The Phoenix Suns will open the 2020-21 season with one of the two or three best backcourt tandems in the league in All-Stars Devin Booker and Chris Paul. They have a nice tandem of swing forwards as well in Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder as well as playable depth up and down the roster.
But for the Suns to be a threat for a long playoff run to the Conference Finals or beyond, Deandre Ayton on the offensive end needs to live up to the nickname — DominAyton — he had tattooed on his back last month.
Chris Paul is one of the league’s best playmakers in the pick-and-roll, especially with a big man who can draw gravity of his own like Ayton. Paul helped turn Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and Clint Capela into some of the league’s most fearsome diving threats, and now he has Ayton’s unique blend of agility and bounce at his service.
Ayton is an excellent rebounder and quickly-improving defender, but his level of aggression offensively on dives and finishes is not as high as those former Paul teammates. So the question is whether Paul can coax that aggression out of Ayton with a combination of tailor-made setups and in-your-face advice.
In the preseason opener Saturday night without Paul (rest), Ayton had only one or two catches on the roll. Booker, for all his talents, is not great at running pick and roll at passing to a diver, and neither are any of the backup point guards. Ayton did get an open dunk opportunity on a broken play on Saturday, alone under the rim, but finished with a layup. His other touches were well away from the paint.
Ayton might make an All-Star game without any of this offensive aggression improvement. His rebounding is top-tier and his defense could be All-NBA someday soon. But his offensive game is still a work in progress. He has talent to do anything he wants out there — he’s a good passer and shooter, and is quite agile — but little plan on exactly what to do on the catch outside the paint in every situation. All this apparent overthinking leads to a seepage of aggression when the shot actually goes up.
Devin Booker agrees that Ayton needs to step up his aggression on the finish.
“I think he’s gonna be a force,” Booker said. “I think with Chris leading him and communicating with him the whole time, alongside myself drawing gravity to open things up for him.
“I like when he’s aggressive. He can shoot it in spots, but when he puts it on the ground and puts his body on somebody he’s tough to guard. They’re gonna have to foul him. You’ve seen spurts of that tonight and you’re gonna to see so, because we’re gonna continue to stay on him and make sure he’s being Dominayton.”
Booker is most likely indicating Ayton’s aggression on roll opportunities to the rim, but he could also be referencing Ayton’s tendency to abandon the chance to dribble-drive into paint for a bully-ball post up.
As a screener and outlet pass catcher in the Suns offense, he catches the ball so far out from the paint that his choices are to pass it again (most often the right decision), take a jumper (low points per shot), or drive into the defense with a dribble (scary if you’re not a great ball handler).
Here are two examples of Ayton putting the ball down to make a play. It can work, for sure, but guards have quick hands and Ayton’s dribble is high because he’s simply tall.
The next play he drew a foul by attacking again. More of this please. pic.twitter.com/VV3LWhWYol— Mike Vigil (@protectedpick) December 13, 2020
So the dribble-drive into defenders, with guards diving down to swing at the ball, is probably the very last thing Ayton wants to do.
To help Ayton become aggressive is to get him the catch closer to the rim, even better if it’s on the move so that he can finish within two steps of the catch.
Enter Chris Paul.
Here’s a fun video on how Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton could make sweet basketball music this season to help Ayton get a lot more touches around the rim each game.
And here’s a video from our buddies at The Timeline, Mike Vigil and BSotS contributor Sam Cooper, who do a podcast and YouTube channel that everyone should follow. They broke down how Chris Paul can help the Suns.
If you want to hear the post-game interviews from Saturday’s game, here they are