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Deandre Ayton: Suns Defensive Anchor

The third-year center continues to develop into an interior force.

New Orleans Pelicans v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Let’s face it. The NBA is a highlight driven league. If you have your Bleacher Report notifications set to “on”, you will receive numerous micro-updates of the plays that awe and amaze nightly. Those highlights are discussed around the proverbial water cooler, not the next day at work, but as they are happening. We like to call that gathering place, “Twitter”.

Due to the constant uploading of spectacular slams, awesome oops, and thundering threes, fans have been conditioned to expect those highlights from their favorite players. Who cares if Trae Young shot 9 for 22 last Monday; did you see his crossover-into-fail-bait last night?

It is due to this desire for highlight-worthy content that I feel Deandre Ayton gets a bad rap from the casual Suns fan (and sometimes the not-so-casual fan as well). There is an expectation that the 2018 #1 overall draft pick should be creating plays worthy of being printed on posters. Yet time and again, although he has proven to be an efficient scorer (currently 58% FG%), his finesse approach to his offensive game does not satisfy the masses.

Who cares if he is averaging 16.8 points and 10.7 rebounds in only 116 career games? He didn’t dunk it!

Psst. 116 career games means technically he is in year 2 of development...

No matter which side of the ‘Deandre Ayton Draft Debate’ you fall on, respect must be garnered for the efforts he has put forth on the defensive end thus far this year. He has continued to not only show a cerebral increase and understanding of the not-so-sexy side of the ball, he has displayed an affinity for it as well.

Deandre’s commitment to being an anchor on defense has been a primary contributing factor to the Suns’ success early on this year. The team is currently 1st in the NBA opponents-points-per-game (100.8), 4th in defensive rating (104.4), and 8th in opponent-eFG% (.513). While talented on the offensive end, the team has displayed the ability to switch, defend, and deter. Collectively the Suns are defined appropriately as “pesky”.

As the season has progressed, Ayton’s confidence in his defense has strengthened. He appeared to be tentative in early contests against the Mavericks and Kings, but by the time the Suns played the Nuggets, Deandre was using his size and physicality to move the opposition off of their spots.

The stats have backed it up.

I recently began analyzing the defensive tape of Mikal Bridges through the first seven games of the season, excited to see his effectiveness and perseverance against each team’s best offensive player. Yet it wasn’t the Warden’s play that caught my eye.

It was DA.

Mikal can be great and take risks due to the presence of Ayton. He knows that if he cheats and gets beat, Deandre is behind him fortifying the defense. To have a center who loves to play defense and is excited to learn how to better that skillset isn’t something you’ll find on many Twitter highlights or postgame shows. But it is absolutely paramount to the success of a team’s interior and perimeter defense.

So I stopped looking at Mikal highlights and began analyzing Deandre Ayton. Here is what I have found.

Calling Out Where to Defend

His 7’6” wingspan is a hinderance to any ball-handler who makes their way towards the basket. When he reaches his hands into the air to create a wall, it is a dauntingly visible deterrent. The perimeter defense of the Suns knows that he is behind him to protect the chances they take.

Ayton is actively learning the offensive sets that opposing teams are running. Although he still has much to learn in this area (the NBA is an ever-changing chess match of set plays and talented finishers), you are beginning to see his play recognition and understanding of switches.

Watch it again.

It’s ever so subtle on this play, but as Dorian Finney-Smith rolls out of a dribble hand-off, Ayton recognizes it. He points at Finney-Smith and yells to Jae Crowder where to defend. The end result is a missed three-pointer and a rebound for DA.

The anchor of the defense mirrors the responsibilities of a middle linebacker: call out what you see and direct your resources towards your teams weaknesses. Ayton’s court vision allows for the recognition on this play. Couple that with Crowder’s ability to see it as well and close in time to challenge the shot, and the shooter is taken out of his rhythm and misses.

The more you watch Deandre, the more you notice him calling out plays from the rear. “Defensively I’m where I need to be at,” Ayton stated last week. “Being that anchor and aggressor. Communicating to my teammates what they can’t see. And everybody just trusting me to be that guy protecting the paint.”

Transition Defense

It’s a fast paced game these days. Teams are looking to rebound any missed field goal, get the ball out, and run. The Seven Seconds of Less era truly revolutionized the way way the game is played. The league average for pace-of-play is 101.3 possessions-per-48-minutes. The year Steve Nash came to Phoenix in 2004-05 and led the league with a pace of 95.9, the league average was 90.9. Not to sound like the old guy in the room, but it’s a different game these days.

The responsibility of a center no longer is to crash the offensive boards. If you crash and don’t snag the rebound, the opposition is off to the races and you’re left behind watching the highlights. Might as well have your BR notifications on. The league average for offensive-rebounds-per game is currently 9.8. It was 12.0 back in ’04-’05. Again, a different game.

Ayton’s athleticism is vital to his ability to defend the transition. He can guard multiple positions due to his lateral quickness and length. His defensive IQ continues to grow and with it comes the intelligence on how to effectively stop the fast break.

Bridges takes a chance on this play and is beat by Mike Conley (granted, he was preparing for a high pick and roll with Rudy Gobert, so he set himself to defend in that manner). Have no fear, Mikal, as DA is there. Despite a 10” height disparity, Ayton accepts the challenge and holds his base. Like a cornerback covering a receiver, the goal is to keep your hips square.

