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Justifying the Max: It’s time to unleash on-ball Ayton

Unlocking Deandre’s shot creation, playmaking, and shooting would assuage many fears tied to breaking the bank for the young playoff standout

2021 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Deandre Ayton and the Phoenix Suns appear to have reached an impasse. It seems the team is unsure if DA is worth a max deal, while Deandre himself feels he is. The answer to the conundrum might be staring both parties in the face.

Damon Allred exposed the Suns’ need for another on-ball creator. Dave King hinted at DA’s desire to expand his game. Why not use Ayton to fill that need? Bear with me, but I believe Deandre’s offensive future lies closer to Giannis Antetokounmpo than Joel Embiid. However, while Ayton has established a floor of high-level rim-running, defense, and rebounding, there is work to be done before he scratches the surface of his on-ball abilities. How can he fulfill his potential and justify a max contract?

Slashing

The list of 6’11, 250 lb. human beings that can do this…

… is, erm, slim. Though he has not yet received the opportunity to showcase it — almost 97% of Ayton’s baskets last season came off two or fewer dribbles, and his 0.3 adjusted drives/75 possessions was in the League’s sixth percentile — Deandre Ayton may be a dormant slashing monster primed to explode.

While it is premature to lump him in with the NBA’s elite driving finishers, DA’s efficiency fits right in (his adjusted FG% at the rim was in the 95th percentile last season). It would behoove the Suns to see if he can combine his ridiculous length, athleticism, and interior efficiency with a refined handle. The glimpses, while limited, have been tantalizing.

With teams deploying their top perimeter defenders to stop Chris Paul and Devin Booker, there will be ample opportunities for Deandre to isolate slower bigs on the perimeter.

Shooting

Ayton’s impact as an on-ball shot-creator and perimeter shooter may be a work-in-progress, but he has a solid foundation to work with. Through three seasons, he has exhibited both comfort and touch with catch-and-shoot mid-range opportunities.

Last year, DA shot 45-of-94 (47.9%) from 10-16 feet — in line with MVP contender Joel Embiid’s 48.0% — and a steady 76.9% from the line.

While Deandre has been less willing to extend his range beyond the arc, he attempted more threes last season. Progression is non-linear, and while Ayton’s 7-for-37 (18.2%) career three-point numbers may not stand out, his underlying ability could portend future success from deep. Consider that Anthony Davis shot 3-for-27 (11.1%) from three his first three seasons before canning 32% (1.8 3PA) of his treys in year four. A similar boost in confidence and volume would be huge for Ayton this year.

Ayton’s perimeter shooting development is critical to his on-ball progression. A more dangerous outside shot would allow him to leverage his athletic advantages over defenders forced to play him closely, amplifying his ability to drive.

Playmaking

Deandre Ayton has not been asked to be a playmaker thus far in his NBA career. Despite his limited exposure, he has displayed a willingness to pass, as well as flashes of quick decision-making and creativity finding cutters and shooters out of the high post.

For Ayton to grow in this area, he needs experience. Expanded playmaking opportunities will allow him to process in real-time, then improve through film analysis with Monty and the coaching staff. Affording him a few more nightly sets as a high-post distributor is a start, and it would allow the Suns to develop Ayton as a secondary playmaker. Given the team’s litany of lethal cutters, perhaps it could lead to more of this:

Ayton’s frame allows him to make passes that many cannot. Allowing him to grow first as a non-dribbling creator could serve to aid his development as an off-the-dribble playmaker down the line. With his already-present alertness and burgeoning vision, each rep that Ayton is trusted to create for teammates gives him vital experience reading defenses. Whether or not it happens this year, Ayton’s continued development as a playmaker could take defensive pressure off Book and CP3 in future playoff series.

Blueprint

While the Suns would love for DA to follow the path of Giannis or Anthony Davis, both players came into the league with more extensive perimeter pedigrees. I believe the proper blueprint for Deandre’s on-ball development lies north of the border. Like Ayton, Pascal Siakam exhibited an early desire to showcase perimeter skills that belied his role as a traditional big.

While DA and Spicy P have dimensional and stylistic differences, the two share foundational similarities as rangy athletes without perimeter-intensive backgrounds. In his final year at New Mexico State, Siakam shot just 3-for-15 from three while averaging 1.7 APG (for comparison, DA shot 12-for-35 and averaged 1.6 assists per game as a freshman). As a 22-year-old rookie, Siakam’s limitations as a slasher (1.5 adjusted drives/75), shooter (14.3% on 0.4 3PA/100), and playmaker (1.0 AST/100) continued.

However, the next two years bore fruit in all three phases. In Siakam’s sophomore campaign he averaged 5.7 adjusted drives/75, 22.0% on 3.9 3PA/100, and 4.7 AST/100. The next season he put up 8.7 adjusted drives/75, 36.9% on 4.0 3PA/100, and 4.7 AST/100 while assuming a heavy on-ball role for a championship team.

Perhaps most intriguing of all, the title-hungry Raptors afforded Siakam an annual increase in on-ball opportunities despite rostering two ball-dominant players in Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan/Kawhi Leonard. In three seasons, Siakam transitioned from energy big to a devastating slasher with emerging skills as a playmaker and shooter. These accomplishments came despite almost no prior on-ball production or opportunity. A similar development plan could reap wonders for Deandre and the Suns.

Bottom Line

The fork in the road is upon us. Why allow Deandre Ayton’s Suns career to become another franchise what-if (a la the Kareem coin toss, Joe Johnson extension, etc.) when a potential dynasty is the other path? Deandre and the Suns can make each other right, first by inking a max deal- with escalators- and then with DA developing his on-ball acumen. His floor is already good enough to help us to the NBA Finals. His ceiling could bring us multiple championships.