Phoenix Suns forward Dario Saric calls it “one more dance before the offseason”. His teammates have universally agreed it’s a chance to continue their teams’ growth into a respected, energy-driven playoff contender in the coming year.
For young big man Deandre Ayton, the Orlando seeding games are another step up the ladder to greatness.
Ayton played only 30 of the team’s first 65 games this year due to suspension (tested positive for a diuretic) and injury (ankle, twice), but in those games he demonstrated significant growth on the defensive end with an ability to lock up players of all shapes and sizes at any point on the floor. Ayton finished his short run as one of the best in the league at holding opposing players below their season scoring averages.
Ayton is already one of only two players in the history of the NBA (73 years of data thanks to basketball-reference.com) to average 19/12/1.5 in a season before turning 22 (Shaquille O’Neal is the other), and one of only 18 to post those numbers at ANY age in their career.
Now, as the Orlando ‘dance’ of eight games is soon to begin, Ayton is impressing his teammates all over again.
If you recall, Ayton spent his rookie season just happy to be in the NBA, and often awestruck by the level of competition and the NBA as a whole. Like a kid at Disneyland. Now, it appears he’s moved up the food chain on tone-setting.
“DA, the guy’s energy is unmatchable,” said new point guard Cameron Payne on a Zoom call with local media. “Every morning, he’s the guy to get everybody going. Kelly Oubre, he’s a guy to get everybody going. Sometimes you need those type of guys just to set the tone for practice. I was pretty surprised on that.”
You’ve heard Ayton say he feels like he’s a veteran now, and it appears the rest of the team is taking note.
They’re also noting his physical development too. Cameron Johnson and Bridges aren’t the only ones who came back from the quarantine looking better.
“Definitely, DA is the biggest person I see with his change of body,” Bridges says of Ayton. “Just moving quicker. He already kind of moved like a guard before this but he seemed like he got a little more quick and explosive. I think he’s probably the biggest one that stands out.”
So Ayton is being more vocal and has unmatched energy out on the court. He’s setting the tone and leading by example.
But what of his offensive game? Sure he’s excellent at offensive put-backs by attacking the rim when a teammate shoots, and he’s great at rolling to the rim of the pick. Off ball, he’s good at setting screens, generating screen assists and generally drawing defensive attention wherever he is. But he doesn’t pull defenders out of the paint by floating to the three point line on a pick-and-pop.
Count Monty Williams among those who don’t want Ayton to start hunting long range threes too much.
“The one thing that DA does for us that no one else can do at that level is put pressure on the rim,” head coach Monty Williams says of Ayton. “That frees up so many guys. And so I don’t want to take that away.”
But after setting a screen or two, Ayton too often floats to about the 15-20 foot range whereas his contemporaries (Frank Kaminsky, Dario Saric and Aron Baynes) will float outside and spot up behind the three point line.
When Ayton gets the ball in that midrange he simply doesn’t have a real good plan on what to do. Pass to a cutter? Put the ball down for a drive? Take the mid-range jumper?
Looks like he’s figuring out that floating outside could help the team sometimes.
“Shooting the three, knowing when,” Ayton said of what he still wants to learn from Aron Baynes. “Spacing. He tries to find the holes in the defense where he can get the best shot for himself.”
The Suns coaches have never dissuaded Ayton from taking threes, but they’ve never insisted on it either. Not until he shows good form and results.
“He has worked on his three-point range,” Williams said. “He’s getting more arc on his shot, he’s getting more diligent about getting a lift with his legs. I’ve always told guys, if you work on something with intention, you should do it in the game. So I want him to have confidence to do that.”
Ayton seems like he’s getting the confidence and taking more of them in practice.
“They are still kind of shocked I pull it every time, but a bucket is a bucket,” Ayton said with a grin.
But again, the Suns coaching staff doesn’t want Ayton to suddenly start taking a bunch of threes or change how he plays most of the time.
“We don’t want him to ever forget about his ability to dominate the box,” Williams says. “Or when he’s diving on deep rolls and short roll and his midrange game. He’s a willing passer. There’s a lot to his game.
“You don’t want to mess with that. That’s something you want to stay away from tinkering too much.”
We shall see in Orlando, whether Ayton takes any more opportunities after a pick to drift to the three point line for that catch-and-shoot. Seems like he could leave his defender guessing even more than usual if his range of movement after a pick could go in either direction (roll or pop). Just don’t expect to see it as much as, say, Frank or Dario.
Editor’s note: While the teams are in Orlando, videos of all media scrums are being shared for free with the public each day at mediaavail.nba.com