Don’t be afraid, Deandre Ayton has turned into one of the very best and most versatile defensive big man in the league this season. He’s been arguably the second best 2-way player in the league to only Anthony Davis and I’m going to prove it to you here.
Don’t believe me??! Fasten your seat belts & enjoy the ride! You’re gonna love him, one way or the other.
First of all I hope you’re doing fine in these profoundly troubling times, and your siblings too. Brace yourself and may God help us all going through it.
As usual, pardon my english if not on point as it’s not my native language. I will do my best lol.
Also know this work right here took me a full day and I can tell you I'm a quick dude using computers and manipulating data.. but it's the first time I use these tools on nba.com next time I will be more productive hhh (spoiler, a Mikal Bridges' defence study coming soon ;)
Before I get started, I would like to put some context into why and how I did this study below. It started with a poll on Twitter asking who was the best young big between Jaren Jackson Jr and Deandre Ayton a few days ago.
The results of the poll and the subsequent thread were not pretty with a grand majority of posters pooping on Deandre and praising almighty Jackson Jr. It annoyed me in a big way because many people would just talk cheap with no evidence to back up their statements.
I knew those people were wrong so I went after it and wrote this mammoth series of tweets
Ok people, after being fed up by this pseudo " debate " I went to work. I would like to close that dumb JJJ is better than Ayton argument once and for all. I hope this series of tweets will help most of you gain perspective. I was tired of that dumb shhh so here it is...— Mbappé For MVP (@HiZi_19) June 11, 2020
(as most of you probably know me by now, I’m a talkative Sun of a beach lol)
After spending hours looking for, compiling, formalizing, interpreting data & gathering evidence I came to the conclusion - spoiler alert! - that Deandre was a far better player than Jaren Jackson Jr in almost every single way possible - offensively and defensively - not just this season but over their respective career so far (2 years, slightly over 100 games played so far and relatively comparable minutes played with over 3000 played).
The one area in which JJJ gets the nod is obviously 3pt shooting (attempts, made, FG%). DA shoots none. But also know that, despite that, DA still had a better FG%, eFG and TS% than JJJ. Moreover, JJJ has been a steady and elite shot blocker in terms of BLK% (block rate) over that span whereas DA just caught up on him this season in that particular area (5% vs 4.5%).
That’s IT! In EVERY other way possible DA has eaten JJJ’s breakfast, lunch and dinner! But I digress. This JJJ vs DA comparison isn’t the topic of this post. Also note that JJJ’s defensive impact has taken a dramatic dip between his rookie and sophomore year while Ayton’s trajectory has gone the complete opposite way.
Yes JJJ won 40% more games he played with the Grizzlies than Ayton did with the Suns but the latter was a huge positive contributor whenever he stepped on the floor whereas JJJ was globally a negative contributor throughout the period (2018-20). It’s basketball, not tennis, a good player can happen to play for a bad team (see Bradley Beal for instance) and a bad player for a good one (see Avery Bradley for instance).
One number : Ayton has been responsible for almost 30% of all the Suns’ wins according to the win-shares metric (8.3 WS / 29 Total Wins) and in the meantime JJJ was the recipient of 6.2 WS over 51 wins for the Grizzlies (barely 12%). So that whole " but X wins and Y doesn’t " rhetoric is what gets on my nerves because it’s simplistic, reductive, and often false, especially when we’re dealing with second and third-fiddles.
Do these win totals make JJJ a better, more impacting player for his team and thus a better young player than Ayton? No. If you want to see the evidence go check my series of tweets linked above ;)
Following that sad Twitter thread I grew more curious about how DA ranked among his peers. My assumption is which players did as good or better than DA individually over at least 30 games played on relatively " comparable " volume (at least half of Ayton’s volume of defended shots per area) and efficiency (or lack thereof for the opponents actually).
Fasten your seatbelts, you’re likely going to love Ayton more than you did before reading this, even if you already were his biggest Stan. Let’s start now !
(Data courtesy of www.nba.com)
First of all here’s the scope I focus on and required minima :
⁃ Position : C, F/C, C/F
⁃ Games played : 30 or more
⁃ Minutes per game : 15 or more
⁃ Frequency (portion of shots defended by area for a player) : half of Ayton’s frequency or more
⁃ Areas (overall 2-point area then split by restricted-area, close non-restricted area, short mid-range, long mid-range, 3pt)
⁃ Defended field-goals made (must be at least half - sometimes even just a third in certain mid-range cases - of what Ayton defended/covered/contested)
⁃ Defended field-goals attempted (ditto)
⁃ Defended field-goals %
⁃ Differential (average % with Ayton as the defender vs all other Suns’ defenders % in that area of the court) which is expressed in % basis-points (bp).
