Deandre Ayton won’t have the luxury of developing within the harmless confines of losing basketball teams. Whereas many young players get to make mistakes on teams that are willing to lose, the Suns this summer made a conscious decision to try to get better, filling the roster with players who will help Ayton and raise the floor of the organization in 2019-20.
Where does that leave Ayton? It means Year Two is a big one for him. The expectation is that he develops into a capable winning basketball player far sooner than any other recent Suns draft pick has had to. Ayton will be asked to do things we’ve never seen him do consistently before, like shooting threes and protecting the rim. And he’ll have to do it every night.
Over the next few weeks, Bright Side will be looking at the best- and worst-case scenarios for various players’ skills as well as the Suns as a team generally. For Ayton, the most important question about his future is what he is able to do defensively. As a rookie, the progress he made was mostly positive, and gave no one any reason to think he still can’t become an above-average defensive center.
Yet playing for his third coach in as many seasons dating back to his freshman season at Arizona, there is also pressure on Ayton to pick up another new system quickly while also improving his decision-making, reaction time, and skill. The NBA caught Ayton off-guard on many nights last season. The luxury of surprise won’t be in Ayton’s back pocket any longer. For the Suns to improve, even this season, Ayton will need to be a more disciplined and impactful rim protector right away.
Best case: Ayton is a net positive on defense and executes well enough to keep the Suns in games
The stats only tell part of the story of Ayton’s defensive impact last season. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Suns’ defense was 2.2 points better per 100 possessions when Ayton was on the court, a differential that ranked in the 71st percentile league-wide. But his Defensive Box Plus-Minus was just 0.2, or barely above average, and his Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus was -0.3, slightly below average. This has far more to do with the lack of defensive talent across the Suns’ roster as well as the guys behind him on the depth chart than Ayton specifically. Tyson Chandler’s effort and aggressiveness left him early in the season (only to mysteriously reappear in Los Angeles), while guys like Dragan Bender and Ray Spalding left much to be desired defensively.
Nevertheless, Ayton exceeded the expectations most of us had for him as a rookie. He blocked 1.1 shots per 36 minutes and hoarded rebounds like they were valuable antiques. When coach Igor Kokoskov ventured outside his comfort zone, Ayton often looked even better, hounding smaller players on switches as his reads were simplified.
A great deal of optimism about Ayton is derived from the fact that in one-on-one situations, he looked very good. Late in the clock or against over-aggressive scoring guards, Ayton uses his length well to contest and often block misguided shot attempts. He knows he can recover well because of his size and length, so he gives ball-handlers an extra step before coming back into view at the last moment. Ayton’s footwork in these situations is mostly strong. He crouches into a defensive stance in a short drop off a screen and makes his way back to the small shooter in a hurry.
Notice that all of these clips happen at the end of the clock. A good portion of his blocks last season came in these situations, including many three-pointers that never should have gone up against him.
It can’t be a coincidence that Ayton operated with more freedom and instinct when he knew his responsibilities were more limited. The guy with the ball in his hands doesn’t have many options as the clock ticks — 10, 9, 8, 7 — and Ayton has to hear the ticking, too. So he can funnel his energy and attention toward one man, and his incredible athleticism kicks into gear. The job is simple at that point: Run, jump, swat.
Did Ayton overplay some of these? Sure. More on that later. But defenses who weren’t smart enough to pick at his weaknesses fell victim to his strengths. If they were unwilling to challenge him to make a second or third effort, or to read several actions at once, he made them pay for going easy.
A similar paring down of his duties in isolation situations helped him as well. Though Synergy Sports shows Ayton as below average defending the post and perimeter isos, those numbers are cloudy and also colored by a few enormous nights by guys like Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic against Ayton. When he was defending one guy in space, more often than not, it went Ayton’s way.
Ayton’s lack of basketball IQ lost out to the overwhelming athleticism pretty often last season, even if it was hard to see beneath all the lapses. Basically, he could afford to make mistakes and made up for it thanks to his length, strength and leaping ability. Few can match his mobility and size, and those who couldn’t were sometimes met with downright embarrassment. Such is life for a 7-1 monster.
The results were much prettier when Ayton let the game come to him last season, but that’s not always possible. The hope is that in his sophomore season, Ayton can create better situations for himself by being patient, remembering the movements he’s now seen for a full season, and keeping in mind that he does have athletic gifts that will make things easier for him. He doesn’t need to run around as much as others. Less can be more.
