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The next step in Deandre Ayton’s progression begins with a dribble

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Forget the trade deadline, the Suns need Ayton to become a beast on offense.

Phoenix Suns v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In the past week, Suns fans have been treated to the best and the worst version of Deandre Ayton. And make no mistake, Ayton’s progress is the key to the Suns future with his core.

Ayton’s shooting efficiency has never stood out as the most consistent part of his game, but never has that efficiency oscillated so extremely between two opposite ends of the spectrum like it did against Dallas and Milwaukee.

In a blowout win over Dallas, Ayton’s offensive performance was electrifying. With 13-15 shooting and a handful of free-throw attempts, he posted a true shooting percentage for that one night of 90%. Sustaining that level of efficiency over a large sample size of minutes is unfathomable.

But in Sunday’s loss to Milwaukee, Ayton wasn’t just bad; he was historically bad. Superficially, 20 points and 14 rebounds seems like an effective stat line for a big man. But with just 10-27 shooting, and no free throws, Ayton posted a true shooting percentage of 37%.

To find another performance in which a center took at least 27 shots and failed to score over 20 points, you’d need to go back to 1995 to witness a 9-27 performance from Patrick Ewing.

The Bucks are not an easy matchup for Ayton, offensively or defensively. They statistically have three of the NBA’s premier rim protectors, making it difficult for even the league’s best finishers to score inside the paint. But Ayton’s shooting performance was not simply due to a lack of inside touch against a strong defense. It was also because of this all too familiar sight.

As of today, Deandre Ayton is shooting 33 percent on all mid-range shots. It has become increasingly frustrating that the least effective part of his game is one that he still leans on so heavily.

Beyond that, it’s frustrating because Ayton’s penchant for that shot played precisely into the Bucks’ gameplan.

Milwaukee, more than any other team in the league, is a master of using drop pick-and-roll coverage. Watch the video below, specifically focusing your eyes on either Brook or Robin Lopez. Notice how every time they defend the pick-and-roll the big man drops back to protect the rim, encouraging the ball handler to take the open mid-range shot in front of them.

If you’re Devin Booker, then there’s a chance that you can beat the best defensive team in the league by taking what you’re given. That’s because Booker is one of the NBA’s few players who are elite from every spot on the floor.

But if you’re Tyler Johnson, or Elie Okobo, then this is exactly what the defense wants you to do.

The same concept applies for Deandre Ayton. Look at just how little respect is given for Ayton’s shot in this frame.

This is the shot that the Bucks want him to take, because they know the numbers say that it makes for a losing strategy.

But the mid-range shot, by itself, is not really the problematic condition that plagues Deandre Ayton. It’s only a symptom.

The greater problem is that Ayton seems afraid to dribble the ball.

A simple fact of the NBA is that you can’t be a dominant scoring option without creating your own offense. And to do that requires taking other players off the dribble.

We can verify this by looking at the NBA’s “dribbles per touch” stat on NBA.com. Which NBA centers most frequently dribble the ball when they touch it?

Ranking in the top 10 are some familiar names. Anthony Davis. Nikola Jokic. Joel Embiid. Karl-Anthony Towns. All of the elite centers in the NBA share the common trait that they are more than willing to put the ball on the floor.

Meanwhile, Deandre Ayton is averaging just 0.32 dribbles per touch. Of 72 qualifying centers, that ranks 66th. By this metric, Ayton dribbles less frequently than rim runners like Jarrett Allen and Rudy Gobert.

In fairness, it is more than possible to be a good NBA center without dribbling the ball. Clint Capela, a walking double-double and formidable defender, dribbles even less frequently than Ayton.

But the point isn’t for Ayton to be a good center. He’s supposed to be a great one. And without dribbling, that’s simply impossible.

Back to the topic of the Mavs game. On the one hand, Ayton’s efficiency stood out because he finished lobs and hit short jumpers that he’s been struggling with. But beyond that, his performance stood out because of plays like these.

A single dribble in most of these clips may not seem like much, but for as imposing as Ayton is, that’s really all he needs. Even in the final clip against Cauley-Stein, Ayton settles for a jumper but halves the distance between him and the basket with just one dribble. That effort alone likely increases the efficiency of the shot by at least 10-15%, while also giving him a chance to draw a foul.

Free throws are the other major benefit to dribbling. Already a correlation can be drawn this season between the Suns’ record and Ayton’s free-throw attempts. He’s averaging just 1.6 attempts in losses, but 3.2 attempts in wins. Ideally he can get to the point where he puts opposing centers in early foul trouble, adding greater incentive for slashers like Booker and Oubre to attack the rim.

As always, the conversation around Ayton comes down to a question of ceiling. Given his massive defensive improvement this year, and his continued ability to finish plays at the rim phenomenally well, he is a lock to be a pretty good NBA player. But if the goal is for him to be the second option on a contender, it’s pretty clear what he needs to start focusing on to progress his game.