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Has Deandre Ayton’s defense regressed?

The Suns are still among the best defensive teams in the NBA, but statistics seem to show that Ayton hasn’t been the force he was last season.

Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

A lot of the talk about Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton has been about his point and rebound totals. The season started off with a lot of frustration, but that seems to have cooled a bit of late as the big man has gone for 20 more more points four times in the past two weeks, and collected 10 or more rebounds the same number of times.

And while some fans will (and arguably should) continue to ask more domination from “Dominayton,” I’m more interested in his defense at the moment. Defense isn’t as easy to quantify as offense, unfortunately. Players often gain reputations as good or bad defenders based mainly on reputation around the league or the always-reliable “eye test.”

But there are some metrics we can look to as guides...some fairly objective and others a bit more subjective, but frequently accepted as evidence in association with other data.

Guarding the paint

One of Ayton’s strengths as a defender relative to many other bigs around the NBA is his mobility, which allows him to defend players on the perimeter that celebrated elite defensive centers like Rudy Gobert simply wouldn’t dare to guard more than ten feet from the rim.

But I’m of the mind that effectively guarding shots close to the rim is probably the most valuable defensive contribution any NBA center can provide, even if they are capable of playing a larger role too. That’s probably why Gobert is still considered a premier defensive player in the league, despite many fans dismissing him as borderline unplayable against smaller, quicker, trigger-happy lineups.

One of the best metrics we have to measure this paint defense is the NBA’s advanced metrics shot tracking data, which show us the number of shots per game a player defends at a given distance from the rim, what percentage of those shots went in, and how that field goal percentage compares with the average shooting performance of those players from that distance.

When we set the shot distance to six feet or less, we can get a good idea of how often a player is defending shots in the paint, and what the outcome of those shots has been.

So far this season, Ayton is defending 4.7 such shots per game and has a defended field goal percentage of 64.6, which is almost dead-on with the 64.7 season average for those shooters.

This doesn’t put Ayton in terrible company. It’s very similar to the performance so far of the Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo, for example. It may be worth noting that Ayton defends far fewer such shots than some other centers (seven players in the league are defending eight or more such shots per game), but that goes less to Ayton’s performance and more the Suns’ defensive tactics.

But let’s look at Ayton last season. Last season, Ayton defended 5.6 shots per game inside six feet, and had a defended field goal percentage of just 58%: almost six percent BELOW those same shooters’ averages at the distance.

That’s a pretty significant difference from last year in both how often he’s defending these shots and his success in keeping them from going on.

What about overall, though?

Overall, Ayton this season is defending 13.9 shots per game and holding opponents to 48% shooting: 1.1% below where they would expect to be.

Last season? 16.3 shots per game, 44%, 4.1% below shooter averages.

Again, that’s not a meaningless difference.

Utah Jazz v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Other evidence

Some other defensive-oriented data on Ayton appear to corroborate at least slight underperformance relative to last season. His defensive rating (a fairly complicated calculation designed to provide an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions, so lower is better) is 109 this season, which is up from 105 last season. That’s a meaningful amount.

His block percentage is up slightly from last season to 2.5% from 2.1%, his steal percentage is down slightly to 0.8% from 1.1%. His defensive rebounding percentage is down very slightly, it’s really not notable.

He also appears to be lagging last year’s pace on defensive win shares, which purport to estimate player impact contributed due to defense. But last year’s team won an awful lot, so this is not isolatable to Ayton.

So what’s the takeaway?

It’s too early to say with any confidence that Ayton isn’t performing up to his previous efforts on defense. This early in the season we could still be dealing with a bit of an anomaly that will smooth out with time. Some other big men known for great defense, like Gobert and Joel Embiid, are also appearing to have less impressive performances on that end so far this season.

But it may be evidence Ayton is peaking, which if true is something worth thinking about. And it may be worth tracking throughout the season as the Suns seek to make a playoff run.

So stay tuned.

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