When the Suns drafted Deandre Ayton -- despite their public declarations of his NBA readiness and generational talent -- Ryan McDonough, James Jones and Co. knew the future would entail adjustments and reconsiderations.
Ayton met expectations as a rookie and put together one of the more productive campaigns we’ve seen, more than living up the billing of the No. 1 pick.
Watching the 2019 NBA playoffs, the continuation last year of a trend that makes it difficult to keep traditional big men on the floor has already eaten up Rudy Gobert and Jarrett Allen and will undoubtedly claim more victims as the chess match intensifies on the court.
Right now, Ayton is neither a spot-up or pick-and-pop threat nor a defensive anchor. He’s a rookie. Looking outward to a point when the Suns are navigating a high-stakes playoff series, however, the question of what type of center Ayton becomes will determine much about the team’s ceiling in the postseason, as Gobert’s floundering this postseason shows.
Utah has a 97.5 offensive rating in the playoffs, both because of Gobert’s lack of versatility in his use as a screener and hand-off man as well as their shooters, who in the playoffs act like employees in a haunted house who are on their break smoking a cigarette.
More alarmingly, the Jazz are allowing 1.053 points per shot attempt in the playoffs in which Gobert is switched out defending a ball-handler, a situation Houston forces on even the best defenses because of how well James Harden can manipulate traditional pick-and-roll coverage with his shooting and passing.
Gobert, who may win his second Defensive Player of the Year trophy this season, is facing a matchup for the second straight year in which even he cannot be effective.
Through four games, Allen, who also plays vanilla drop pick-and-roll coverage, has been roasted. He is in just the 40th percentile of pick-and-roll big man defenders in the playoffs, struggling to make sense of Joel Embiid’s triple-threat ability after setting a screen. Allen has no chance if Embiid pops to the perimeter and drives from there, where Embiid can score with twisting footwork and make plays for his teammates.
Perhaps the scariest examples thinking about Ayton’s future on defense is the debut of Karl-Anthony Towns in 2018. It was just five games, not our biggest sample, but Houston ran roughshod on the offensive dynamo. Towns defended the big man in pick-and-roll situations even worse than Gobert, putting up efficiency equivalent to the 12th percentile among bigs last season.
Fortunately for Minnesota and more broadly a generation of unicorn big men who will try to get more on offense than they give up on defense, Towns was incredible generating offense from the post in the 2018 first round. Nearly half of the Timberwolves’ offensive possessions ran through Towns posting, and his efficiency put him in the top 20 percent of the NBA creating points from there.
After just one year, it seems as if the Suns will ultimately have to pray that Ayton gets to the point on offense where his shot creation helps combat his below-average defense. Towns entered the league with more perceived defensive upside, a higher college block rate and better mobility. Towns has underperformed, but Ayton reaching greater heights than the Kentucky product as a defender would be a surprise.
This may seem like the last thing the Suns have to think about right now, but we know they want to compete in the immediate future. There seems to be quite a ceiling on traditional defensive schemes with plodding big men based on how the best teams are organized today. Ayton, at least as he was used as a rookie, counts as traditional and his hesitation prodded him into the plodding category.
Ayton will be a far different player, ideally, when the Suns finally make the playoffs. He said to the media after the season he wants the ball in his hands heading down the court more often next season a la Giannis Antetokounmpo. We still haven’t seen him shoot many threes. Phoenix will likely start to switch more on defense next year if their personnel allows it.
However, the recent struggles of similar big men in the playoffs should be in the back of Jones’ and his staff’s minds as they build out the roster around the 2018 No. 1 overall pick.