After 10 games, three lineup changes and an ankle sprain, the highly anticipated breakout game for Deandre Ayton came Thursday in Madison Square Garden.
The goal posts moved quickly for Ayton from the time he helped lead the Suns to a blowout over Sacramento to when he returned from a 25-game suspension to when he ultimately returned to the starting center spot against the Knicks. These are the breaks for a recent No. 1 overall pick on a team with hopes of a playoff berth.
In putting together the first 20-20 game of his two-year career, Ayton did not bust out any new tricks or go outside his comfort zone. Instead, Ayton maximized all the little things that make his game so enticing. The fantastic timing and skill as a dive man in the pick-and-roll, aggressiveness on the glass, and improving awareness as a defensive anchor all culminated in one of the best performances of his career.
Multiple efforts on defense
On Ayton’s two blocks of the night, what stands out most is the big man’s trust in his teammates. Most of the time, the Suns still employ a drop scheme for their big men against the pick and roll. That means you’ll see, as in both clips above, Ayton settle down around the foul line as the ball-handler scrapes around the screen.
In the past, Ayton has gotten lost in no-man’s land (the real meaning of that phrase is getting to me more than usual today, as I’m writing this just after seeing 1917, a great movie). What that means in the context of defensive basketball is that rather than rotating over entirely to corral the ball-handler or sticking with his man, he’d get lost in-between. That was the cause of a lot of the plays in which Ayton didn’t so much as contest shots at the rim in the past. It was the explanation for many of his failed box-outs as well. After floating out of the play, Ayton would watch the rest of the possession from afar before jogging back to the offensive end.
Watch how different it looked on Thursday in the Big Apple:
Before blocking RJ Barrett’s shot in the first clip, Ayton executes basically a full switch with Booker. That puts Ayton on the driving Barrett and Booker clinging to Randle on the perimeter. My guess is this was part of the game plan against Barrett, who often gets tunnel vision as a driver. The switch simplified Ayton’s duties: Keep pace with Barrett and swat the shot.
To close out the second half, Ayton displayed a similar trust in Ricky Rubio, one of the better point-of-attack pick and roll defenders in the NBA. Rubio mastered this tango with Rudy Gobert in Utah and it seems the skill is finally helping Ayton as well. In the second clip above, Ayton calmly waits for Elfrid Payton to come around the Mitchell Robinson screen, knowing Rubio will jam Payton above the three-point line. Once Payton gets downhill, Ayton, still patient as can be, lurks behind him to stay close enough to block a shot without giving up the paint.
Will this simplification work against the best pick and roll duos? Maybe not, but how often are those tandems operating at full capacity during the regular season anyway? And how many second-year players actually could stop them? The answer to both questions is very few. Ayton may not look dominant here, but staying aware of the court for multiple seconds at a time and finishing the play off with contests is the sign of a maturing young big on the defensive end.
Reading the opposing offense in real-time
Head coach Monty Williams related Ayton’s growth to that of LaMarcus Aldridge, a player Williams helped developed in Portland years ago.
“When a guy does blow by (Ayton), it’s a tough two,” Williams said last week. “He has the ability to distract shots … When he keeps his shot-fake discipline at a high level and stays down … It makes him even more effective in those situations.”
Even when Ayton wasn’t blocking shots against the Knicks, he demonstrated a heightened level of awareness that wasn’t on display when he first returned from injury or was miscast as a 4 next to Aron Baynes.
Ayton sees the Kevin Knox cut coming early in the first clip, and again he’s mobile enough to turn the possession into a simple one-on-one battle that he can win. Knox opts for a difficult floater that has no chance.
Defending Randle in the second clip, Ayton again flashes what I believe to be gameplan awareness, getting in Randle’s grill early as soon as he gets the ball. With Ayton crouched into a defensive stance, Randle plays right into the Suns’ big man’s hands. Across two games this year, Randle’s usual bully-ball isolation play has been quite inefficient against Ayton. Anyone who wants to turn it into a mano a mano battle on the perimeter is going to lose to Ayton most of the time.
A man on a rebounding mission
It would be impossible to praise Ayton’s performance against the Knicks without also giving him credit for his monstrous rebounding performance. According to StatMuse, Ayton was the first Suns player with a 20-point, 20-rebound game since 2008.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to assign value to individuals when it comes to rebounding. Players who box out and play physically on the glass don’t always accrue rebounds in the box score, even if their work led to the loose ball ending up in a teammate’s hand. Others can soar above everyone else to end up with the ball before anyone else has a chance at it. Bullies like De’Andre Jordan or Russell Westbrook steal rebounds from teammates.
Great rebounders in the league do all of that, but the very best in the NBA combine those tricks and physical tools with a preternatural instinct for finding the ball. Ayton was a mad man pursuing missed shots against the Knicks, the latest evidence that he’s becoming one of the best rebounders in the NBA.
Look where Ayton is when the shot goes up & where he gets the board.— David Kevin (@theIVpointplay) January 17, 2020
Pro tip: if you see Ayton bring out the swim move on a box out, you KNOW he's come to play. pic.twitter.com/WN2KPI26Nt
If a big man is busting out pass-rush moves just to grab an offensive board, it’s time to start taking his rebounding seriously as an elite skill. The dedication required to rebound like this is immense and not every big man can stomach it, especially with how much Ayton will one day be asked to do on offense (including moving away from the basket), but the skill speaks for itself.
Here’s my favorite one of the night, but really, there should be a highlight reel for Ayton’s work on the glass on Thursday:
Ayton’s somewhat slow progress may be relatively disappointing, but the big man is solidifying much of what made him so enticing in the future.
He will have to build from there to truly become the special player worthy of a No. 1 overall pick and building a franchise around, but rare performances like the one Ayton put together in New York do signal impressive progress.