In Tuesday night’s overtime win over the Portland Trail Blazers, Deandre Ayton’s Herculean return to action was the big headline.
And why wouldn’t it be? After missing two games with a non-COVID illness, and with the Phoenix Suns still missing Devin Booker on top of Frank Kaminsky, Abdel Nader, Jalen Smith and Dario Saric, Ayton put up a season-high 28 points, 13 rebounds and 2 steals in a whopping 45 minutes. He shot 12-for-17 from the floor, played an impossibly long stint when JaVale McGee got in foul trouble and provided yet another reminder why he’s going to get paid next summer.
But it wasn’t just the sheer numbers in a big road win on the second night of a back-to-back that demanded attention.
“Should’ve seen him last night after the game” Chris Paul said. “He was just on the plane saying, ‘I’ll be ready tomorrow, I’ll be ready tomorrow.’ And he was more than ready tonight. Just the energy that he brought early in the game, catching the ball in the pocket.”
Oooh. You’re close, Point God. Care to elaborate?
“If ever there is any issue, I will show him the film from this game, ’cause that’s how dominant he can be,” Paul continued. “That can be him every single night, and when he plays like that, it’s gonna be real tough to beat us.”
Ding ding ding! That’s exactly the answer we were looking for. Because as much as it’s been a developing storyline all season long, Deandre Ayton’s immense growth as the roll guy in pick-and-rolls deserves extra attention in our latest Bourguet Breakdown.
On Tuesday, the full package was on display, from finishing strong with no hesitation after catching the ball near the free-throw line:
To busting out the floaties when the defense cut him off in time:
To putting the ball on the floor and closing the gap between himself and the basket:
To properly commemorate DA’s impressive return, let’s dive into where he’s improved as a pick-and-roll big this year.
Dynamic rolling and JaVale McGee’s influence
First, some quick backtracking: As much as Ayton’s leg contusion threatened to take the wind out of the Suns’ sails early in the season, his absence actually became something of a blessing in disguise.
During that five-game absence, the 23-year-old got an extended look at how two seasoned veterans in McGee and Kaminsky operated in the pick-and-roll. Taking a temporary backseat helped him see more of the road ahead.
From McGee, there was more of an emphasis on dynamic rolling. Ayton has always been a behemoth when he’s committed to that assignment. With his size, athleticism and touch, there’s not much opposing teams can do when he makes up his mind about diving hard, catching and finishing.
But the consistency wasn’t always there, and Williams said DA has improved in that respect this year, especially with putting himself in places to receive those dishes from Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
“I just think our guys are looking for him more, but he’s a bigger target than he was last year,” Williams said. “Early in the year, when teams would go to a switching defense, DA’s planting himself in the restricted area and catching it and finishing around the basket. We all get on him when he fades, he has a smaller guy and he shoots the fade and we know he can get to the basket and get to the rim, but he’s so much better this year. There’s an effort to get to the front of the rim and just dominate.”
The tape and the numbers back that up. On film, DA has done a much better job making himself more available for pocket passes, alley-oop lobs and side dishes, depending on the defensive coverage. He’s just got the timing and chemistry down with his guards now:
The last clip from Tuesday’s game was just a miniature sample of some of the hard seals Ayton unleashes on unsuspecting victims whenever he finds himself with enough room and a size advantage to carve out space:
The numbers back up Ayton’s status as one of the NBA’s elite pick-and-roll bigs Heading into Tuesday’s game, DA was averaging 4.1 pick-and-roll possessions per game as the roll man, which ranked sixth in the entire league, per NBA.com. The Suns have run a lot more pick-and-roll this year; Ayton only averaged 2.2 such possessions per game last season, which ranked 36th in the NBA and trailed his own teammate, Dario Saric (2.8 per game).
It’s not just Ayton’s increased frequency on pick-and-rolls that’s paying dividends, since he’s maintained an absurd level of efficiency as well. As the roll man, Ayton has been good for 1.36 points per possession, which ranks third in the NBA among all players with at least 50 such possessions.
The only guys in front of him? John Collins (1.58) and Ayton’s teammate, McGee (1.49). Ayton is also shooting a staggering 75.9 percent on plays where he’s the roll man, which is up nearly six percent from last year and trails only — you guessed it! — McGee again, at 78 percent.
“He’s just learning a lot from him on a daily basis, and I think that their relationship has definitely upped DA’s game, especially mentally,” Jae Crowder. “Physically, he has all the tools, but mentally, he has to read the game, and JaVale’s done a great job of just taking him under his wing and trying to get that out of him.”