Notice that for the short mid-range and the long mid-range areas I had to do my own approximation on Excel because the stats data module of nba.com I used doesn’t provide the numbers/ranking. I used below-10-feet data, above-15-feet (provided) and 3PT data (provided) to determine 5-to-10-feet data (close non-restricted area), 10-to-15-feet (short mid-range) & 15-to-23-feet (long mid-range).
Notice also that nba.com rounds the numbers up or by default depending on the second decimal. So my calculation might marginally skew the numbers & the rankings because a player with say 5.76 shots defended in a specific area will have the same raw approximation (single decimal) than a guy who’s defended 5.84 shots in the same area i.e. 5.8 shots defended.
But I do with what I have. There’s probably a way to have the exact numbers/rankings on nba.com (or on some other site) but I already spent too much time understanding, using an analyzing the " Players Defence Dash " section on nba.com (first time user of such data) so I think I already done enough work lol.
Below is a sheet showing Ayton’s statline in each category, his rank among his peers (qualified peers, see hypothesis above) along with the percentile he belongs to and eventually a comment with players who had a better - or comparable - production as Ayton (in bold the players who are in the 80-tile of at least 5 categories out of 8) :
Ayton 2019-20 stats :
⁃ Games played : 30
⁃ Minutes per game : 33
⁃ Points per game : 19
⁃ Rebounds per game : 12
⁃ Assists per game : 1.9
⁃ Steals per game : 0.7
⁃ Blocks per game : 1.7
⁃ Turnovers per game : 2
⁃ Fouls per game : 3
⁃ TS% : 57.1%
How I interpret the data :
You can see there’s no more than a handful of frontcourt players (C, F/C and C/F) who have defended the paint & inside the 3PT line (mid-range) close to - or straight better - than Ayton this year. They all are mostly big plodding defensive specialist profiles with huge bodies (Gobert, Capela, B. Lopez, Zubac, Whiteside, Drummond, Embiid and D. Jordan). This is an EXHAUSTIVE, subjective ranking, of the best of the best at what they do (combination of rim-protection, shot-contesting, paint/mid-range covering, rebounding, hustling, etc). On the other end none of them can be considered as good an offensive player than Ayton besides Embiid (inefficient but prolific offense).
And then there’s THE extraterrestrial : Anthony Davis. Except for him, no other player IN THE ENTIRE LEAGUE has covered all areas like Ayton did! No one. So DA & AD share a unique profile. They are the only frontcourt players who did switch and chase guards/wings up to the 3 point-line way more than their peers, with good-to-great success to boot!
They’re quick, nimble on their feet, very athletic and versatile. They both defended the most 3PT and long mid-range shots, and by a wide margin. No other defensive player listed above (Gobert, etc) has defended more than 20% of the time behind the line where AD is at over 37% & DA close to 31%. Ditto the long mid-range with a frequency of covered/contested/defended shots in that area (15-to-23 feet) respectively at 12% for AD (8th) and 14% for DA (1st). None of the other "plodding" big man listed above exceeds 9.5%.
Yes you read it well it means HALF OF THE SHOTS ANTHONY DAVIS AND DEANDRE AYTON COVERED WERE OUTSIDE OF THE SHORT MID-RANGE ZONE (i.e. long mid-range and behind the line) !!! Gobert, Capela, Lopez, Zubac, Whiteside, Drummond, Embiid and Jordan defended between 20 and 30% of the shots in those zones (except Lopez who tops at 37% frequency combined among that group).
Remember I took into account quite a large group of Ayton peers when I chose to insert players with half of Ayton’s defended shots attempted, minutes per game, etc. When you look at players with comparable minutes and volume of defended shots as Ayton you’d be amazed to see how a pool of 50-ish players can quickly dwindle to 25 or 30.
But I tried to stay fair to players who’ve been very productive defensively on more limited time such as Zubac. Talking of Zubac he’s the single most surprising player to me. I was shocked to see him fare well - and even be elite at times - in defending most areas from the paint to the mid-range. He’s been a key part to the Clippers’ success but has been lost in translation amidst the likes of Kawhi, PG or even Lou, Harrell, Shamet...
SMALL SAMPLE SIZE ALERT(!!! 30 games !!!) but enough to make an argument imo. Ayton is among an elite-ELITE group of frontcourt players on defense inside and out. It’s a 2-man tier of AD and him basically, who have defended efficiently all areas of the court coupled with high volume of shots covered and contested.
Ayton (21 years old) also happens to be the younger player of this bunch of elite defensive players. They are all in their early-to-late primes (Davis 28, Gobert 28, Capela 26, B. Lopez 32, Whiteside 31, Zubac 23, Drummond 26, Embiid 26 and D. Jordan 32). This here is my exhaustive ranked list of players who compare - or are better - than Ayton at covering shots in the paint and also the short mid-range. They're all in a tier of their own defensively with Gobert obviously leading the group. He's not the back-to-back DPOY for nothing.
