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Evaluating Deandre Ayton 10 games into sophomore season

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Charlotte Hornets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

As the rest of the NBA nears the mid-season point, Deandre Ayton gets to celebrate a different milestone.

We’re officially 10 games into his sophomore season.

That may seem like too small of a sample size to start drawing serious conclusions. But this is Deandre Ayton we’re talking about. NBA analysts have been scrutinizing his every move since his days at the University of Arizona, and we’re not going to stop now. There’s too much at stake when it comes to the guy who could just make or break the Suns’ rebuild under James Jones.

Thus far, reactions to Ayton’s play have been mixed. And not just from the fans and the media.

“I think he’s going to have a few games where he’s going to look brilliant and then there’s going to be sometimes when you’re like, what was that?”, Monty Williams told Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic last week.

On paper, the traditional box score stats tell a similar story about Ayton as they did last year. With a nightly line of 16 points, 11 rebounds and 2 assists per game on 54% shooting, he’s a walking double-double.

But the Suns want more than a double double from their top-tier prospect. They want a true building block to pair next to Devin Booker, and an anchor on both ends of the court.

Through these 10 games, there’s a multitude of evidence to suggest that he can get there. There are also several glaring weaknesses that could just as easily prevent him from ever living up to the hype of a No. 1 overall pick.

Let’s break it all down.

Offense

Through 10 games, Ayton’s offensive efficiency has actually taken a slight dip from where it was his rookie season. He went from 61% true shooting to 55%, which is right around league average. Part of that is less efficient shooting, but part of it is also an even worse free-throw rate from the big man, who’s gone from an already poor 3.1 FTA per 36 minutes to just 1.5 FTA per 36. To this point, Ayton’s free-throw rate ranks dead last on the Suns, behind even guards like Ty Jerome and Jevon Carter.

We’ll address those concerns later. But first, here are the positives.

Transition Offense

When Monty Williams first arrived in Phoenix, he came with a reputation for coaching to a slow, deliberate pace. There were questions of just how he could handle a team of young athletes, having led New Orleans to a bottom five pace in four of his five seasons there.

Perhaps it’s a bit surprising then that the Suns currently stand 10th in the league in pace. And for Deandre Ayton to succeed, he needs to play into that.

Centers rarely have the privilege of foregoing a defensive rebound to leak out. But with two premium playmakers in Rubio and Booker, Ayton will find that the harder he runs, the more he’ll be rewarded.

He’s only logged 13 possessions in transition through this stretch, but he’s a perfect 9-9 from the field. That equates to 1.62 points per possession, which ranks 98th percentile across the league in efficiency.

It was a major strength of his as a rookie as well, when he ranked 86th percentile in efficiency. His long strides combined with relative agility makes for a powerful combo in a big, as he’s able to convert passes for alley-oops and dunks that a veteran like Baynes simply can’t keep up with.

Pick-and-Roll Finishing

Just before Ayton’s return, Phoenix’s offense was seemingly at its low point. Part of this was periods of missing not only Ayton but also Rubio and Booker for stretches of games. But another part was that the team’s five-out offense had become predictable. The early success of the Suns was predicated on the penetration of Rubio and Booker combined with outside shooting of various bigs (particularly Baynes). When that shooting regressed, none of the bigs had the requisite repertoire to counter.

But Ayton does. His hands are phenomenal, and his body control when in motion is something you might expect from a 5-year vet. When paired with Rubio and Booker, we can confidently say he is one of the most terrifying lob threats in the NBA.

Hopefully you enjoy that compilation of Ayton’s pick-and-roll finishing, but even more important than that is the concept of gravity.

Every spot up shooter and every roll man exists in a constant symbiotic relationship. The better your reputation for shooting or rolling, the more attention you attract on defense. This extra attention creates opportunities for your teammates.

Thus, the best rollers in the league understand that rolling is really an act of sacrifice. Deandre Ayton won’t receive the ball every single time he sets a strong screen. But he has tremendous gravity, and other players benefit from that.

To help visualize that concept, we can look at the Bball-Index’s 3D Gravity tool, developed by Andrew Patton.

The chart below demonstrates Deandre Ayton’s gravity for the current season, or in other words, the level of “pull” that he has when he positions himself on any given spot on the court. The areas in red demonstrate a high gravity relative to the average NBA player.

As you can see, Ayton’s gravity at the rim is that of a supermassive black hole. For some quantitative data, he ranks 19th in the league in gravity at the rim per game. That’s in the 96th percentile.

And here’s what that looks like in action. As displayed in the video below, it doesn’t just have to be when Ayton rolls to the rim. Merely his presence in the post is enough to draw double teams, allowing the Suns to make the proper reads out to guards. Kelly Oubre has been a massive beneficiary of this, and I’d reckon it’s played a part in Oubre’s rising three-point efficiency over the past month.

Post Ups

This is where Ayton’s offense starts to get a little more precarious. When posting up, there are two different versions of Ayton that Suns fans are treated to.

The first version is the 7-foot, 250-pound behemoth playing to the strength that his physical attributes provide. When Ayton is decisive about getting to the rim from post positioning, there are few opposing bigs that can stop him. He’s strong for a 21-year-old, but his footwork is developed well beyond his years too. He ranked in the 75th percentile in post efficiency as a rookie, putting him in the same tier as high-volume post up bigs like Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns. Indeed, in the clips below he looks like a viable first option out of the post.

The 2nd version of Ayton in the post is, unfortunately, complacent. What’s dragging down his post efficiency slightly this season is the presence of too many turnaround jumpers, or to go even further, mid-range shots in general. Even more frustrating, many of these shots are early in the shot clock.