That relationship seems to be paying off. A few weeks ago against the San Antonio Spurs, Paul felt Ayton slipping a screen when two defenders got caught committing to the ball-handler. CP3 flipped the ball high into the air, as the Suns have grown accustomed to doing with McGee on the court. DA was the one to hammer it home though.
Paul said that even though the on-court discussions can sometimes become arguments, that process is crucial in getting everyone on the same page for the high-stakes basketball awaiting Phoenix in April and beyond.
“I threw DA a lob last game, which is something we’ve basically been working on for like a year,” Paul said of the play. “And last game was the first time we got it, right? So people wouldn’t see that. Those are the little things over the course of a regular season that I get excited about, ’cause later on, a play like that, it starts to come naturally.”
Ayton may not like being called a big, but he sure is playing like one these days. He’s shooting 82 percent at the rim, which puts him in the 97th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass, and is a sizable improvement from even last year’s 75 percent shooting at the rim.
“He realizes how much stronger he is, especially against smaller guys,” Williams said. “He generates a lot of offense with his dives, whether it’s against the typical NBA defense or against switches on smalls. And when a small has to battle him down there, I think that can wear you out.”
Generating offense on dives
Ayton’s hard dives won’t always directly generate offense, of course. Sometimes it’s indirectly, thanks to his gravity. This is one of the more glaring examples, but you get the idea:
“We have to do a study on how much offense they generate with their dives and their screens,” Williams joked.
DA actually ranks third in the association in screen assists, but that’s a deep dive (pun intended) for another day. The point is, Ayton’s always had gravity. Now it’s his passing ability that’s starting to generate offense, even when he’s not scoring or even assisting himself.
A 7-footer averaging 1.5 assists per game can hardly be considered a crafty facilitator, but Ayton has come a long way from being the guy who could only throw two-handed, overhead bullets to teammates on the perimeter:
After the Suns’ first matchup with the Golden State Warriors, Cam Johnson hailed his teammate for being such a willing passer who’s improving with his reads.
On one play that stood out, Ayton caught the ball near the post, surveyed his surroundings without turning his head, goaded the defense into showing and kicked the ball out to Johnson for a corner 3. It wasn’t anything flashy; just an understated, heads-up play where the ball went where it needed to go.
“It was cool to see because he saw me as soon as he caught it, but he kind of probed it a little bit more, let Draymond [Green] come in a little bit more and then threw it,” Johnson said. “So I knew that was coming after he looked at me the initial time, and for him to be able to make those plays in such a variety of ways, whether it’s with the ball in his hand, whether it’s taking up space or just kind of dominating the area under the goal, that’s really cool to see.”
Another thing that’s cool to see? Insanely difficult passes like this one:
Fluky as it may seem, it also suggests he’s just scratching the surface. Ayton believes last year’s Finals run was a big piece of the puzzle in helping him assess what defenses are trying to do with him.
“I’ve seen every coverage possible they could possibly throw at us, now it’s just me being a better basketball player and taking what the defense gives me,” he said. “Playing in that short roll, I really dissect that now. Just taking advantage of my size and my ability to pass to either corner, or whoever’s helping more. Me and C, and coach Mark Bryant, we’ve been on that. That’s what really helps us, and I always wanted to be more of a threat this year, just to show teams, like, ‘You blitzing us or having the big up is not going to stop us.’ You could break it off to me in the short roll and I’ll be the playmaker.”
The last step, and Frank Kaminsky’s influence
To go from being one of the NBA’s top-five centers to a truly elite big, Deandre Ayton doesn’t need to jack up a bunch of 3s. He doesn’t need to lead the league in blocks, and he certainly doesn’t need to be “fed” in the post the way some people think he should be.
The last step for DA is a simple one, and it’s the one or two steps between him and the basket when he catches the ball on the short roll. And for that, you need to be able to dribble. That’s where Kaminsky’s influence comes in.
“Tank does not stop moving,” Ayton said of Kaminsky. “He knows his personnel, he knows his teammates and he knows the game of basketball pretty darn well. Just how he keeps the ball moving, doing [dribble handoffs], making the defense rotate and eventually getting the mismatch down low, the type of matchup we want with Book or C, and we go to work. Just watching that for the last games I was out, it was beautiful.”
