If the Phoenix Suns are going to return to the NBA Finals, let alone win it all this coming season, much of that burden has to fall on the broad shoulders of Deandre Ayton.
There’s a lot of talk in the Suns fan community about how Devin Booker can refine his game, how Mikal Bridges can become more of a factor on offense, and how much room for growth Cam Johnson still may have. Forget all that.
If the Suns are hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2022, the biggest change from last season’s squad to that one will be the emergence of a Deandre Ayton who is truly an elite NBA big man on both ends of the floor.
To be sure, basketball is a team sport and the contributions of every man on the roster will matter to some degree. The Suns will need the best of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, and the rest of the crew if they are going to climb the mountain.
But at the end of the day, comparing last season’s squad to this one, Ayton is by far the Sun with the most potential still to be unleashed.
Consider this: despite Ayton’s well-documented leap from a defensive liability to a bonafide asset, he still has substantial room to develop as a rim protector.
NBA defended shot metrics show that Ayton did not rank even top 20 among centers in shots per game defended within 6 feet of the rim, at only six such shots per game. For reference, five centers: Myles Turner, Rudy Gobert, Jakob Poeltl, Clint Capela, and Joel Embiid, all defended 8.5 or more shots per game within six feet of the cup.
Ayton holds opponents to 54% on those shots, and while that’s pretty good, it’s far from special, and significantly less effective than the numbers posted by Gobert and Turner, 48% and 48.7% respectively. Especially when one considers that he ALSO defends far fewer shots in this range than they do.
Some may contend that Ayton more than makes up for his fairly average rim protection numbers by being such a mobile defender who can effectively challenge floor spacing bigs and even guards far from the rim.
There is some truth to this, and it’s a big reason the Suns drafted Ayton...but what’s more beneficial to the Suns? Ayton drastically reducing the volume of high percentage shots made in the paint? Or Ayton being #10 among centers in three pointers defended per game while only holding three point shooters to about their season averages?
It is harder to capture Ayton’s impact in preventing high-percentage shot attempts that might have occurred if not for his unique blend of size, strength, and mobility, but it remains abundantly clear to me that he still has serious room to grow on the defensive end and that calls for him to be included on the NBA all-defense team were very much premature.
As far as offense goes, I think most Suns fans can readily admit that Ayton’s skills and physical profile support that he is underachieving as a player hovering between the third and fourth offensive option. For Ayton to have substantially the same offensive profile as Montrezl Harrell, Richaun Holmes, or Jarrett Allen just feels like the definition of underachieving.
Don’t let me by any means discourage the spirited discussion of how Devin Booker can up his game, or the debate over whether Mikal Bridges is a Scottie Pippen in the making or really just a 3&D finisher. Those are still discussions worth having among diehard Suns fans.
But if the smoke clears on the Suns as the 2022 NBA champions, I’ll wager it won’t be because of some incremental improvement in Cam Johnson’s defense, or because Landry Shamet is on the team.
It will be because Deandre Ayton became who he was meant to be.