Since the middle of December, Phoenix Suns rookie DeAndre Ayton has been a bonafide monster.
Over his last eight games, he is averaging 21.4 points and 14.1 rebounds while shooting an insane 68 percent from the field on a mere 14 attempts per game. His productivity and stellar rookie season are getting drowned out by the noise surrounding Luka Doncic, as well as the Suns’ putrid play overall.
Ayton’s renewed push has started on the offensive glass. Over that same eight-game span, Ayton is pulling down six (SIX!) offensive boards a night. That level of production would vault him as the league’s clear top offensive rebounder. (Only four players are averaging at least four offensive rebounds a night.)
In a time where the offensive glass is foregone in favor of a heavy emphasis on transition defense, Ayton makes a living on second-chance points. December 29th against the Denver Nuggets, he had 14 second-chance points on his own. The rookie is simultaneously finding a way to make a massive impact and raising questions about how important offensive rebounding strategy is on the whole.
Great players like Ayton can thrive with their physical gifts on the interior, bruising teams that refuse to send many to the glass against them. While the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic gets most of the attention for Rookie of the Year, Ayton is brutalizing groups of players that stand in his way near the rim. He single-handedly out-worked the entire District of Columbia last week:
As hard a worker as he is, Ayton relies on this part of his game to keep the Suns close. They are 5-4 in their last nine, including a recent triple overtime loss to the Washington Wizards on December 22nd and a narrow defeat at the hands of the conference-leading Denver Nuggets. It is more than just a coincidence that Ayton’s strong play is occurring while the Suns find a dash of success.
Phoenix run a lot of pick-and-roll options for its guards, who need solid screens or a bit of an advantage to attack the rim one-on-one. Synergy has the Suns creating 22.4 percent of their shots from the pick-and-roll ball handler, the league’s third-highest rate. While they are 23rd in effectiveness in those situations, the hidden stat not shown by those metrics is how many offensive rebounding opportunities open up for crashing bigs like Ayton.
Because he is not stretching defenses with the jump shot yet, his defender is sagging to take away the rim and challenging these guards as they loft a layup. The result is an unimpeded Ayton on the glass:
Technically, as the shot goes up, some opposing guard or wing from the perimeter should rotate down and smother Ayton, ready to push him under the basket on the attempt or at least limit his vertical burst once he tracks the board. But these actions occur too quickly off a wild miss from the erratic Suns guards: They throw it up there knowing Ayton is their security blanket. He’s going to clean up any ugly misses.
Opposing guards simply cannot box him out or contain his effort, either. Ayton has superb timing and high points every rebound in the lane while tracking it off the rim. Smaller defenders that get buried in the charge circle trying to jump for a rebound just see Ayton swoop in over the top and take it away:
Even when other bigs can rotate their way back in front, Ayton’s timing is too superb:
Moreso than the actual glass-crashing opportunities, the leap timing Ayton exudes is among some of the best. Many rebounders struggle to follow the shot and anticipate where it will land. Track it incorrectly, and you jump too early or too late, as well as from the wrong spot. You can learn a lot about a rebounder by studying their eyes and movements before or during the shot.
Watch Ayton track this airball from Booker late in the clock, snatch it and quickly fling up a scoop hook shot over Steven Adams:
It’s not quite as simple as size and athleticism, although they certainly help. There is a great deal of effort and precision that goes into effective rebounding, especially on the offensive end. While Ayton has all the physical gifts that should make any a great rebounder, he is applying them with a savvy very few teenagers have.
The result of such tenacious work on the glass: easy offensive opportunities. Per Synergy Sports, Ayton is shooting 69 percent at the rim this season. Among players with at least 220 attempts in that range, only Giannis Antetokounmpo is shooting a higher percentage. Part of that is due to his physical dominance, bullying even other post players with his length and physicality. The other part is from his little usage in post-ups or designed plays.
When we see a player like Ayton thriving early in his career in large part due to offensive rebounding, it can be bewildering as to why offensive rebounding is becoming deemphasized each year. In 2016, ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote a detailed piece on the shift away from hitting the offensive glass. As coaches prepare for a greater emphasis on transition defense than gaining extra possessions on offense, is there value in being a contrarian to that trend?
There might be some merit in being an offensive rebounding-heavy group: The Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder are top-two in offensive rebounds per game and in offensive rebounding rate. They are also two of the NBA’s top-five teams. The five least-frequent teams are all in the cellar, including the Phoenix Suns, who rarely gain traction on the glass other than Ayton’s. Unsurprisingly, as he has hit the glass harder and the Suns have pulled in more rebounds, the team has started winning more games.
Coach Igor Kokoskov does not need to dial up sets in order to get Ayton looks at the rim. Instead, he runs pick-and-roll or other sets that involve Ayton’s screening. Then the rookie can dive towards the rim, where he is in prime position for dump downs or putbacks. He runs a simple game, but he runs it well. Those extra possessions matter both to the team’s immediate success and Ayton’s long-term development.
If this trajectory can continue, the Suns will have a franchise cornerstone that many teams cannot replace. The defensive polish will continue to come, and Ayton’s jump shot has the makings of potential beyond fifteen feet. For now, he is finding ways to impact the Suns’ offense in massive ways without getting the ball in his hands. That is a feat which needs to be celebrated.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of Synergy Sports Tech, Basketball-Reference and NBA.com stats, and are current as of December 30, 2018.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.