Maybe We Were Too Hard On DeAndre Ayton

Course correction can be a tough thing to manage. Everyone’s had a staunch opinion on something or someone, doubled down on it, then grudgingly changed their minds when presented with new evidence. It happens in all facets of life, but it’s especially true in NBA Twitter. Sometimes you can get so caught up in a take, you can miss the forest for the trees.

This seems to be what a lot of people have done with DeAndre Ayton.

He was a dominant presence in college. His chiseled frame and guard-like mobility was akin to a video game. Add in his touch around the basket, and he frankly looked like someone that didn’t belong on a college campus.

Of course, the outlook wasn’t completely rosy. His passing (57 assists to 69 turnovers) and outside shooting (34.3 percent from 3) left a little to be desired, though you could project a path to positive impact. The biggest issue was his (in)ability to defend in space.

Draftniks were concerned about what he’d look like in a playoff setting against smaller teams or against stretch bigs. A prospect like Jaren Jackson Jr. was on the other end of the spectrum, however: His ability to hang with guards on the perimeter raised his stock.

The concerns about Ayton’s archetype—a primary post-scoring big with issues defending in space—were valid in today’s NBA. But it seems like those concerns overshadowed Ayton’s very real talent. His season has been swept under the rug thanks to the Year of Luka, Trae Young’s recent surge, and the Phoenix Suns being a garbage fire.

Let’s fix that right now.

Rare Production

Mar 15, 2019; Houston, TX, USA; Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) shoots against Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) in the first half at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Per-game numbers don’t always tell the full story, but Ayton’s are pretty darn good. He’s averaging 16.2 points and 10.3 rebounds in 30.9 minutes. His 58.5 percent conversion rate on 2-pointers ranks 10th among the 117 players averaging at least 10.0 shot attempts per game. His 60.6 True Shooting Percentage ranks 15th among that same group of players.

Ayton, Clint Capela, and Karl-Anthony Towns are the only players in the league averaging 16 and 10 with a True Shooting Percentage above 60. Add in some context—Capela is primarily a lob threat alongside James Harden and Chris Paul, while KAT might be the best offensive big in the league—and Ayton’s inclusion jumps out even more.

Not only is Ayton the only rookie pulling that off (duh), he’s the only to ever reach those benchmarks. If you lower the points threshold to 10, only Buck Williams gets added. But even the 80s-90s stalwart’s True Shooting Percentage (60.3) falls short of Ayton’s (60.6) with lower volume.

How he gets busy

Ayton has already established himself as one of the NBA’s most dominant post scorers. Via Synergy, he ranks eighth in post ups per game (4.4) and post-up points per game (4.6). Of the 23 players who have logged at least 150 post possessions, Ayton ranks third in field goal percentage (54.5) and points per possession (1.028), ever-so-slightly behind Nikola Jokic (1.029).

Ayton’s touch and footwork are superb for a guy his size and age. What really makes him effective is his willingness to “do his homework early.” He doesn’t laze around the elbow and call for the ball often. For the most part, he bullies his way into ideal position and attacks quickly. You can’t really guard this:

That righty hook over his left shoulder off a quick seal may just be his signature at this point. He’s generating a preposterous 137.5 points per 100 possessions in that scenario, placing him in the 94th percentile.

Ayton’s ability to quickly transition from screener to roller consistently puts defenders in a bind. He already has a feel for how long to hold a screen. If the defensive guard falls behind the play, it puts the big in a holding pattern. Ayton has been feasting on 2-on-1s all season long, a major reason why he’s shooting nearly 67 percent on roll opportunities.

Ayton’s activity really stands out the most on the offensive glass.

He ranks in the 91st percentile on put-backs via Synergy, generating roughly 1.32 points per possession. He’s long (7’5.5 wingspan), strong, and has rare re-jumpability. It’s almost comical how quickly he gets off the ground.

Look at how heartbreaking that possession is for the opposition. Ayton puts Jarrett Allen in the torture chamber before getting the ball. Allen forces the miss with his length but didn’t have time to process it before Ayton taps the ball back to himself and lays it in.

Making Defensive strides

Ayton has had his struggles on the defensive end.

He hasn’t been much of a deterrent at the rim; a guy with his tools only averaging 0.9 blocks kinda feels wrong.  Opponents are shooting 63.6 percent inside of six feet against him this season, a mark slightly above their average (63.2).

Not all of this falls on Ayton, however. There’s a natural adjustment period for rookies—big men especially—to defend on the NBA level. That process is even more strenuous for Ayton because he mostly defended at the 4 at Arizona last season. He’s adjusting to a new league while getting comfortable with different responsibilities. On top of that, the Suns’ best perimeter defender is fellow rookie Mikal Bridges.

The Suns have mostly run “Drop” coverage with Ayton, which makes sense considering his woes in space. It’s already tough to navigate with teams getting stretchier by nature. And the fact the Suns have maybe two less-than-garbage defenders at the point of attack is a bit unfair to Ayton.

Dig a little deeper, and you’ll see room for optimism. For starters, Ayton has graded out as a pretty good pick-and-roll defender. Synergy has him in the 68th percentile. Among the 40 bigs who have faced at least 300 pick-and-rolls, only five of them have forced a higher turnover rate than Ayton (19.6).

He reminds me a little bit of Jokic, one of the bigs that has forced a higher turnover rate (20.6). You don’t want either guarding a point guard on a switch—though Ayton could fare much better thanks to his athleticism. However, they’re such massive humans that they can close off passing windows when they play the action high. It’s becoming pretty clear that you can’t just force any pass around Ayton’s vicinity.

Moving Forward

The top pick is already one of the most productive bigs in the league at the ripe age of 20. He’s an elite rebounder and play finisher. The passing has improved, as well: He’s up to 119 assists compared to 111 turnovers. His shooting touch is soft enough to reasonably assume he’ll be a decent 3-point shooter, assuming the Suns actually let him shoot.

The fact that he’s only taken four threes is a head-scratcher, to be kind.

There are reasons to still be marginally concerned, of course, particularly on defense. Forcing turnovers is a big deal, but you want Ayton to be a positive around the rim. With that said, it’s hard not to come away impressed with the improvement he’s shown throughout the year.

As he gains more experience and hopefully gets a stronger supporting cast around him, Ayton should become even more of a problem for opponents and a foundation for Phoenix.

Stats are accurate through games played on March 17th