Initially he is beat by Conley as he opts to go left. But due to his length, Ayton easily recovers and deters his shot. Yes, Gobert gobbles up to board and Crowder makes the foul, but the end result is Rudy on the line rather than a lay-up for Conley.

You have to possess the ability to make quick decisions in transition. Ayton isn’t there yet, but he is showing that the game is slowing down for him.

Switch Defense

How often do we see this play in the NBA? Teams use switches constantly to create favorable mismatches for their offense. Having the ability to navigate it successfully from a defensive standpoint is challenging. You have to be physical but not too physical, finesse but not exploitable.

Luka Doncic uses a high screen set by Willie Cauley-Stein in an effort to switch out of the pesky defense of Bridges. Do you blame him? Willie stays high on this play, creating an iso-situation between Ayton and Luka. It’s worth the price of admission...if we were permitted to attend.

Deandre stands with arms raised, covering the width of a Dodge Ram 1500. Cauley-Stein begins a delayed roll on the weak side. Ayton is faced with a decision: collapse on Cauley-Stein or stay home on Doncic. Instinctively Bridges drops to covers Willie which allows Ayton to challenge a Luke middy. The result? A block.

Team defense at it’s finest.

The likes of Luka, Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Zion have all switched into Ayton at some point this year. Ask them, they know.

Pick and Roll Defense

The pick and roll. The oldest play in the book. As a center you see plenty of these sets run right at you nightly. The goal for the offense is to enough create space and miscommunication to generate an easy basket.

Due to Ayton’s versatility as a defender, the pick and roll is hard to execute consistently against the Suns. If only he understand how to execute it on the offensive end as well as he does on defense...

When you think of pick and roll, you think of Steven Adams and Zion Williamson, don’t you? Zion is looking to barrel towards the basket and slam home one of those Twitter highlights as he uses an Adams’ pick at the top of the key. Jae Crowder is cut off from defending him.

As Zion comes to the free throw line, he crosses over, attempting to juke by Ayton. It’s a rookie move as he advances into Adams’ space and generates quite the gravitational cluster. Ayton holds his ground however, not falling for the sudden change of direction, and follows him down the lane.

As a result of his understanding of the pick and roll, Deandre easily blocks his shot, Booker retrieves the rebound, and the Suns begin a transition possession.

2018 #1 pick vs. 2019 #1 pick. Remember that highlight on ESPN that night? Yeah, me neither. Defense isn’t sexy. It’s effective.

Defensive Block Outs

Any center worth his weight in Chipotle burritos should have the ability to box out on the defensive end. Allowing the opposition to have extra possessions isn’t just frustrating, it’s darn near irresponsible. It stresses the defense and tires their legs.

Ayton, per B-Ball Index, is in the 92nd percentile relative to his position in defensive rebounds per 75 possessions, good for an A rating. Room for growth exists, however, as his adjusted box out rate is in the 61st percentile. But again, he is learning how to use his body to negate defenders from the ball.

Rudy Gobert is a beast on the boards. He is averaging 13.7 per this season after grabbing 13.5 per game last season. It is no easy task keeping him from the basketball. Ayton uses his size and strength to box out Rudy, and even though Deandre isn’t the one who is credited for the rebound, the team obtains possession.

The Suns team rebounding this season, with tap outs and hustle, has been impressive to watch. The team may be undersized at times but they still are tenacious on the glass. Ayton currently ranks 12th in the NBA in total rebounding with 10.7 per game.

Per Cleaning the Glass, Ayton has increased the percentage of opponent’s missed field goals rebounded (fgDR%) from 77% last season to 88% this season. Yes, small sample size, but it is something to continue to monitor as the year progresses.

Shot Deterrence

This area of Deandre’s game has been the most noticeable. He has grown into his body from a mental standpoint. His self-awareness and body control allow for him to challenge opposing players without committing fouls.

Time and again Ayton has displayed the capacity to force smaller guards into shots they’d rather not take. He has a vertical approach to his defense; he jumps straight up and allows players to attempt to occupy his space.

Monte Morris thought that isolating himself against the third-year center from the University of Arizona was a good idea. He thought he could back him out of the paint, use his quickness, and accelerate past the big man. He thought wrong. Blocked.

Ayton grades out at an A- for rim contests per 75 possessions, A- for block rate on contests, B+ on percent of rim shots contested, and an A for adjusted rim points saved per 36.

And he’s only getting better.

We may yearn for Domin-Ayton on the offensive end, slamming the ball through the cylinder with authority and ferocity, our Twitter notifications going wild as we celebrate the offensive greatness that is DA. Offensively, that’s just not who he is. He saves that intensity and focus for defensive side of the ball.

I’m not saying etch the Defensive Player of the Year award with Deandre’s name on it. Yet. It’s only 7 games into the new season. He is continuing to learn, to read what the opposition is doing, and to execute what he sees. He has a long way to go.

It’s not all glitz and glamour, defensive dominance and swatted leather. Like every player in the Association, there are plays in which Ayton’s rotations are passive, where his hustle is muted, and he is unwilling to leave his man. The more he focuses on excelling, the better he will be.

What is exciting is his growth. “Defensive awareness needs to improve. For a player with such elite physical gifts, his shot blocking ability is curiously average” is what his player profile said coming out of college.

Ayton is on a path to prove many wrong.

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