Deandre Ayton has had an interesting career so far, to say the least.
First, the 20-year-old came out of college as a highly skilled offensive center who was a net-negative on defense that neither protected the rim or defended the perimeter at an adequate level. As a rookie, Ayton set records for scoring efficiency and rebounding, but was a turnstile on D. His top-level ceiling looked like a poor man’s Karl-Anthony Towns — which is in itself a great compliment to justify his draft position.
But then in year two, at the ripe old age of 21, after a 25-game suspension for failing a league drug screening, Ayton’s on-court contributions changed dramatically. He had morphed from an offense-first center that didn’t want to play defense to a defense-first center who could protect the rim and perimeter with equal measure...all while inexplicably regressing on offense to being just a mid-range jump shooter.
And now in year three, the transformation appears even more extreme. Ayton is now a trusted anchor in the middle of the Suns top-ranked defense, but appears to have even less of a clue how to score outside of layups and dunks from under the basket.
“Defensively I’m where I need to be at,” Ayton said when asked to review his performance after four games. “Being that anchor and aggressor. Communicating to my teammates what they can’t see. And everybody just trusting me to be that guy protecting the paint.”
After four games, the Suns (3-1 for the first time in six years) rank second in the league in defensive efficiency and tops in points allowed to opponents.
“I told him he did a great job,” Mikal Bridges said of Ayton after the blowout of the Pelicans where the Suns led 100-61 after three quarters. “He had a big game defensively.”
Bridges described Ayton’s ability to defend behemoths like Steven Adams and Zion Williamson, while also switching onto smaller perimeter players in their defensive schemes.
Bridges also talked about Ayton — sixth in the league in rebounds with 11.8 per game — boxing out the bigs to help his smaller teammates gather rebounds too. The Suns are mid-pack in rebounds per game so far despite Ayton’s lineup mates being 6’8” or shorter.
But on the other end of the court, Ayton is a major work in progress.
As a rookie, he was given the extremely easy role to catch and finish near the rim, or take a mid-range jumper from the high post if he couldn’t find a cutter. Due to the Suns lack of threats he was force-fed the ball a lot.
Then as a sophomore, he started settling for even more mid-range shots while being given fewer chances right at the rim. His efficiency dropped as a result. After setting a pick, fans and coaches wanted him to either float to the three-point line, like Aron Baynes would do in the same offensive scheme, or dive to the deep post.
Now in year three, Ayton appears to have cut nearly all the mid-rangers out of his game so far, leaving only the grass-fed finishes on the roll and deep-post catches. But those have not come easy. As a result, his points per game have dropped from 18.2 to 11.5, his shots per game down from 14.9 to 9. Only four games, but still a drop.
The key to him unlocking a greater offensive game comes with learning better timing with point god Chris Paul who has made many a big man a star.
So far, the pairing has produced few good results.
In the Pelicans game, Paul notably committed a pair of turnovers in the opening quarter trying to get Ayton to roll hard. After that period, including a discussion between Paul and Ayton, the pick and roll game improved.
I asked Ayton about it after the game and here was his answer:
“Tonight (against the Pelicans) the reason I was so slow on those rollouts in the first half. It was a different coverage how the team was playing us tonight. I wasn’t used to being so wide open going to the basket, not being tagged at all. Just going through that experience, having them talk to me and find different angles, when to leave when to stay, when to hold the screen, it’s a lot. I caught on quick when he got on me after one play rolling kind of late. It opened up so much for us when I rolled to the basket, so now we got it clicking. It’s game by game.”
Here is Ayton not quite sure what to do on a catch from Paul in the first quarter of the Pelicans game.
You can see against Sacramento he got his usual defense of the big man dropping into the paint while the guard he’s screening just kind of stays locked to him after the screen, leaving Paul open for the midrange. The problem here is that Ayton just floats, allowing both Fox and Holmes to stay close enough to Paul to cause confusion.
Here’s a case against the Pelicans where he rolled hard, but still decides he’s not getting the ball. Clearly, he wasn’t actually expecting the pass here.
There are good signs though. Sometimes he gets the defense he expects, and makes the right read to be able to finish the plays on the move.
For most of his career, the Suns had little to no outside shooting threat so the opponent would triple-sag onto Ayton on his rolls. He almost never had a clear roll to the rim. Even against Sacramento last weekend, Ayton was double covered on rolls and triple covered on the entry pass.
“I think Deandre did a really good job after those first five minutes,” head coach Monty Williams said of the Pelicans game. “He just dove and was a huge presence in the paint. We went in to him a little bit, but he was down there so when the shot went up he had opportunities to get offensive rebounds.”
Ayton finished with 5 offensive rebounds among his 12 total.
“Offensively he’s a threat,” Mikal Bridges said of Ayton’s rolls. “They gotta help. And we got so many weapons.”
Does Ayton care about his touches being down this year, from about 15 shots a game to 9.
“I don’t care,” he answered without hesitation. “It’s a force, having us three is a blessing. We are just taking our time, going game by game, figuring things out.
“We play for each other. It don’t matter who scores. Just going out there playing as a unit, playing with positivity. It’s a good feeling, man.”
Ayton appreciates everything about this young Suns season, especially after such a trying sophomore campaign ruined by his bad choices and the resultant 25-game suspension, plus nagging injuries that held him to only 38 of the Suns 73 games.
“It’s personal. It’s emotional,” he said with his customary smile. “I’m just surpassing certain obstacles I had, difficulties I had in my second year. Just finally going through a whole season. This feels like my second year to be honest with you guys.
“I’m just blessed. I’m blessed to play basketball every single day.”