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Deandre Ayton: Favorite for Rookie of the Year?

Will the Phoenix Suns rookie center be the Rookie of the Year in 2018-19?

NBA: Summer League-Phoenix Suns at Sacramento Kings Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

None of these rookies have even played a game in the NBA yet, but of course we have to start talking about the Rookie of the Year race between #1 overall pick Deandre Ayton and the rest of the draftees.

ESPN’s Kevin Pelton has already thrown his hat in the ring to pick Ayton over Luka Doncic, and both he and Mike Schmitz predict Ayton and Doncic will be head and shoulders above the competition for the top 2 potential winners.

Without much help from his team’s guards, Ayton averaged 19.5 points and 14.0 rebounds per 36 minutes this summer. He can seem to be having relatively little impact on the game and still end up with a double-double because he’s such a dominant physical presence in the paint.

If the Phoenix Suns figure out how to use Ayton’s scoring ability, with more talent around him than in Las Vegas, he’s got a chance to lead all rookies in both scoring and rebounding. That should all but assure him Rookie of the Year.

—Pelton, ESPN Insider

Schmitz still loves Doncic for this award, but Pelton breaks down why Ayton is likely to take the award no matter how good Doncic is.

Voting in the past has tended to reflect who puts up the best per-game stats much more than who does the most to help their team win. With other scoring threats in Dallas, that’s less likely to be Doncic, and his playing time may also be limited as the Mavericks try to manage wear and tear after Doncic played far more at a younger age than prospects who went the traditional college route. That might hurt his chances at triple-doubles, too.

Then the venerable Schmitz concedes to Pelton’s view and offers another good sign for Ayton.

Your points are well taken, KP. I do think that Doncic can provide enough value as a passer and rebounder to outweigh some expected lulls in the scoring department, but it’s hard to argue against Ayton being the most productive rookie in terms of buckets and boards, and he’s the clear No. 2 on my list.

Plus, we should consider how important a developmentally-focused coach like Igor Kokoskov will be for Ayton as a rookie. Although he’s a rookie himself, Kokoskov will find ways to get Ayton in empty-side pick-and-rolls for lobs and quick-hitting dunks off deep seals in the post.

For those who think a rookie center needs more than just good coaching — that he needs to SEE someone succeeding on defense in the middle in order to truly envision his own progression — then you’re likely a fan of the Suns keeping Tyson Chandler around for another year.

Certainly, Ayton won’t see excellent center defense from Richaun Holmes, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss or even Alan Williams. So keeping Chandler around for “learning by osmosis” or even — gasp — having Chandler truly take Ayton under his wing, could be huge for Ayton’s transition to the NBA.

But make no mistake: Deandre Ayton can average 15 points and 10 rebounds per game in the NBA without a lick of coaching or help from his teammates.

Add in the likely inability of teams to double-team him or focus on him defensively due to the presence of Devin Booker and the three-point makers the Suns have added to their lineup (Trevor Ariza, Mikal Bridges, Brandon Knight) to go along with above-average incumbent three-makers (Bender, Booker and Troy Daniels), then you have to consider Ayton will likely post 18 or more per game on 65% shooting.

65% shooting? Yes, you’re looking at a guy who stays within his skill set in the scoring department, focuses on layups, put backs and rim rattlers. He led the NCAA in scoring efficiency, and then shot nearly 68% in Summer League too. So there’s no reason to think he won’t continue. Ayton has great touch and strength around the rim with both hands and will continue to be the biggest and longest guy on the court 95% of the time.

If you peg Ayton at 18 points on 65% shooting and 10+ rebounds per game as a rookie, how likely is that to make him Rookie of the Year?

Of the last 30 NBA Rookie of the Year awards, 29 of them have gone to the player with the highest combination of games played, points, assists and rebounds per game. You have to be healthy, and you have to be productive. Even in 2016 when the winner was Malcolm Brogdon, he was head and shoulders above his 2016 classmates in stats.

Team wins are immaterial to the ROY voting. It doesn’t matter if Ayton’s Suns win just 20 games (which could happen if there were key injuries all year). It only matters who has the best combination health, points, rebounds and assists.

Could Trae Young (Altanta) or Luka Doncic (Mavericks) top Ayton is those combined categories? Sure they could. Young will likely post something near 20 points and 8 assists per game for the Hawks, and of course Doncic could put up Ball-like or Diaw-like numbers with 13 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds per game.

But that won’t get them more ROY votes than a 7’1” center who is close to averaging a 20/10 stat line.

While we are considering the possibilities of Deandre Ayton being Rookie of the Year, let’s take a look at the only time a guy lost the ROY race despite being the most prolific rookie.

That’s 2003.

That year, rookies Yao Ming (13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists) barely edged out the Suns’ Amare Stoudemire (13.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.0 assists) by .1 on that scale, but it was Stoudemire who took home the hardware, partly — according to reports — because the Suns edged out the Rockets for the 8th playoff seed that year.

Wait, Dave. How can you expect Ayton to average 18+ per game when AMARE and YAO only posted 13.5?

Because the game is different now. Here’s the stats of the last five ROY winners:

  • 2017-18: Ben Simmons, 15.8, 8.2 and 8.1
  • 2016-17: Macolm Brogdon, 10.2, 2.8 and 4.2
  • 2015-16: Karl-Anthony Towns, 18.3, 10.5 and 2.0
  • 2014-15: Andrew Wiggins, 16.9, 4.6 and 2.1
  • 2013-14: Michael Carter-Williams, 16.7, 6.3 and 6.2

2012-13: Damian Lillard, 19.0, 3.1 and 6.5 (Anthony Davis avg 13.5 PPG)

So could Doncic, Young, Marvin Bagley or anyone else win ROY over Ayton?

Sure. Of course.

Damian Lillard (19, 3.1, 6.5) beat out Anthony Davis in 2012 when Davis only scored 13.5 points and grabbed just 8.2 rebounds as a rookie. So, yes, a guard with the ball in his hands the whole time can beat out an efficient big man.

If Ayton comes up short as a rookie and posts “just” something like 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, it’s quite possible that Doncic or Trae will take the award like Lillard took it from AD.

Ayton would become the Suns’ 4th Rookie of the Year in 51 years of franchise history. Prior Suns winners are Amare Stoudemire (2002-03), Walter Davis (1977-78) and Alvan Adams (1975-76).

Let’s see how it all shakes out.