Here’s some surprising news: Deandre Ayton is a controversial figure among Phoenix Suns fans. Why? If we’re honest, it mostly boils down to the fact that he’s not Luka Doncic. I think almost anyone, being honest with themselves, would have to admit that had Ayton been picked 2nd or 3rd in the 2018 NBA Draft, he would receiver a fraction of the scrutiny he receives now. There’s no credible case to be made that Ayton is not a FAR superior player compared to Alex Len, whom the Suns selected 5th overall in the 2013 draft and who averaged just 7 points and 7 rebounds per game on under 50% shooting over his five seasons in Phoenix. And while Len certainly had his detractors (myself included, Brightside oldtimers might recall), he had probably nearly as many staunch supporters as does Ayton.
That comparison, along with the broad sense that Ayton is failing to assert himself adequately in Devin Booker’s absence, made me wonder if it might not be time to really look hard at where Ayton stands among similar NBA bigs. Is he underproducing? Is he overpaid? Let’s see if we can’t get to the bottom of this a little bit.
The Other Guys
First, we need to come up with some players to compare Ayton to. For the sake of coming up with a good list, I’ve compiled every Center and Power Forward averaging at least 14 points and and 8 rebounds this season. The idea here is that this should give us a list of every NBA big man who is “similar” to Ayton in as much as he is at least a top 3-ish scoring option who bears major rebounding responsibilities as well. I’ve also decided to only include players listed at 6’9 or taller, for the sake of not including players like Jayson Tatum, who while currently listed as a PF clearly does not play a comparable “big man” role to Ayton for the purposes of this exercise. I also decided to include Lauri Markkanen, who while currently listed as a SF has previously been a PF, is 7 feet tall, and meets the statistical requirements for inclusion.
Using these filters, we get the following players:
- Joel Embiid
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
- Pascal Siakam
- Anthony Davis
- Nikola Jokic
- Lauri Markkanen
- Julius Randle
- Kristaps Porzingis
- Bam Adebayo
- Karl Anthony Towns
- Domantas Sabonis
- Nikola Vucevic
- Wendell Carter, Jr.
- Alperen Sengun
- Josef Nurkic
- Evan Mobley
- Jonas Valanciunas
- Rudy Gobert
That’s it. 18 players, and Ayton makes a pool of 19 to look at. That right there already says something for Ayton, that there are substantially fewer such “similar” players than there are NBA teams. Just by being a big man who plays primary scoring and rebounding roles for his team, Ayton is among a pretty limited group of players.
That aside, among that limited group, how does he stack up?
At 17.5 points per game as of Jan. 10, Ayton ranks 12th on our list among scorers, far behind Embiid and Giannis, both of whom are currently north of 30 PPG and potential competitors for the league scoring crown.
But it’s worth noting he is more efficient than most of the people on the list, too. For example, he ranks meaningfully (though certainly not enormously) ahead in terms of true shooting percentage of players such as Adebayo and Randle, though both of them score in somewhat larger volume than does Ayton.
Among rebounders, he’s actually better...10th overall in our list.
So let’s combine the two. Who on our list averages both more points AND more rebounds than Ayton?
Turns out the answer is very few:
Giannis, AD, Jokic, Randle, and Adebayo. Partial credit for Embiid who is percentage points behind Ayton on RPG as of now.
Players averaging more points and more rebounds and scoring as or more efficiently than Ayton? It’s only Giannis, AD, and Jokic. That’s two MVPs and another player who is a multiple-time all-star and all-NBA player.
What about defense?
Defensive metrics are hard to deal with. Most of them attempt to use box score numbers to translate blocks, steals, and defensive rebounds along with some other information into a measurement of how impactful a player’s defense is. These tend to be influenced by team defensive performance, so players on elite defensive teams will also tend to have better individual defensive metrics.
And admittedly, Ayton’s defensive metrics are doing poorly. His 111 defensive rating is among the lowest on our list, as he generates relatively few steals and blocks compared with other guys on the list. And while his defensive metrics may be in part due to some inconsistent efforts this season, it’s also worth noting that as a team the Suns’ defensive metrics have fallen sharply year-over year, to a defensive rating of 113 from 107 last season.
As far as analyzing why Ayton isn’t racking up the box score defensive stats, I’d say it’s likely because Ayton spends less of his time pawing at balls in the lane and more time patrolling the perimeter compared to someone like Nurkic. And it’s difficult to model the shots prevented by Ayton’s presence in front of a three point shooter, or drives that didn’t happen because Ayton rotated quickly enough to prevent them.
I think, though, most people would tend to agree that Ayton is neither among the worst defenders on this list, nor as good as Giannis or the best version of AD. He’s a solid if unspectacular rim protector who, unlike some premier rim protectors like Gobert, can’t be played off the floor by smaller quicker lineups.
A lot of criticism of Ayton seems to rotate around the idea that he doesn’t earn the “max money” he got when the Suns matched the Indiana Pacers’ max offer sheet last summer.
And it’s true that Ayton makes $31 million this year. But let’s go back to our list. Of the players we identified matching or exceeding his output, what are they making this season?
- Giannis: $42.5 million
- Anthony Davis: $38 million
- Jokic: $33 million.
- Randle: $24 million
- Adebayo: $30 million
And here’s some of the other notables from the list:
- Siakam: $35 million
- Embiid: $34 million
- Porzingis: $34 million
- KAT: $34 million
- Gobert: $38 million
I think the idea is clear. If you’re going to have a guy producing on this level, he’s making in the $30 million+ range unless he’s on a rookie deal or (like Markkanen) having by far the best year of his career after having signed a deal for a totally different level of production.
That’s just the market. You could argue you’d rather take less production from a cheaper player like Jarrett Allen (14 points/10 rebounds at $20 million) and you aren’t inherently wrong, but the evidence is pretty strong that the Suns are paying market for Ayton. Actually, the mere fact that the Pacers made him that offer is proof of that.
Now, I don’t blame anyone for being disappointed that Ayton hasn’t turned out to be an MVP caliber player. Fans hope for that from a top pick. It’s natural and not absurd.
But there’s reasonable criticism and understandable disappointment and then there are unreasonable claims that Ayton is some kind of failure, completely unworthy of his contract.
Whether you think Ayton is amazing, or wish the Suns had drafted Doncic instead, just keep some perspective. At least try.