“If I was on the other team, I would probably double-team, too,” rookie guard Mikal Bridges said with a smile.
Ayton, at 7’1” and 260 pounds, is the biggest guy in Summer League and will be bigger than 99% of NBA players next season as well.
But when you’re being fronted and backed by a pair of aggressive defenders, it’s tough to get the ball let alone turn quickly to the basket to score with all those arms and legs flying about.
In fact, Suns’ guards have had a difficult time even getting the ball in to Ayton in the post. But when they have, Ayton has made the right decision. He either gets the ball up fast to the basket, or is quick to kick it back out for a better shot if he’s being draped.
Bridges has been one of the beneficiaries of Ayton’s kick-outs, if indirectly. Bridges has made 7 of 10 field goal attempts, while second year player Davon Reed has made 10 of 15. Most of those shots are open threes off kick-outs that are swung to the weak side after trying to get the ball to Ayton in the post.
“He always makes the right plays,” Bridges said of Ayton. “Kicks out. He really doesn’t care about trying to score real quick. I mean, he’s a smart player. But I understand why they double.”
On Friday, Ayton got frustrated early with the Mavericks aggressive double teams from the opening tip, even taking himself out of the game after three minutes for a bit of refocusing from assistant Corliss Williamson. He’d forgotten a couple of plays and was generally out of sorts.
“He was a little bit nervous,” second year forward Josh Jackson said of Ayton. “Took him a while to come out of his shell.”
Ayton came back into the game after a couple minutes and played most of the rest of the way, finishing with just 10 points and 8 rebounds because of the double-teams. But he was great with kicking the ball back out to the point guards for swings to the open weak side shooter.
He followed up that tough debut with 21 points and 12 rebounds against two players the Kings are counting on this season in a big way: Harry Giles and Marvin Bagley III. Bagley had 15 points and 7 rebounds, while Giles had 17 points and 6 rebounds in the Suns win.
That’s 31 points in 51 minutes on 71% shooting for Ayton while grabbing 20 rebounds for the 2-0 Summer Suns.
“I think today he got really comfortable,” Bridges said after Saturday’s win over the Kings. “Moving well, defending better, and rolling hard and finishing. So, I mean, the first [game] was kind of a little nerves but he came to play today.”
Is Bridges surprised that Ayton is getting so much defensive attention right out of the gate in Summer League?
“Not really,” he said. ”He’s that dominant as a player.”
Jackson was impressed with Ayton’s growth from game one to game two.
“I think he’s finally starting to realize that nobody can guard him,” Jackson boasted. “Teams have to bring two defenders, no one person can guard him. Just always being dominant.”
But Jackson said Ayton has a lot still to learn.
In each game, the Suns guards — including Jackson at times — committed turnovers because the opponent’s defender slipped around Ayton to deflect the ball on the entry pass. They had at least five turnovers of that nature in Saturday’s game alone.
Part of that is poor — like REALLY poor — passing into the post from the ball handler. We’ll get to that in a different article.
But part of the problem is Ayton himself. He’s been getting position, but not sealing off his defender aggressively, and not making an outstretched hand available for the entry pass.
“The harder he posts up, it would make it a little bit easier for us to get him the ball,” Jackson said. “A couple of guys are a little bit quick, getting around him. It’s something that he’s got to learn, how to hold the guys off and give us a target, reach one hand up and deliver it to him.”
In high school, nobody was near Ayton’s size so he didn’t need to “seal”. And then in college, coach Sean Miller put him out at power forward and gave the post-up opportunities to Dusan Ristic.
So Ayton does have a lot to learn about being an NBA center. Part of that is being “big”, boxing out on D, sealing off on O.
He’s learning quickly. And the Suns guards are learning too.
Shaquille Harrison is third in summer league with 7 assists per game, while backup Elie Okobo is averaging 4.5 himself.
The shooters are taking advantage of Ayton’s gravity too. Bridges and Reed each made 4 of 5 threes on Friday night and are shooting a collective 17 of 15 from the field.
And the Suns overall are playing well, helped by an aggressive defense that’s holding opponents to less than 35% shooting. In each game, they held a 12+ point lead in the fourth quarter.
So while Ayton gets criticism for not completely dominating out there (15.5 points and 10 rebounds per game in 25 minutes), he’s doing what his team needs him to do: make his shots, be productive, kick the ball back out when double teamed and generally create inside “gravity”.
The Suns are winning easily and have caused quite an excitement here in Vegas. Fellow media members are impressed with Igor’s offensive system and how he’s using Ayton to open up the floor for everyone else while still getting Ayton in position to dominate.
The 2-0 Summer Suns will next play Mohamed Bamba, Jonathan Isaac and the Orlando Magic on Monday at 6:30 PM on NBA TV.