A best-case scenario for Ayton as a rim protector in 2020 involves much more of what worked in the clips above. Monty Williams mentioned at Kelly Oubre Jr.’s introductory press conference that he could see the Suns switching even more this season, and they have the personnel to pull it off. Ayton’s value jumps up considerably in that type of scheme, which manufactures one-on-one situations. Accounting for more switching and the in-season progress continuing for the 20-year-old, Ayton could easily see his block numbers go up and his icky 63.2 percent field goal percentage allowed at the rim go down.
It would be fantastic if Ayton could continue to make the Suns’ defense better with Aron Baynes as his backup and the overall team’s defensive efficiency improving. That would likely indicate he made strides in conjunction with the team as a whole. Statistically, it would be great also to see advanced stats like DBPM and DPIPM trend in more of a positive direction as well. No matter what, though, we will be able to tell if a season of tribulation and an offseason of work helped the 2018 No. 1 overall pick or not.
Worst case: Maybe Ayton’s ceiling isn’t as high as it seems
As with a ton of rookies, when it rained for Ayton defensively, it poured. The blooper reel would be pretty bloated if anyone hazarded to make one. As mentioned in the section above, the biggest issues came about when Ayton had to stay locked in for longer than one action or a single shot attempt. When multiple layers were thrown at him in a single possession, a frustrating lack of energy, focus and understanding created easy opportunities for opposing offenses.
This is Ayton at his most maddening, for those of us watching and definitely for his coaches and teammates. These habits won’t be tolerated on a team led by a veteran coach in Williams with better teammates around him who want to win. Missing a rebound or falling out of position would piss anyone off, but as with some of the highlights above, Ayton has the tools to stay in the play and defend. The Suns have to hope the presence of people who hold him accountable will work both ways, and Ayton will benefit from the new players and coaches. Having something to play for and feeling like the effort you put in actually matters has to be a big difference-maker.
At times, Ayton also genuinely was lost. Miscommunication between him and his teammates as well as late reactions to the opposing offense multiplied into big problems. Here’s a sampling of such plays before we dig in on a few:
Against the Jokic-Jamal Murray pick and roll in the first clip and the Rudy Gobert-Joe Ingles two-man game later in the video, it’s unclear what the defensive coverage is supposed to be. Against the Nuggets, it looks like either Ayton is supposed to switch onto Murray, leaving Josh Jackson on Jokic, or Ayton is supposed to hedge up toward Murray as he comes around the screen. If hedging was the call, then Jackson getting killed by the screen hurt the defense, but Ayton doesn’t get all the way in Murray’s grill either, leaving an easy pocket pass to Jokic for an open layup.
The same combination of miscommunication and bad execution hurt the Suns against the Ingles-Gobert pick and roll, in which it looks as if they are trying to hedge and get burned. Though they are a step slow in their rotations, Dragan Bender helps save Ayton by hustling down to tag Gobert, but Ayton and Oubre watch as Derrick Favors catches the ball in space, takes a dribble, and lobs a pass into Gobert for a layup.
Ayton never gets back in position after the original lunge toward Ingles, so he’s not able to prevent Favors’ drive or deflect the lob to Gobert, resulting in an easy bucket. These types of plays kill teams. Gobert is a perfect example of a defender who makes up for his teammates’ mistakes. That’s why he’s the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Ayton can play so much more clean-up rather than being the culprit, if he tidies up his attentiveness to the gameplan and dedication to staying in the play.
Yet much of the analysis of his game around the time of the draft centered on pessimism that he could ever develop a nuanced understanding of defense in order to excel playing center in the NBA. These same issues plagued him in high school and at the University of Arizona, in part because he was a power forward most of his life. Perhaps time is up on his ability to learn NBA defense, or the way he plays the game is not conducive to the demands of protecting the rim against pro offenses.
All of these things can change. What is currently Ayton’s style, approach or level of understanding can get better over time. He’s only 21, entering his second NBA season. But video like that shows just how far Ayton has left to go, and when the stakes are higher and teams take the Suns more seriously as an opponent, they will only challenge him more often.
A worst-case scenario this season includes Ayton showing little to no growth as a rim protector. His blocks stagnate, and he still looks lost. Over time, opposing game plans acknowledge that he is beatable so long as you make him work. Williams’ desire to switch doesn’t pan out because of injuries or a lack of size. Maybe Ayton isn’t up to the task, and the realization dawns on the Suns there is much more work to do.
That’s just the nightmare version of all this. The reality is probably going to be somewhere in the middle. We know very little about what Ayton will be in the NBA, but the current evidence is both damning and reason for optimism.