In two of Deandre Ayton’s most dominant performances, which came against Denver when he scored 33 points and then Golden State this past Friday where he hammered them constantly, the big fella was fed inside at high rates. Ayton received more than 20 touches in the paint when he put up those monstrous numbers.
However, we witnessed the peaks and valleys we’ve consistently seen with Ayton on Sunday versus the Sacramento Kings. Unlike the Golden State game, Phoenix’s first No. 1 pick in franchise history only received eight touches inside the restricted area. And Ayton’s total touches went down from 65 to 46 once Devin Booker returned from right hamstring tightness.
Going from 24 all the way down to eight speaks to not only the issue with still having no starting-caliber point guard still since Eric Bledsoe’s drama-filled exit at the beginning of the 2017-18 season, but that his teammates are still struggling to feed Ayton when he’s got good shots to convert inside.
Personally, I think there’s no reason why Ayton should see his easiest opportunities to finish inside be this inconsistent, but he also is their secondary option behind Booker. Even as a rookie, Ayton has definitely become a focal point of opposing team’s scouting reports and it doesn’t help when the Suns are once again one of the worst perimeter shooting teams in the NBA.
Without Booker on the floor, which has happened 15 times so far this season due to his hamstring issues, Ayton still hasn’t seen much of becoming a focal point offensively. Ayton only reached at least 15 touches in the restricted area 20 percent of the time. And the percentages nearly maintain as Ayton exceeded over 10 inside looks 5/15 chances.
However, the question I wanted to explore further is how normal it is for top rookie big men to experience this patient growth process? As stats.nba.com traces back to the 2013-14 season, it allows us to compare Ayton’s tracking numbers to other recent franchise cornerstone centers in Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns but unfortunately not Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins as well.
Below, I’ll compare Ayton to the likes of Embiid and Towns from the touches point of view. Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov has rightly deserved some criticism for not feeding Ayton enough when he’s in a rhythm, but there’s a trend that definitely shows up in the averages with recent top-five bigs selected.
Deandre Ayton: paint touches - 11.6, post ups - 6.1, 51.3 touches, 21.3 USG%
Joel Embiid: paint touches - 6.1, post ups - 10.9, 63.4 touches, 36 USG% / year 2: paint touches - 6.3, post ups - 13.8, 76.4 touches, 33.4 USG%
Karl-Anthony Towns: paint touches - 6.9, post ups - 4.9, 53.7 touches, 24.9 USG% / year 2: paint touches - 8.4, post ups - 11.0, 70.2 touches, 27.5 USG%
Immediately, what stands out when placing Ayton head-to-head with the rookie production from Embiid and Towns is that the Bahamian product runs away when it comes to actually feeds in the paint.
Call me surprised, because I didn’t expect that when you see the inconsistencies we’ve witnessed through 58 games.
Diving into this for Ayton’s counterparts, Embiid saw his touches rise by 13 with the addition of a legitimate long-term point guard option when Ben Simmons was drafted No. 1 overall. Embiid also saw his post-up opportunities rise up even more from an eye-popping 10.9 to 13.8.
One area that isn’t mentioned with Embiid was his age. He missed the first 1.5 seasons due to lingering foot issues, so he had over 18 months within an NBA strength and conditioning program before he ever started a game at 22 years old.
Embiid is a special case over the last decade with cornerstone big men, but there seems to be a similar pattern forming between the development of Ayton and Towns.
The Timberwolves’ star had an entirely different production path from Year 1 to Year 2. Towns’s post-ups easily doubled from 4.9 all the way to 11.0, while his overall touches rose up by 16.5.
Could we be in for a similar sophomore campaign from Ayton during the 2019-20 season? It’s certainly possible, because Ayton’s usage rate as a rookie compared to Embiid and Towns is way lower. If that area increases past 25 percent, then Ayton should easily become one of the more promising young bigs in the Association.
While I even harp on the erratic differentials on a game-by-game basis of feeding the former University of Arizona Wildcat, this should ease some concerns when it comes to how Kokoskov and the rest of the Suns’ player development staff is going about their business with Ayton. There has been a plan in place all season long and they haven't deviated from it once yet.
When asked about Ayton’s touches on practice Tuesday before traveling to Los Angeles for their final game before the All-Star break against the Clippers, Kokoskov gets ‘goosebumps’ when he hears about that facet.
“I get goosebumps when I hear ‘touches,’” Kokoskov said. “If you play the game of basketball, you definitely touch the ball. For us to develop (Ayton) as a dominant post player, I can’t agree more if you're talking about those touches. But he has to be involved in every part of the game. Pick-and-roll game is his touch when he rolls to the basket and seals the guy and opens and dunks. That’s a touch. A lot of guys (face-up) to the basket.
Some day, he’ll definitely change this league. Right now, bigs in the league are playing face to the basket which is reading spot dunker area. Rolling to the basket, you face the basket. He’s impressive also when it comes to post presence. ... He’s a playmaker, he can pass the ball. We know that, so I want him to touch the ball everywhere on the court. A couple weeks ago, a couple practices ago, he asked me about his three-point shots. That’s a touch too. So, I want him to touch the ball everywhere.”
Kokoskov, who is well known for player development prowess throughout his coaching career, won’t try to rush things along with Ayton. Put those qualms to rest about his touches for the time being and let’s reassess by this time next season.