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Biggest Wildcard for Suns future: Deandre Ayton as stretch monster

What if Deandre Ayton becomes a real threat from all over the floor while also being among the best on defense as well?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Washington Wizards Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA is leaning heavily toward five-out lineups where all five guys start their offense outside the three-point line, then take turns dribble-driving to the hoop just to kick back out for an open three when the defense collapses. The Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets are masters of this style, leaning 100% into this on nearly every possession.

Normally, that scheme renders an old school big man obsolete because he (a) doesn’t shoot the three very well and (b) can’t move his feet fast enough to defend in space on the perimeter. So, the common understanding is that old-school big men cannot hold up in today’s NBA. Roy Hibbert, for example, was the Defensive Player of the Year back in his day, but his career ended early because he got played off the floor by teams who would employ a five-out lineup.

However, if you lean too far into the small-ball lineup, some weaknesses crop up too. You have trouble scoring inside the three point line against teams who defend it well in crunch time and you have trouble defending the rim on defense if your biggest player is 6’8”.

The IDEAL lineup for today’s NBA would include a huge but highly mobile big man, one who can do it all: can defend the rim on dribble drives, handle the opposing big men when they come (Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jusuf Nurkic, etc.), and also defend like a guard on the perimeter, while stretching the floor on the other end at the same time as being a threat to score at the rim.

Enter Deandre Ayton. The 7’1” 250 lb. Ayton has the size to guard the post and the mobility to defend in space.

“He already kind of moved like a guard before this,” Suns forward Mikal Bridges said recently of Ayton this month in Orlando. “But he seemed like he got a little more quick and explosive.”

Over Ayton’s 30-game run in the earlier part of 2019-20, he established himself as one of the best defenders in the game. From any part of the floor. Ayton contested about 19.5 shots per game, second in the league to Rudy Gobert. And on those shots, opponents made 6.3 percent fewer of them than their typical average. That was fourth-best in the NBA, behind just Rudy Gobert, Brook Lopez and Anthony Davis.

And now, in Orlando, Ayton has shown a willingness to add the three-pointer to his offensive resume. Imagine a Deandre Ayton that’s multi-dimensional enough to score from 23+-feet away from the basket as well as inside the restricted area. Ayton was already one of the most efficient interior scorers in the league. Adding the long-ball could make him a real head scratcher to defend. Oh there’s a little guy on him? Dive to the post! Oh there’s a big guy on him? Stretch the floor!

“Just experience and confidence,” guard Devin Booker says of Ayton’s progress in the NBA picking up steam. “Every time he steps out on the floor, he’s taking it as a new opportunity to learn. He’s always anxious for the next game, and that says a lot about your experience and your confidence level when you’re waiting on the next game.”

The most dangerous NBA teams have a cheat-code MVP-level player who defeats the stereotypes — LeBron, Luka, Giannis, etc.

I’m not saying Ayton is in that tier, but he can be right below that. And better than the next-lower, All-Star-level, tier of cheat-code guys like Ben Simmons and Kristaps Porzingis.

National writer Zach Lowe, of ESPN, recently talked about the Suns on his Lowe Post podcast on setting the stage for a group of lower-tier bubble teams. Lowe had watched some of the scrimmages, and has begun to come around on this team.

Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, that’s interesting to me,” Lowe said. “Particularly on offense. I just want to see Ayton again. I’m ready for more Ayton.”

Lowe has always been a fan of Devin Booker, defending him throughout the first few years of his career. And now he is seeing the wide range of potential in Ayton as well.

“I think what’s tough about [analyzing] Ayton [in big man archetypes] is that he doesn’t have a type,” Lowe said before describing all the typical types: rim runner, rumbler-bumbler, stretch five, etc.

“He can do a little bit of everything,” Lowe said. “One day he should shoot threes. He’s a decent passer. He likes to post up. And he can roll, and catch and pass on the move. It’s sort of just like he’s a jack of all trades and master of none.”

Offensively, that’s still true. Ayton looks like he is not exactly sure which of his tricks to pull out every time he touches the ball. He’s thinking constantly, which causes hesitation and sometimes ends up in the wrong decision. Ayton looks best when he’s decisive and quick.

In fact, his offense too often this year looks a lot like his defense did last year, indecisive to the point of being slow and non-reactive.

“A lot of his career, and the Phoenix question going forward,” Lowe said. “Is that it’s cool that you do everything. That’s great, that versatility is huge against the best teams, but which way is he going to lean? What are those skills he’s going to lean in to? I don’t know the answer to that and I’m fascinated to find out.”

Of course, you want him to lean into the most efficient shots: at the rim, and behind the three-point line. Forget those middies, DA. Only take them when that’s the only shot you’ve got and no one is cutting for the easy pass.

My guess if that, like the defense clicked this year, the offense will click in over the next two years. Maybe even sooner. Like, in the Bubble.

Here’s the highlights from Friday’s Wizards game. He actually had 3 blocks, not 2.