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Ayton wins West Player of the Week, earning our Deep Dive on how he did it

Checking in on the trajectory of the Phoenix Suns’ max contract big after his career-best back-to-back in wins over Detroit and Utah

Utah Jazz v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

On Monday afternoon, Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton was named the Western Conference Player of the Week, joining two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo who wins the same award this week in the Eastern Conference.

Over three games this past week where the Suns went 3-0, Ayton averaged 23.7 points on 67.4% shooting, 16.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.3 blocks per game.

Widening the lens over the last five games, Ayton has become only the third player in the last eight years to post a five game stretch with averages of 20+ points, 13+ rebounds, 3+ assists and 1+ blocks, while shooting 66+ FG%. The other two were Giannis Antetokounmpo (twice) and Nikola Jokic (once).

That’s not to say Ayton is MVP level or even All-Star level at this point, but the rarity of such a five game stretch cannot go unnoticed.

This is Ayton’s first Player of the Week Award since joining the league in 2018. Among current Suns players, he joins teammates Devin Booker (5 times) and Chris Paul (1 time since joining the Suns) as winners of this award.

No Phoenix Suns player won a POW from 2014-2020. Back in the 2013-14 season, during that one-year blip, Goran Dragic and Markieff Morris each won the award once. Morris posted a 22.8/69.8%/8.0/2.0 line in 4 games ending November 11, 2013 while Dragic won his own award with a 26.8/63.9%/6.0/4.0 line in 4 games ending February 3, 2014.

Prior to that, luminaries like Steve Nash (7), Shawn Marion (6) and Amare Stoudemire (5) were recognized during the SSOL years.

Let’s hope Ayton someday ends up in the Booker/Nash/STAT/Marion grouping rather than the Dragic/Keef one-hit-wonder grouping.

Now, let’s take a Deep Dive on Ayton’s last two games, including an incredible 29 point, 21 rebound, 2 blocks performance on Saturday against the Utah Jazz.

I don’t know how many times I’m going to talk about Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton before I can assuredly say that I know his place in the league. With Devin Booker, it’s a piece of cake. Cream of the crop shooting guard, an All-NBA level talent year in and year out, night in and night out. You know what you’re going to get from him.

I know I’m a little late on my pie analogy with Thanksgiving in the rear view, but since pies are a lot less sturdy than the piece of cake that analyzing Booker is, let’s call Ayton a pie. This works well because his game tends to function like a pie. Sometimes it’s the best thing you’ve ever seen, sometimes it’s dreadful, but mostly it lies somewhere between.

This particular pie was averaging 14.6 points (57.9 FG%), 8.5 rebounds, and 1.8 free throw attempts per game on the season coming into a weekend back-to-back with two home matchups against the Detroit Pistons and Utah Jazz, which the Suns won by a combined margin of seven points.

Ayton was a catalyst in both wins, doubling his season averages with 28.5 points (68.8 FG%), 16.5 rebounds, and 8.0 free throw attempts in the two games, with both taking place in a 27-hour span. Let’s dive deeper to see which ingredients came together to make this pie a delicious one.

Game 1: 28 points (11-13 FG, 6-7 FT), 12 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 blocks, and NO turnovers or fouls in 29:58 (+13 in a 6-point win)

Intentionality was the theme of this game for Ayton. In the first clip, he sets a cross screen for Booker, who’s sprinting without the ball. He doesn’t quite get the timing right on his roll; based on when the pass arrives to where Ayton should be, we can gather that Book wanted a quicker roll from him. Instead, Booker’s credited with a turnover on a play that might not have even been his fault.

Then just a few minutes later, Ayton finds himself in an almost identical scenario. He’s trying to set a cross screen for Mikal Bridges this time, but Bridges backs out of it before receiving the pass, this time driving on Ayton’s right instead of left like Booker did. This gives Ayton the entire middle of the lane, and all he needs is a pocket pass from Bridges to capitalize:

Ayton sat twice in Detroit game; first stint was nearly 10 minutes of game time on the bench, second was more than 8. When you sit for such long stretches you start to see plays like this, because his timing isn’t quite there early in his returns.

