No need to look at the final score. Just don’t do it. It’s not worth your time.
Yeah, the Phoenix Suns lost to the Adelaide 36ers of Australia’s National Basketball League. But you know who deserves none of the blame at all? The guy that just got paid big time over the summer: Deandre Ayton.
The focused Ayton came out ready to assert himself, and boy did he ever.
in the 2021-22 regular season, deandre ayton was 95-101 on dunks (1.64 dunks per game over 58 games) per nba dot com.— damon allred (@iamdamonallred) October 3, 2022
in 22 minutes of his first preseason game in 2022-23, he totaled 4 dunks, finishing with 22 points (11-14 fg), 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and zero turnovers.
It’s a tad rudimentary to point out, but the uptick in dunks matters from Ayton, and it’s apparent in plays like this, where a finish wouldn’t be nearly as easy if not for the dunk since he finished over the defense.
The other three dunks all show different aspects of how Ayton’s game is continuing to blossom as well. In the first quarter, he found himself in an empty pick-and-roll (P&R) where he turned quickly, got downhill quickly, and took the ball on a date to the rim quickly. Each of his movements were immediately more decisive and aggressive than what we’ve seen in past years.
On the next dunk, Ayton really showed how far his smarts and reaction time in the P&R game have come. Setting up in the middle of the floor at the top of the key, Ayton knows Chris Paul is going to have options, and it’s in his best interest to become the most enticing.
Ayton does a great job of directing his defender into a double team on Paul before slipping hard down the middle of the floor, where he leaves no doubt without even needing to take a dribble and put the ball in harm’s way.
And his final dunk of the game was the simplest, yet still promising. Ayton developed a reputation for being careless with the ball in the paint, showing a lack of poise at times. It’s not the case here, fighting for position to open up a passing lane, then being patient enough to finish despite the help defender.
That newfound patience was a talking point after the game for Ayton, who said:
“I’m learning every year and just being aggressive as well. Being poised. I’m still shaky on being patient, but they threw some doubles out there. I didn’t expect to be doubled so early, but it’s just cool to learn, especially when you’re putting the ball in the ground.”
As for how Ayton is essentially demanding that the scheme be adjusted to open up more opportunities, this particular possession does a great job of showing what Ayton is capable of in open floor, half-court scenarios.
He built great equity around the short mid-range area last season, becoming proficient in that Richaun Holmes-esque push shot; per NBA.com, Ayton shot 109-186 (58.6%) from five to nine feet out from the rim.
This year, he’s equipped to improve even further. If these same sorts of situations become something where Ayton always slips screens toward the middle of the floor in empty P&R actions, he’ll have a lot of room to create his own shot, and as defenses adjust, his kickout game could become dynamic.
For example, on this next possession, it’s more of a spread P&R look with a shooter in each corner. Ayton slips high as Adelaide blitzes Paul, and since he catches Paul’s passout at the free throw line, Ayton has a few options: take it himself, kick up, or kick to either corner.
Mikal Bridges, being the elite level cutter that he is, already is cutting as soon as Ayton even catches, so he’s able to get an easy flush off of a pretty high level assist for a big man.
On the note of Ayton playmaking, he had two assists to zero turnovers in this game against the 36ers. Pretty good considering there were only seven games all of last regular season in which Ayton totaled two more assists than turnovers. I’d expect that number to be a bit higher this year when factoring in the ball being in Paul’s hands less as well as just the continued growth and maturity of how Ayton sees and plays the game.
I was also very encouraged by how Ayton was attacking his post-up game. On each of these two possessions, he uses jab steps and thrown elbows to dislodge the defender, but more critically, he turns away from the help defense Adelaide was sending when he goes up for the shot:
And in an instance where there was enough room to do so, Ayton went back to his patented hook shot that was so lethal a year ago. I love how he uses the one dribble to get momentum before relying on the two (and a half) provided steps to get off a good look:
These are the sorts of cornerstones to build Ayton’s offensive game around. These are the looks that are easy to scheme into an offense and hard for opposing defenses to scheme against, especially when the list of big men as strong and mobile as Ayton is as scarce as it is.
Sounded like Ayton liked what he showed as well, stating after the game:
“I’m just trying to be aggressive and use some of the things I have been working on over the offseason just to see where I’m at, getting to the rim, finding spots where I’m comfortable at on the floor and just being available for my teammates when they’re ready to make quick decisions.”
Frankly it can sound crazy coming off of one meaningless loss against a team that plays in a league quite a few rungs below the NBA, but if Ayton can build consistency around performances like this, it won’t be long before we’re talking about his All-Star candidacy.
From a macro point of view, we don’t know what the future holds for Ayton. It’s true that he seemed pretty upset to be in Phoenix at media day and in the following days. It’s also true that he can’t be moved until January 15th at the earliest, at which point he holds a no-trade clause for the rest of the year.
Regardless of whether he sticks around after that date — or even after summer 2023 — Suns should still be rooting for him to improve. Either he plays great for the Suns and the Suns reap the benefits, or he plays great for the Suns before the Suns reap the benefits in an improved trade package.
From a micro point of view, it’s really fun to see Ayton start to realize his full offensive potential, and I’m glad it’s happening here in the Valley.