But as I said earlier only Anthony Davis, who’s definitely THE BEST OVERALL DEFENDER AND 2-WAY PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE (hands down), no other player has shown Ayton's propensity and efficiency covering all kinds of areas and players. None. AD is also - by far - the best offensive weapon of the bunch and it's not close. He’s not an MVP candidate for nothing. It safely leads me to say that Ayton has been the second-best versatile (paint/mid/3PT-line) 2-way frontcourt player (who’s played at least 30 games this season) behind Anthony Davis this season.
I don't think Embiid can be put in that same category because of his lack of mobility on the perimeter. He's a better offensive weapon than Ayton right now and arguably a comparable defensive player in the paint and short mid-range but he's not the versatile 2-way player AD & DA are. My .02
Folks, Monty is turning Ayton into AD 2.0 before our eyes.
No need to be scared. Say it loud and clear to anybody who argue the contrary, AYTON HAS BEEN THE LEAGUE’S SECOND BEST VERSATILE 2-WAY FRONTCOURT PLAYER THIS YEAR BEHIND ANTHONY DAVIS!!!
Say it. Loud. Proud. Clear :)
PS : To go back to JJJ (lol) for a second let me tell you that I checked on his data for good measure & I had a big laugh. He’s a liability in many of these areas with unfavorable differential % across the board which means opponents shoot better against him than his teammates except at the rim and close non-restricted areas, where he’s no world beater neither but has been above-average (75%-tile in those areas near the rim). He's been strainght bad defending the perimeter and mid-range. Like in bad differential-compared-to-his-own-teammates bad.
And JJJ cleaaaaarly doesn’t compare to his peers this season by these measures. In summary, those JJJ’s Stans are a joke. More on that later on the Twitter feed linked at the top. They deserve to be fired back at).
Among young hyped-up players (25-under) none is remotely close to having the defensive impact - or often the offensive one too - that Deandre has had this season. Yes he only played 30 games so it might be unfair to those who played closer to 50 or 60 but we do with what we have.
A list of potential young frontcourt 2-way candidates in future years includes Zubac, Porzingis, Bam, Turner, KAT (yes KAT, undersold defensive performance & upside inside the paint & in the mid-range area), Isaac, Zion(?) aaaaand... crickets. Ayton has shown this season he’s already there and ahead of this young group. He’s also arguable the best offensive talent besides KAT & maybe KP.
Until then hopefully we’re done with any JJJ (LOL) or John Collins (LOL) or Carter Jr (LOL) or Mo Bamba (I’m tired laughing) or J. Allen (it starts to hurt...) or whomever-vs-Ayton BS. They don’t belong in the same convo.
Ayton shouldn’t be put in the discussion with those guys it’s obscene. He should be compared to young-AD. Period.
I looked at 2019-20 Ayton (21yo, 2nd season) vs 2013-14 Davis (20.5yo, 2nd season).
A quick recap of that comparison :
- Both played approx. the same amount of minutes (Ayton 33 vs Davis 35).
- Both had about the same points-per-game average per-36 (20.6pts vs 21.3pts).
- DA has been significantly more prolific (+1,9 shots per-36') & efficient (63.5% vs 61.7% i.e. +1.8bp) at the rim (less than 8 feet).
- DA has been significantly more prolific (+0.8 shots per 36') & as efficient from short mid-range (both at 42.2%).
- But AD was way more prolific (1.4 shots per-36') AND efficient (36.8% vs 34% i.e. +2.8bp) from long mid-range.
- Both players have been non-factors from 3 at that point in their respective career
- DA gets the nod in rebounding (both offensive & defensive) by a compelling margin (13.0 vs 10.3 per 36' i.e. +2.7 total rebounds, including +1.2 on offensive rebounds)
- Same goes with assists per-36 were DA has been significantly better with an extra half-assist per-36' (2.1 vs 1.6)
- However where AD had been WAY better back in 2013-14 are 3 other important categories, namely steals per-36' (), blocks per 36' (!!!) & turnovers per-36 () showing how "clean" and refined AD's game was back then in terms of IQ, readiness and fundamentals (weak side help, ballhandling, etc).
(PS : would have liked to include "on-vs-off court offensive differential" (a better metric than raw offensive rating imo because the latter depends on so many variables independent of one single player impact/performance) but unfortunately that metric isn't available on nba.com for the 2013-24 New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans => FYI Ayton was a +4.4 this season)
- Overall (2PT & 3PT defence) : DA defended way more shots (19.5 vs 14.1) in less minutes (33' vs 35') with significantly more efficiency (DA at 40.8% opp. FG% vs 42.7 for AD i.e. -1.9 bp) and a way bigger "FG% differential" (-6.2bp vs -3.7bp) !!! The latter (differential) measures the difference between how the player defends shots in a specific area vs how the rest of his teammates do.
- 2PT : same pattern DA defended more shots (13.6 vs 11.0) on hardly same efficiency as 2013-14 AD (44.5% opp. FG% vs 44.8%)