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Suns big man Deandre Ayton improving by leaps and bounds, though few are noticing

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Even the Phoenix Suns most ardent fans are failing to notice his impact.

Houston Rockets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Lost in the Jamal Murray attention in Saturday night’s game, your second-year center Deandre Ayton very nearly had his first 30/20 game of his career and grabbed his 1,000th rebound in the 4th fewest games in NBA history.

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton, still just 21 years old and only 23 games into his sophomore season, posted a line of 28 points, 19 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists and 1 block in what might have been his most exciting performance of his career versus one of the league’s best centers.

“He just needs a little bit more experience and he’s going to be great,” All-Star center Nikola Jokic said of Ayton after the game. “He’s going to be a really, really great player.”

After 23 games, Ayton now averages 18.7 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.6 blocks and .7 steals per game. I could tell you how few NBA players have ever posted 18/12/1.5 in year two of their career, but you’ve seen that kind of list before. It’s only Hall of Famers. You don’t want me to list the four players because you’ll jump down to the comment section to immediately tell me how Ayton doesn’t compare to them, or how those guys are irrelevant because the game has passed all of them by. Tell Chuck he’s obsolete. Tell David Robinson, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal they couldn’t hang in today’s NBA. Go ahead.

On Saturday night, Ayton became the fourth fastest in NBA history (94 games) to tally 1,000 rebounds. This stat is not an age thing, where he gets credit for being really young. It’s a games-played thing. Of all players to enter the NBA since 1992, only Shaquille O’Neal (74), Blake Griffin (84) and Tim Duncan (84) have reached 1,000 career rebounds in fewer games than Ayton’s 94.

“It’s very special, especially with just how under the radar his career has been since day one,” teammate Devin Booker said of the milestone. “Every time he goes out there, he’s taking the next stride. You don’t hear about it that much.”

But it’s not just about the box score, is it? Ayton has been derided all through his short career of having “empty stats” despite leading ALL rookies last year in that advanced stat called Win Shares (5.8) which funnily enough is a function of your team’s total wins (which were only 19 for the whole team last year). He also led the whole Suns team in that same category.

But people have focused on Ayton’s unskilled offense and lack of physicality in the post to hang a bust, or at least disappointment, label on him. Even, sadly, among his team’s most ardent fans.

The game is about more than physicality in the post. It’s about overall effect on the game of basketball.

And despite his numbers as a rookie, Ayton did not pass the eye test defensively. Even his staunchest supporters would agree that Ayton could and should be better on defense. He often failed to rotate from the weak side to defend the rim, and failed to contain the league’s best centers from scoring at will.

This year, Ayton has dramatically improved in that area of the game. This season, Ayton is one of the best defenders in the game. He is (among volume defenders who have played more than 11 games):

  • 2nd only to Rudy Gobert in opponent shots defended per game as the primary defender (20 shots defended per game, vs. Gobert 20.4)
  • 7th in the whole NBA in field goal percentage allowed as the primary defender (40.5%)
  • 6th in the whole NBA in difference from their usual FG% (-6.6%)

That’s not just among centers. The first stat is against all 450 or so players in the league. The latter two are among the 100+ who defend on volume (i.e. does not include short-minute players who get a couple defensive possessions a game). At any position. Those ahead of Ayton include Jrue Holiday, Kawhi Leonard, Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokuompo.

In the paint, Ayton has become an excellent defender as well. A year ago, he allowed 62.8% shooting in the paint (about league average) on 6.8 of those shots defended per game. He was by far the worst of those who defended at least 6.8 shots per game in the paint.

This year he’s allowing only 52.4% shooting in the paint (which is 8.7% below those players’ average) on 7.4 of those shots defended per game. Of those who defend 7.4 or more shots in the paint per game, Ayton ranks 5th of 10 in FG% allowed (behind only Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gobert, Myles Turner and Brook Lopez).

In just his second year, Ayton has become one of the league’s better paint defenders and one of the very best overall defenders from any distance in terms of FG% allowed. We know he can slide his feet and contain ball handlers. And when they do get around the corner on him, we’ve seen him stay right there for the 20 foot drive to the basket to force a miss more often than not.

And that latter stat — where he holds opponents to 40.5% shooting overall — is not just among centers. I repeat. This success is not just among the small sample of size of centers. That’s among all NBA players who defend on volume. Meaning: I only included those who defend 10+ shots per game, and those who played more than 3 games this year. I don’t want this picture muddled by small sample sizes.

While his offensive game is still forming, we should appreciate the huge defensive growth from Deandre Ayton. Big thanks to wingman Aron Baynes and, most importantly, assistant coach Mark Bryant who helped develop OKC center Steven Adams into one of the league’s best defenders over the past decade.

Yes, he needs to get more physical on offense. But please don’t allow that frustration to cloud your understanding that Ayton is the primary reason the Suns are 10th in the league in defense since he returned full time to the lineup, despite missing Aron Baynes for much of that time.

On Saturday night, Ayton very nearly got his first 30/20 game. This was his 5th game in 7 days, four of which he played 40+ minutes. He tired in the 4th quarter just like everyone else on the team did, but that only makes that incredible game even more impressive.

This highlight reel is great, but doesn’t even focus on how many shots Ayton forced the Nuggets to miss when he was in the vicinity.

National and local folks are focusing on the Suns record (21-32) to discount the impact on winning of players like Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker, but the Suns record is 4-5 wins short because of immaturity and bad luck more than bad play. That’s the sign of a young (youngest in the league) but growing team. Statistically, they are playoff-bubble caliber, but they just can’t close out tight games against good teams.

Deandre Ayton is right at the center of that growth alongside Devin Booker.

But you can’t see it if all you’re watching are highlights, box scores and high-post catches.