At the moment, young Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton is on pace to play four games in 2019-20. And it’s only that high because he played in game one!
So far this season he has appeared in game 1 and game 27, interrupted by 25-game suspension. In that 27th game return, he suffered an ankle injury and has missed two more games. There is no timetable as yet for a return so we can only plan for the worst, right? At this pace, you will see him again in game 53 on February 8 against Denver, and finally in game 79 on the road against the Pelicans.
I kid, I kid.
At least I hope I kid. In his two games this year, Ayton has averaged 18 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 1.5 assists, 111 offensive rating (better than the team’s 110), 107 defensive rating (better than the team’s 111) and other positive advanced stats.
The Suns other best player, Devin Booker, got this season off to the great start and played in 24 straight season-opening games for the first time in his career. Booker missed three games — including Ayton’s blip of a return — with what was called a “forearm contusion”. He missed three games but you might as well call it four because he was lugging that arm like it was encased in a stone-free infinity gauntlet against the Grizzlies in a 6-17 shooting night.
In all, through Saturday’s loss to the Rockets, the Suns two best players have played in only 57 of a possible 111 games together. That’s it. Barely half the possible games.
A year ago, they were 14-42 together, which looks really bad until you realize they were a ghastly 5-21 apart. All around, that speaks to a bad supporting cast. This season, they are 1-0 together and 10-18 apart, which speaks to a much better supporting cast.
This is not to say the Suns are the only team with major injuries.
It's not even Christmas & here's a partial list of NBA players who are out with injuries:— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) December 20, 2019
But it’s important to note that a moribund franchise who has no idea how to win games consistently in the best of times probably needs their best players if they want to keep up these playoff hopes.
A couple of days ago, I outlined the Suns troubles with winning games while missing multiple of their best players.
The Suns really need Booker and Ayton back together, and they really need them to play well if these dwindling playoff hopes are meant to come to fruition.
The Suns are now 11-18 overall after a 4-14 skid and STILL have to face teams with better records than them in 4 of the next 5 games.
When Ayton does return, the Suns offense will benefit from having both Booker and Rubio leading the playmaking duties in various ways to get him the ball and/or use his roll gravity to draw defenders away from the weak side shooters on the three point line.
But Ayton needs to evolve, himself. He takes way too many mid-range shots to maximize the offense that Monty Williams has employed.
Yes, the mid-range shot will always be there for him. That’s because the defense WANTS him to take that shot. It’s the least value shot on the floor because the average player only makes 40-45% of them (and Ayton isn’t even average on that front yet). Shots in the paint have a higher point value because players make them more often (50-70%), and shots from behind the arc because every make is worth three points instead of two. At his current mid-range shooting rate, Ayton would only have to make 28% of his threes to get more total points each game off those possessions.
Here is Deandre Ayton’s shot chart in two games this year.
Lots of midrange shots. That’s less than 50% of his shots being at the rim or beyond the arc. And that’s no different than a year ago — out of 870 shots taken in the 2018-19 season, less than 50% of them came at the rim or beyond the arc.
Now let’s look at the shot charts of all the other big men in the Suns rotation.
Sure, Saric has some midrange shots too, but a vast majority of them are at the rim or behind the arc. A full 81% of Saric’s shots this year have been at the rim or behind the arc.
Saric has mostly played power forward this year in the Suns offense, with only 13% of the Suns possessions this year as the biggest man on the floor. One of Deandre Ayton, Frank Kaminsky, Cheick Diallo or Aron Baynes have been on the floor with him the rest of the time.
So maybe the centers have to shoot more midrange?
Here is Frank’s shot chart. Not quite as clean as Dario’s, with just 69% of his shots coming at the rim or behind the arc. Frank is more prone to catch and drive than Dario, partially because of his superior ball handling skills but mostly because of unfounded hubris.
Still, Frank is mostly shooting at the rim or behind the arc. He’s just a little more likely than Dario to settle for the 3-10 foot shot, probably because he’d usually facing the basket on the catch and prefers the flip shot to getting blocked. Neither Frank nor Dario have any lift in traffic to get their release over an extended defender.
Now we get to the more traditional centers. Baynes has no midrange game at all, so it’s no surprise he never puts himself in that position. A full 81% of Baynes’ shots come at the rim or behind the arc, with almost all of his remaining shots still coming inside 10 feet.
So far, that’s Baynes and Saric who take 81% of their shots either at the rim or behind the arc.
But let’s look at the super-athletic, young Cheick Diallo to see what he’s got.
Diallo is the only one of the big men this year, sans Ayton, with a confident mid-range game and an ability to roll to the rim off setting a pick. That makes his offensive game look more like Ayton’s natural game than the others. Only 60% of his shots come either at the rim or behind the arc.
Now that looks more like Deandre Ayton’s doesn’t it? Diallo has no three-point range at this stage in his career, but he does have nice touch and feel on his shots, and he’s good at rolling toward the rim off a pick.
The other correlation between Ayton and Diallo this year is their playing time. Neither has played enough this season for Monty Williams to script their every shot.
Can Ayton adapt his offensive game?
For Ayton in last Monday’s return game, it’s quite likely that head coach Monty Williams simply told Ayton to take shots in rhythm where he felt most comfortable, rather than forcing anything.
But taking more than 50% of his shots from midrange cannot be what Monty wants in his big man.
Let’s recap. Percent of shots at rim or beyond the arc:
- Dario Saric: 81%
- Aron Baynes: 81%
- Frank Kaminsky: 69%
- Deandre Ayton: 48%
Can Monty get Ayton to take the kind of shots that his other big men take? Probably not all the way, but it seems like Ayton should approach the Frank range (65-75%), doesn’t it? The offense, which still ranks in the top 10 in the league, thrives on shots from those spots.
Devin Booker is one of the best mid-range shooters in the entire NBA, yet even he has moved the needle a bit toward shots at the rim rather than midrange. This year, he is taking 61% of his shots either at the rim or beyond the arc, while a year ago that number was 55%. And this even with his three-point volume down from 6.6 per game to 5.6 per game.
Ayton would do well to adapt to the new offense. Especially since he is one of the best finishers in the game when he’s at the rim. Monty can do better than get Ayton a touch at 15-20 feet out, since he never does that with Dario or Frank or Aron.
And Ayton can do better at floating out to the three-point line if he’s not going to dive to the rim. As noted above, even at 28% he would be worth more total offensive points per game if he’d just swap a few of those midrange shots for threes.
I’m curious to see how Ayton’s shot chart evolves over the course of the season, which I think will unlock a nearly unstoppable offensive player.