with averages of 14.5 points and 10.5 rebounds on 59% shooting from the field. But far more impressive than his numbers was his ability to create open shots for himself and the team within the Suns’ system.

Below is every pick & roll possession that opened things up for Ayton & Co. Every make, miss and turnover. All 73 of them. Here’s the breakdown:

Ayton Mins - 106
PnR Possessions - 73
Points Scored - 79
Ayton Points - 29
Teammates Points - 50
Wide Open Misses - 24

Before taking in all of Ayton’s 73 meaningful pick & roll possessions* on offense, be mindful of the word gravity. For example, if you focus on Ayton while viewing the after-timeout play below, you can see how the Suns use the attention he draws to create a clear path to the bucket. The Suns will feature Ayton’s gravity, along with other purposeful misdirection, next season.

*While I say “all”, because I logged each possession by eye, there’s every chance I missed one or two. I also say “meaningful” because I did not include plays that were called and then abandoned.

As you watch the plays below, take notice of Ayton drawing in the opposition. In every highlight, anywhere between two and four players (2:19) are drawn to a rolling Ayton. When he pops (2:00), the big often stays with him, opening up the lane for his guard to attack the paint for layups or kickouts.

It’s only Summer League but Deandre Ayton has gravity.

So many times you see defenders tag Ayton and end up late (0:30) or simply lose sight of what their coverage is (0:53). Ayton’s screens aren’t always great (3:04) and only some of his rolls are as aggressive as they should be (0:40). As he learns to set harder screens (4:30) and roll with greater purpose (1:15), his pick & roll ability will become more and more dangerous.

Given time, Ayton will possess the same gravity in the NBA while surrounded by much better players. In Summer League, his gravity often created buckets for others more than for himself. That’s why impact isn’t always best measured within the box score.

When it came to getting his own, Ayton received little reward for the work he put in over the four games. A mixture of poor guard play and poor screen setting limited his production. But there were some areas where he shined.

Ayton’s hard aggressive rolling to the hoop against the Mavericks (0:19) and Sixers (2:59) showed that he can live at the line in the NBA (which is not a bad place to be when you shoot 82% over four games). It also provides good reason not to settle for midrange J’s with plenty of space to operate (0:45), although it was nice to see Ayton test his touch.

Perhaps Ayton’s best individual play of the tournament came against Marvin Bagley III and the Kings (0:49), where Ayton set a hard screen to free Josh Jackson then sealed his man in the paint, made a good catch and showed the presence of mind to not rush the shot. And 1.

However, it was only natural for Ayton to show some frustration too. Ayton’s guards made bad pass aplenty (0:01, 0:25, 0:40, 2:00, 2:15), resulting in many easy Ayton buckets avoiding the stat sheet. It took Mikal Bridges (2:05) to show what a little patience after a good screen from Ayton can produce.

On the other side of the ball, Ayton was just as effective and yet unassuming in his role. With only four steals and four blocks total in four games, you could be forgiven for thinking Ayton was a non-factor for Phoenix on defense. But Ayton moved his feet well and stayed within the coverage, often helping his guards fight back into possessions and forcing the opposition into turnovers.

In just 106 minutes of Summer League action, Ayton faced 48 pick & roll possessions covering the rolling big, shading the ball handler and occasionally switching with his lead guard. Again, the overall numbers:

Ayton Mins - 106
PnR Possessions - 48
Points Scored - 36
Points on Ayton Outside - 14
Points on Ayton Inside - 13
”Wide Open” Misses - 4

Before viewing the good and bad of all 48 possessions, it’s important to understand the basic concepts of Igor’s preferred pick & roll coverage - Channel 2 Defense. In the clip below, Coach Kokoskov explains his preference for his big to drop right back and protect the paint. Igor’s scheme relies on the guard fighting over screens and the rest of the team staying home on shooters.

When perfected, a team allows the mid-range while protecting the dangerous three-point shot and avoiding giving up anything at the rim.

In what was probably Ayton’s best defensive play of the tournament (0:20), he shades Dennis Smith Jr. well enough to help Shaquille Harrison recover and slides over to Johnathan Motley. Ayton then makes sure Smith Jr. is aware of his presence at the rim before making the perfect read to step up and block the shot. A similar play later on (1:37) showcases the overall defensive skillset Ayton possesses (although it resulted in a tough foul call).

As another example, Davon Reed and Ayton play a pick & roll perfectly as a tandem (0:47). While Ayton chaperones Smith Jr. through the lane, Reed denies the lob to Motley. Smith Jr. is just unsure enough to avoid taking a floater, and another bad outside shot results.

Against Sacramento (1:20), Frank Mason turns the ball over trying to pass in behind Ayton and there are multiple examples of similar turnovers occurring. That’s a sign the big fella’ is in ideal position within the Channel 2 defense, which will result in countless turnovers as guards’ indecision causes mistakes.

Even without a blocked shot or forced turnover, Ayton remained very effective on defense. One example shows Ayton dropping and forcing the guard to make a choice (3:00). The play ends in an undesirable shot that’s indicative of so many plays over Ayton’s four games. No box score stat captures that impact.

It wasn’t all perfect, though. Ayton was prone to mental lapses and still lacks the pure instincts to make reads as a play develops.

Against the Mavs early on, we saw the first signs that Ayton would drop back when his man popped (0:01), then overcompensate to allow guards enough room to attack him downhill (0:06), then get caught between the two in “no man’s land” (0:15). This implies that Ayton is often playing on instruction rather than instinct.

In addition, as we saw when Ayton faced Harry Giles and Mohamed Bamba, he can focus too much on his individual matchup. Against the Kings, Ayton let Bagley glide to the rim (0:22) while distracted by Giles. Against the Magic, Ayton became far too attached to Bamba (0:30), when he needed to help out above the rim.

Something else to watch — when looking at the play by play in all four games, you may notice that Ayton’s best defensive moments come after his own buckets or after recently checking into the game. The lapses almost all come after frustrating offensive plays or long stretches in the game.

Despite his physical appearance, Ayton needs to improve on his fitness and continue to work on his focus. When rested and engaged, he has had his best defensive moments.

Deandre Ayton did not have the flashiest Summer League showing, but there is a lot to be optimistic about.

Kokoskov and the Suns’ coaching staff could have taken a different approach and made Ayton more of a focal point of the offense in Las Vegas. It’s the approach that past coaching staff might have favored. But what would it have achieved for his long-term development?

In a positive step from both the coaching staff and Ayton, we saw Phoenix give their franchise center important reps in the role he will be playing for the team proper come October. They did this without a care for the outside perception of Ayton’s performance and perhaps even more importantly, with the University of Arizona product embracing the challenge.

Despite what the perception may have been, Ayton is not coming to the NBA as a ready made product. A simple comparison of the pick & roll numbers from college to Summer League indicates as much. Forced to play the role likely expected of him his rookie year, Ayton had moments where he excelled, but he also comes away with plenty to build upon.

Overall, Vegas Summer League provided an important first step in Deandre Ayton’s long-term development. It also showed that Ayton is in great hands. As the new Phoenix Suns Head Coach put it during Summer League, the quicker Ayton can play “more mentally relaxed and physically more active” the sooner he will “enjoy being dominant on the court”.