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Bubble Watch: 4 Things Deandre Ayton needs to work on the most in Orlando

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These 3 scrimmages and 8 games in Orlando will be a perfect opportunity for Deandre Ayton to work on some critical phases of his game.

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

When evaluating Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton, there are four key phases of his game that I’ll be zoned in on while tracking his progress in Orlando:

  • Defense
  • Physicality
  • Dribbling
  • 3 point shooting

If you’re a Suns fan that has even half-been paying attention, you already know about the defensive progress Ayton’s made in his sophomore season. It was already pretty evident locally amongst Suns fans, but Mike Schmitz’s breakdown on ESPN put his defensive leap on the national scale to further enhance his defensive reputation around the league for those who may have been unaware.

It feels good to type this sentence out: defense is not something I’m worried about with Deandre Ayton’s development. Is it important for him to build off the improvement without any regression or setbacks? Absolutely. Is it an area of his game that I’m going to lose sleep over worrying about? Definitely not at this moment. I’m not saying he’s entirely out of the woods on that end or anything like that, because he still has a long ways to go, but I trust in his commitment to continue to improve on that end.

This video below from ESPN’s Schmitz backs me up in that regard. Highly recommend watching this if you haven’t already gotten around to it for whatever reason.

Let’s dive right into the “core four” pillars that Suns fans should be focusing on when evaluating his game during this 8-game stretch in Orlando.


Defense

Let’s start with the defense, because as I’ve already emphatically mentioned, I’m beyond thrilled with his expedited progress in this phase of his game. Ayton’s defensive breakout season in year two was encouraging to say the least, but it’s important to temper some of the expectations on that end. I’m a believer that he has a chance to become an elite or at the very least a “plus” defender once he hits his prime. There’s even some All-NBA potential on that end if he hits a high-end outcome, because he certainly has the athletic tools to get there. He still has a lot more to prove on that end though, given he only played 30 games this season.

How much of a factor did his fresh legs play into his defensive leap? Can he sustain that level of energy and effort over the course of an 82-game season on that end? Those are questions I (and many others) hope to get the full answers to after next season if he can put together a full year of basketball assuming we get a full season, of course.


Physicality

This one directly relates to the defense, but when referencing “physicality” it’s also important to note that it’s a 50/50 split on both ends. If he can improve his physicality offensively (which he did show flashes of) it will allow him to elevate his game to another level.

We need to see him bully defenders on the block more frequently, set mean screens to make guards think twice about going over or through screens (thank you, professor Baynes), and dunk everything in sight, especially through contact. His rookie season he got a lot of flack for this phase of his game, but one thing that was under-estimated was the physical adjustment to the game that it takes for young bigs in their development.

We live in an instant-gratification world, so it’s easy to jump on him for these things when Luka is doing Luka things, and Trae Young is hitting 35 foot bombs, but bigs historically have taken longer to adjust/develop in the NBA, so there needs to be some patience on this front. Even with the positive flashes he’s shown this year, there’s still plenty of room to grow when it comes to being an enforcer. We need to see him get that free throw rate up and embrace contact more often, and I think the leap is coming. Whether or not we see it as soon as in Orlando remains to be seen.


Dribbling

I put a poll up on twitter asking Suns fans which of the two between three point shooting and dribbling/improving the handle is the most important for his progression. I tend to agree with the results in the short-term, because of the aforementioned struggles with his free throw rate.

If he can put together a series of 2 or 3 meaningful dribbles with a purpose in the half-court it could boost his offensive game and add a dynamic of self-creation that would become extremely valuable with his elite finishing ability around the rim along with his soft touch. Long-term the three point shot is more important with the way the game is trending today, but in the meantime if he can improve the handle it would unleash a different beast that can self-create at any given moment with his combination of size, length and mobility.

More of this, please. Runs the floor in transition, uses two meaningful dribbles to get to his spot. Bucket.


Shooting 3’s

Here we go. This is the “sexy” topic amongst Suns fans, and a skill that would surely boost his aesthetic profile among general NBA fans and evaluators. It’s not to say that three point shooting is some extra topping that doesn’t add value, because the ability to space the floor as a big is vital, especially in this landscape of the NBA.

Let’s do some simple math here for a second.

Ayton’s shooting numbers from a distance of greater than 16 feet (not including threes) this year sat at an abysmal 34.8% on 16-of-46 shooting in 30 games. His rookie year in a larger sample size it was actually slightly worse at 34.6% on 44-of-127 shooting. Not ideal.

If you replace three of those mid-range attempts per-game with 3 three point attempts and he even shoots it at a below league-average of let’s say a ~33% clip, then that’s 3 points on 3 shots, right? Now, if he takes 3 mid-range jumpers at his current rate, he’s averaging about ~2.1 points per 3 mid-range shots.

This may not seem like a lot on the surface, but you stretch that over an 82 game season and that’s nearly an additional 74 point addition on the same amount of shots. I repeat: that’s an extra 74 points over the course of a season without taking any more shots than he already is, and he’d be doing it (shooting threes) at a below-average clip in this hypothetical scenario to make it a realistic target. Beyond all that, if he’s a threat to space the floor it would give teams nightmares when game-planning for Phoenix’s offense.

No one wants him to live at the three point line. All I’m suggesting here is that he replaces those inefficient long mid-range shots with threes so Phoenix can reap the statistical rewards along with giving themselves a more dynamic (modern) offense.

“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.”

Here’s some footage of “Frank the Tank” and Deandre getting some threes up after practice in Orlando.

Here’s to hoping we see him attempt some threes in Orlando, because if he says he’s shooting it like a “middy” in practice, then there’s no excuse for him— especially in this environment— to not attempt at least a few threes during this stretch.

Related: Ayton showing extra speed, energy, and long range bombs (via Dave King).