In the first clip in the above video, Ayton hustles down the floor and catches the ball with 19 seconds left on the shot clock. He then immediately hoists up a turnaround jumper over Whiteside.

Even for the best mid-range scorers, that shot has roughly a 40 percent chance of going in. Instead of taking advantage of a defense that wasn’t fully set and making a move or two towards the paint, he plays a losing numbers game and settles for the easiest option.

This is the biggest problem that Ayton needs to trim out of his offense. To truly achieve superstar status, his goal should be to generate 5+ free-throw attempts per game. Right now he’s at 1.5.

And to give historical context for that, Ayton is currently one of only 5 NBA centers since the year 1990 to be scoring at least 15 PPG on fewer than 3 FTA per game in a single season.

The other 4: Al Horford, Al Jefferson, Nikola Vucevic, and Jonas Valanciunas.

Those 4 have all had respectable careers. Horford is a 5-time All-Star, and Jefferson made an all-NBA team. But none ever had the capacity to anchor an elite offense, because their finesse finishing simply wasn’t enough for that.

Ask yourself: if Doncic becomes a top 30 player of all-time, and Ayton is the next Al Horford, will you truly feel satisfied at the end of their careers?

If the answer is no, then you understand what we mean when we say that Ayton needs to play with anger. It’s not that he should be dunking every time down the court. For all I care he never has to dunk again. But he needs to play like a modern center, which means working his way to the free-throw line by any means necessary.

Shooting

And finally, because you knew it was coming.

A picture’s worth a thousand words. Can you spot the problem with this image?

Gravity goes two ways. For as phenomenal as Ayton’s roll gravity is, he remains useless on the perimeter. Without the confidence to shoot or drive, he is pigeonholed into screen setting for dribble hand offs. Those can sometimes be very effective, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that the Magic are playing 5-on-4 in the above image. All it takes is a little drop coverage from the defense to bait the Suns into inefficient mid-range shots.

The answer is not for Ayton to start hoisting up 4 threes per game like Aron Baynes. It’s only asked that he keeps the defense honest and forces them to cover the whole floor. After all, Ayton is making just 36 percent of his mid-range jumpers so far. Mathematically, that’s the equivalent efficiency of a 24 percent three-point shooter. Surely Ayton can live up to that if he’s been practicing, right?

If he can’t live up to that, we’ve got bigger problems.

Defense

Overall, Ayton’s offense has been largely the same as it was in his rookie campaign. Here comes the exciting part, where we get to focus on his defensive improvement.

Ask any Suns fan to recall their favorite memory of an otherwise disastrous ‘18-19 season and they’re likely to come up with a couple of games. If their answer is either the win against Lebron’s Lakers or Giannis’ Bucks, then that’s likely directly due to Deandre Ayton’s phenomenal defensive coverage of those two superstars.

Ayton has always been at his best defensively as an on-ball defender. Sure he has the length to block shots, but his ability to effectively shuffle on the perimeter excited scouts because it made him switchable in the modern NBA.

We saw flashes of that last season, but this season Ayton has ascended to a new level of impressive perimeter defense.

Whether covering his own man or switching onto a guard, Ayton has largely done a great job of containing drives and blocking the ensuing shots. In fact, among 279 players who have contested at least 50 shots within 6 feet of the rim, Ayton ranks 7th in opponent field goal percentage. As a rookie he allowed opponents to shoot 62% inside of 6 feet; this season he’s down to 45%.

That level of improvement is likely unsustainable as the season progresses, but Ayton’s defensive versatility has breathed new life into the Suns’ struggling defense. To this point the team is 6.8 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Ayton on the floor, a stat that I’m sure few Suns fans predicted before the season.

In addition to his improved ability to contain, Ayton is more frequently making smart rotations and effectively contesting outside shots without fouling.

The clip in the video below against the Knicks is a great example of his improvement when it comes to the basics. Ayton slides over to cut off Portis’ rolling lane, then still finds time to recover for a contest on the Randle three. Last year it would be a frequent sight for him to fail to rotate entirely, and Portis may have had a dunk.

In the other clips Ayton shows good recognition of the shot clock, applying pressure to ball handlers without fouling.

His newfound sense of engagement has encouraged Monty Williams to deploy him in some traps as of late, which were largely effective in the win against Orlando.

Still, he often gets lost in more complicated actions, particularly when he focuses so intently on the ball handler that he loses sight of his own man. In the first clip below he does a great job of cutting off the initial drive, but lacks the focus to stay with Zeller underneath the basket in what turns into an ugly sequence.

In the next clip he comes over to trap Trae Young but gets stuck in no man’s land, unable to funnel Trae away from center court or to stop Damian Jones from catching an easy lob.

In the final clip he just completely freezes as Elie Okobo does the natural thing and slips under a screen set for Markelle Fultz. A single step to the left from Ayton (and subsequent tag from Oubre onto a rolling Vucevic) could have cut off this drive, but the Suns concede the easy dunk instead.

These plays will still happen, and they will continue to frustrate Suns fans. But don’t lose sight of the bottom line here, which is that through 10 games, Deandre Ayton has been a completely different beast on defense.

Is he the next Gobert? That’s very unlikely. But the Suns have built a competitive enough team that Ayton has something to play for this season, and that combined with development from the coaching staff has led to a more well-rounded, highly-engaged player.

The next step for him on this side of the court is to become a trusted communicator, patrolling on the back end and helping his guards see a play unfold before it happens.

That will come with time. So too, hopefully, will the three-point shooting.

Given where he was picked, and given who he was taken in front of, Ayton will always be criticized until he ticks every conceivable box. He’ll be facing an uphill battle forever, and his job is to not be driven mad by those comparisons and to simply work on his game. The hard work is already starting to pay off, and with a little more consistency, there’s no doubt that he can be a great player.