Ayton, the #1 draft pick the year the league’s newest star was drafted #3 by the Hawks and then traded to the Mavericks, showed enough promise in his rookie season to keep most of the critics at bay and as Marvin Bagley (the #2 pick, directly in front of Luka) continued to struggle.
Heading into their sophomore campaigns, Deandre Ayton was regulated to being the forgotten #1 pick on a middle-of-the-road team in a loaded Western Conference.
Then, an undefeated bubble run followed by the move of the off-season by acquiring Chris Paul changed everything.
Having a playmaking point guard with transcendent court vision like Chris Paul (or John Stockton and Isiah Thomas before him) is an absolute game-changer for a big man. Between the arrival of Paul and the growth from starting to become a veteran in the league by his third year, Ayton was poised to shine this year.
Ayton Has Taken His Game to the Next Level
In the era of efficiency, Ayton is playing at an all-star level even if he didn’t get the recognition of getting to play in the actual game. There was no better example of what Ayton has brought to the Phoenix Suns than in their biggest game of the season, seeing him matchup against All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner Rudy Gobert and the #1 team in the league. Just take a look at these highlights from Ayton’s biggest matchup to date.
One game doesn’t make a player though; even if it is the biggest game of your career to date. And if you look at just points per game, Ayton is actually averaging 4 less points a game compared to last year. But raw numbers don’t always tell the whole story.
For starters, Ayton is taking 4.5 less shots per game this year compared to last year and with that Ayton has actually seen his field goal percentage go up 7‰, all the way up to 61.5‰ this year (7th in the league) shows the maturity in Ayton’s game. Another sign of that maturity is shot location.
This year Ayton has improved his shot selection from 52% of his shots at the rim up to 59% while having the 10th best eFG% for a big who has played at least 1000 minutes so far this year. Taking advantage of his size and the spacing the Suns have around him as well as the improved shot selection; Ayton is playing the most efficient offense of his short basketball career. Having the best playmaking point guard in the last decade doesn’t hurt either and Ayton has taken full advantage in the pick and roll game.
The combination of size and athleticism is what led Ayton to being drafted #1 overall in what has turned out to be a pretty deep talent pool and now that he’s starting to put that size to good use it’s easy to see why. Never expected to be a back-to-the-basket big despite his size, Ayton has instead found other ways to utilize his size to his advantage in a game that is increasingly shrinking on the margins. One of the ways he does it most often can be seen on the offensive boards.
Capitalizing on a Smaller League and Controlling the Offensive Glass
As you can see from the graphic below, very few players have been more dominant this year on the offensive boards and that is due to Ayton using his height and arms to not only grab boards but tip them out to his teammates. Notice the only one not marked ‘elite’ is the put-back category, and that’s because so many of Ayton’s rebounds were him simply being bigger than the other team and tipping the ball back out.
Crashing the offensive boards isn’t the only effective way Ayton has been able to capitalize on his size outside of the post. One of the biggest trends across the stat world the last few years has been the screen assist because it gave us a window into accounting for quality screens that lead to open looks; a huge asset to have in a big man in today’s pick and roll game.
Deandre ranks 4th this year, trailing on Gobert, Domantas Sabonis, and Jakob Poeltl, with 5.3 per game this year leading to 11.3 points. It helps to have two of the best mid range shooters in the game with Paul and Devin Booker, but Ayton’s ability to use his wide frame to connect solidly with the defender as they use him as a pick to get a clean look has been huge for them all season. Getting that separation is the first step in breaking down a defense in the pick and roll and Ayton has been doing it as well as anyone all year.
With the lower usage rate on the offensive end this year, Ayton has been able to expend the majority of his energy on the defensive end. Playing the majority of his minutes with Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder as his forwards has seen Ayton consistently put in pick and roll situations he is forced to navigate being the obvious candidate to switch onto guards.
Being able to be confident in where his offensive game and role is on the team gave Ayton the chance to focus on using his athleticism to stay in front of quicker guards when he’s forced to switch while still managing to contest 3 point shots on the perimeter. Ayton has actually been one of the best in the league in that category, averaging 5.0 contested 3 point shots per/75 possessions which as you can see below is near the top in the league.
As you can see from above, Ayton not only does a great job at contesting the 3 point shot but once he’s in the interior he’s been very good there also. The lack of size around him in lineups sees the rim as an obvious attacking point for other teams; hence the average rating in rim deterrence when he’s on the floor.
The rest of the categories paint the picture of the franchise big man that is a high-quality interior defensive option that forces offenses to change their shots that Suns fans have come to depend on night in and night out.
From the number of shots Ayton is able to contest at the rim while he is on the floor to the drop in field goal percentage against what’s expected along with his blocks; Ayton has turned himself into not just a shot blocked but a defensive anchor that teams have to account for in the paint.
From both the fans and the media, Ayton’s development has been a pleasant surprise and a key to the Suns success not only in the regular season but come playoff time. The eye test from what I’ve seen from Ayton in the games I’ve watched (and gotten the clips from) matched up with the statistics when you dive into them as captured above with the clips and the highlights.
The Eye Test Matches the Nerd Test
Let’s look even deeper with advanced stats like LEBRON, RAPTOR, RAPM, and BPM that try to capture a look at the entire value a player provides on offense, defense, and overall. Without getting into the weeds on what these different metrics attempt to measure, it’s clear that they are backing up what my eyes and the traditional stats showed.
Most people envision a franchise player as a dominant offensive force, averaging 24+ points a game and being the focal point the system is run through. Ayton has shown that isn’t his role and has embraced Booker as the heir to the throne as the leader on that end (at least once Paul retires) while developing the skills to go along with his genetics that are allowing him to develop into a defensive anchor that can be a great compliment to the pieces around him on the offensive end.
While that isn’t quite what Luka is turning out to be, Ayton is going to be one of the better centers in the league for the next decade and is primed to become even more valuable in a league that is getting smaller with his ability to challenge on the perimeter.
The bright future Suns might have finally arrived but I think in a few more years Deandre Ayton is going to show the NBA world the Suns have an even brighter shine in them than this. The Suns are in a position to make a run this postseason but how far they can get will depend more on Ayton than people realize. I believe he’s up to the challenge.