Ayton calls for the lob as he’s diving to the rim, but he’s nowhere near ready for the pass once it’s sent. Now in this particular instance, he’s not completely at fault; the pass should’ve come earlier, but he’s more than capable of going up to high point that ball like he’s DeAndre Hopkins instead.

Overall, he was hardly a factor in his nearly-five second quarter minutes against the Pistons – just one rebound and no field goals attempted. The second quarter invisibility has been a trend all season as well:

quarterly data is via StatMuse; per minute marks are my own math

Looking even closer at the data, Ayton struggles to maintain first quarter energy, and the second quarters have been suffering, especially in turnovers as he’s turning the ball over about twice as much in second quarters as any other quarter. That’s a pretty significant drop-off in scoring from the first to beyond as well.

In the third quarter, Ayton continued getting some of that pick-and-roll timing down, especially with his playmaking maestros, Booker and Cam Payne, the latter executing earlier than the other:

Overall, a pretty impressive game for Ayton, but one that lends itself to wanting more from him. And that’s a good thing! It should speak volumes that even on nights where he’s at his most productive, there are plenty of avenues to improve even further.

Game 2: 29 points (11-19 FG, 7-9 FT), 21 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks, 2 turnovers, and 1 foul in 34:08 (-4 in a 1-point win)

About a week ago, I wrote a bit about Ayton’s playmaking following a career-best 8-assist night. In the first quarter of this game, there was a play that should stick out to anyone who read that.

Did you catch the fake-DHO? Booker rises from the corner for what normally turns out as a dribble-handoff, but since Utah’s defense — particularly Jarred Vanderbilt and Kelly Olynyk, though I personally blame Olynyk more — bites so hard on the fake-DHO, Torrey Craig has all the room in the world to cut to the rim, found by Ayton on the bounce.

Ayton’s heady play continued into the second, where the nuance in his game was centerstage. On this possession, Ayton finds himself playing a little keepaway with the Jazz, passing between Payne and Booker.

Ayton glides beautifully throughout the actions, always utilizing his gravity to make the guards’ jobs easier. I particularly like the distance he opens up in the lane by backing out of it when Booker starts his drive, coming back only to finish what Book started.

The second half was when Ayton really started to take the game over, and that started with his effort to maintain a seal inside on the smaller Collin Sexton before doing the same to Jordan Clarkson. Unfortunately, his guards weren’t able to find him early in the shot clock, and so all that came of it were some free throw attempts.

Moving away from the ball is so key for Ayton’s productivity, whether that’s gravitational things like two clips ago or finding and maintaining seals like in the more recent one, and that goes back to the intentionality theme from the Detroit game as well. That’s evident here as he rolls hard — a play eerily similar to an above one that didn’t go as smoothly:

As we approached clutch time (5-point or less difference in score with under 5:00 remaining), Ayton turned it up another notch or two, tallying 7 points (3-3 FT), 3 offensive rebounds, 1 block, and 1 steal. That started with the strong post play against fellow 7-footer — though obviously not as strong or sturdy — Lauri Markkanen:

He also put the game on ice with two key offensive rebounds in the final 90 seconds, including the one to seal the game as time expired. A cherry on top performance on Saturday to Friday’s appetizer (just to keep with the food analogies), though still chasing that elusive 30/20 game for the first time in his career.

As far as full-season things I’m tracking and how they relate to this back-to-back, Ayton came into the pair of games with 18 dunks in 14 games (1.28 per game). He totaled 7 over the two games (3.5 per game) per I’d love to see the 3.5 mark become the norm.

Really, I — and many others — are just looking for the ebbs and flows to ebb and flow a little less and become a little more consistent. Let 20 and 10 be the normal night where none of us blink twice while looking at it, instead of 14 and 7. Then the occasional 35 and 25 game can be the one we do a double-take at.

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