A few weeks ago, after he returned from his lower leg contusion, Ayton revealed he had learned a lot from watching Kaminsky navigate the pocket after setting a screen. Even then, Monty was already seeing that influence contributing to sustainable growth.
“He’s much better at playing in the pocket,” Williams said. “Sometimes he scores, sometimes he finds guys on the backside. He’s a worker. He’s still growing and understanding. He’s had a lot thrown on his plate for such a young player, but in those particular points on the floor or spaces on the floor, he’s getting more and more comfortable. The way people play Book and Chris in pick-and-roll or in [dribble handoffs], to have that element of faking the DHO and not just going to the basket, but going under control, is a weapon for us.”
A few weeks ago against the Spurs, Ayton caught a pocket pass from Book at the top of the 3-point line. Rather than swing it to someone else on the perimeter, he confidently put it down, attacked the defense and got a dunk out of it.
According to DA, Booker told him he’d been waiting to see that move out of him for “three got-damn years.”
“Yeah, I told him I’ve been waiting on that for three years,” Booker laughed. “Some games I get a lot of attention. He makes quick, dynamic moves like that, it’s tough to guard.”
Those moves are becoming more and more commonplace, and they need to be: Teams have learned to play DA with low-man coverage, cutting off his path to the rim and forcing him to awkwardly put the ball on the ground, either pulling up for a jumper or forcing the issue by creating contact, neither of which has ever really been his forte.
Fortunately, Ayton is building on last year’s flashes of confidence with handling the ball to close that distance, and he’s even seeking out more contact too. That uptick in aggression has come at a perfect time with Booker missing the last six-and-a-half games. Not all of it can be attributed to the advent of a power dribble, but the numbers show DA is rising to the occasion:
- Deandre Ayton’s first 14 games: 15.4 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 1.2 APG, 64.1 FG%, 1.8 FTAs
- Deandre Ayton’s last 5 games: 21.2 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 2.2 APG, 57.9 FG%, 5.4 FTAs
That looks like small sample size theater, but not only has Ayton done a better job of seeking out contact lately, he’s also implemented a more reliable spin move when he catches the ball on the short roll.
“It’s huge having that confidence and understanding when you play this game, you gotta be reactive,” Paul said. “You can’t be a robot. You gotta have instinct and whatnot, and DA has the ability to do all that.”
From Williams’ perspective, watching Frank the Tank operate and his natural, God-given talent helped. But in his mind, what’s making a difference in DA’s pick-and-roll game is the work Ayton’s put in with assistant coach Mark Bryant.
Williams said Bryant works with all their big men on catching the ball in the short roll, coming to a controlled jump stop and probing against the low-man coverage, either to shoot the floater or find the guard on the backside.
“I think the knowhow, understanding where his teammates are, is something that we try to work on, but he and JaVale, Mark Bryant, Stix, they work on that a ton,” he said. “When Chris and Book get blitzed, they have to facilitate and make plays. He was good at it last year as far as finding people. Now, he’s putting the ball down so much more easier. And even times where they tried to get a charge on him, he was able to have great body control and avoid the charge.”
Deandre Ayton’s growth
After internalizing some of his shortcomings in the NBA Finals, Deandre Ayton has repeatedly stated that he wants to be more of a threat this season. By simply fine-tuning his passing, diving hard to the basket more consistently and using a few power dribbles to punish sagging defenders, he’s doing exactly that.
Those developments might feel minor, but put them all together and Ayton ranks in the 88th percentile as a pick-and-roll roll man — down from last year’s 92nd percentile, but still incredibly impressive for a guy who’s basically being asked to double his pick-and-roll output from last year.
DA isn’t the type of guy you toss the ball to in the post and expect a bucket, unless his feet are both firmly planted in the paint already. Of his 144 made field goals this year, 118 have been assisted, with 62 of them coming from Chris Paul and another 24 coming from Devin Booker. This 7-footer still very much needs his guards to be effective.
But that dependency isn’t as strong as it once was, especially as Ayton continues to evolve as a scorer, playmaker and even a ball-handler while rolling. Once lacking McGee’s consistently dynamic rolling and Kaminsky’s creation, Ayton is starting to bring all of those elements to the floor.
“He gives us an element around the rim on both ends of the floor that, quite frankly, make us a good team,” Williams said. “DA’s probably the combination of the two of them. Frank has some intangibles putting the ball down, but outside of that, I think DA can do everything both those guys can do, and that helps us where he can play with both units and bring a lot to the table.”