Lost in all the Deandre Ayton hysteria over his future with the Phoenix Suns is one of the more intriguing basketball discussions in the NBA right now. His long-term outlook in the Valley undoubtedly looks shaky right now, but examining DA’s skill-set to try and determine what kind of max player he’ll be is a far more productive conversation.
Ayton will get a max deal from somebody this summer. The Suns have the power to match any four-year max offer for their restricted free agent, and they can trump all offers with a five-year deal if they so choose. However, even without all the rumblings about rifts with coach Monty Williams and Devin Booker, it feels safe to assume the Suns won’t be rolling out a five-year max. They declined to do so last offseason, when he was eligible for a rookie-scale extension.
Market value dictates contract worth more than anything, and the Suns should’ve paid up to avoid this very unpleasant scenario. But in a vacuum, their decision was somewhat defensible. The only players to receive that rookie-scale max extension over the last five years were Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Michael Porter Jr., Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox, Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray, Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins. Say what you will about MPJ, Simmons and Wiggins, but all 14 of those players are either All-NBA talents, All-Stars, or at the very least, capable of creating their own offense.
And therein lies the crux of a more basketball-oriented, less vitriolic discussion about Deandre Ayton’s value. After combing through the film of all 697 of his regular-season field goal attempts and 164 playoff attempts, Part 1 of the latest Bourguet Breakdown will take a look at Ayton’s offense — where he excelled, how the Suns fed him, and why the notion that Phoenix is holding him back couldn’t be further from the truth.
How the Suns fed Deandre Ayton: Post-ups
There’s still a misconception that the Suns don’t get the ball to their big man enough, but the numbers don’t really back that up, even for the “Feed DA” contingent that demanded more traditional post-ups.
According to NBA.com, Ayton averaged 3.2 post-up plays per game, 11th-most in the league. He fared well on those plays, ranking in the 76th percentile in points per possession, scoring the NBA’s eighth-most post-up points and ranking second in field goal percentage among all players with at least 100 such plays. His 57.1 percent shooting on post-ups trailed only the MVP, Nikola Jokic, at 62.9 percent.
NBA offenses have veered away from running too many post-ups over the last decade, but the Suns managed to mix in a healthy dose for their fifth-ranked offense. Ayton sharpening his hook shot as the first go-to weapon in his tool bag helped immensely.
Assistant coach Mark Bryant and the rest of the Suns’ coaching staff emphasized something Monty Williams learned during his time with Tim Duncan in San Antonio: Catch high, keep high.
“He used to bring the ball down a lot and guards would be able to get their hands on it, but he’s done a good job of catch-high, keep-high,” Devin Booker said. “I told him he has one of the best touches in the league. Just put it on the rim, if you miss, you’ll get it back.”
Thanks to his size, speed and strength, DA typically didn’t have to do much to get his hook shot off. One dribble was usually enough:
If help didn’t come, he’d use multiple dribbles to position himself — always going back to his right — for his most reliable shot, which he converted a whopping 66 percent of the time:
“I think last year, I used to get my hand jacked up by dudes just swiping down on me every time because I’d keep bringing it down,” Ayton recalled. “But learning from that, you create the flow game, more jump hooks, and that’s how you adjust.”
The end result? Ayton shot the third-best percentage in the NBA on shots in the paint outside the restricted area. The Suns rewarded him for that area of growth by integrating his hook shot into the offense. Ayton only attempted 92 hooks in 2020-21, but this season, he made 93 hooks and attempted 141.
Traditional, back-to-the-basket bigs are a thing of the past, but DA’s skill-set mixed in a little variety, allowing him to showcase one of the biggest developments in his game.
How the Suns fed Deandre Ayton: Pick-and-roll
As much as Ayton’s hook shot blossomed in the post, it was nowhere near the most effective part of his game. That was still in the pick-and-roll, which accounted for the biggest chunk of his offense.
After pouring through all 443 of Ayton’s made field goals, 100 of them came from simple, easy buckets right around the basket resulting from pick-and-rolls — a staggering 23.1 percent of his output. That almost doubled his next-highest source of production, which came from 56 offensive putbacks.
The term “spoon-fed” is a bit harsh, but so many of his buckets were served up on a silver platter:
None of this is meant to discredit Ayton’s effort or skill, of course. He’s a high-level finisher who ranked in the 72nd percentile in pick-and-roll points per possession. He scored the fourth-most points in the NBA as the roll man and shot an impressive 64.8 percent on those plays — 11th-best among all players with at least 100 such possessions.
Aside from being able to read the angles, make good contact on screens and roll into open territory, some of the catches and finishes Ayton made in narrow spaces were ridiculous:
Still, there’s no question the presence of two elite playmakers like Chris Paul and Devin Booker helped DA’s efficiency skyrocket to career-best levels. Paul alone assisted on 113 of Ayton’s 443 made field goals, which means he set up 31.4 percent of DA’s buckets.
That percentage was higher than any starting guard-to-starting center combination in the NBA except for Trae Young to Clint Capela (44.3 percent), LaMelo Ball to Mason Plumlee (32.7 percent), Luka Doncic to Dwight Powell (45.7 percent) and Fred VanVleet to Khem Birch (33 percent). Take out the 15 games CP3 missed due to injury, and he assisted on 45 percent of DA’s baskets, which trailed only the Doncic-Powell connection.
In other words, this was an elite pick-and-roll pairing that served as a building block for both the Suns’ offense and Ayton’s absurd efficiency. Those clamoring for DA to show out with a different team (or point guard) might want to check the tape again on some of these gorgeous feeds:
Even for the 15-game stretch where Paul was sidelined and Ayton got to show more of what he could do, the big fella was still assisted on 78.2 percent of his field goals. The Arizona product himself chalked it up to just doing what he normally did.
“Mainly, I take what the defense gives me, but I play our basketball,” Ayton said. “Even though we ain’t got CP, I gotta do more. So just really sealing, getting easy, close shots and jump hooks and stuff like that, O-boarding, just doing anything.”
Despite the silly discourse about how the Suns are “holding DA back,” their offense — which featured Ayton running the fifth-most pick-and-roll possessions in the league — was often predicated on his immense gravity as a roll man.
Even when a layup, dunk or alley-oop wasn’t immediately available, an engaged Ayton capitalized on mismatches, punishing switches with quick seals that allowed him to go right into his patented hook shot over smaller defenders:
It’s the reason Ayton ranked third in the entire league in paint touches per game. It also helps explain how, among players with at least 300 paint touches, he ranked fifth in points per paint touch and third in points per post touch.
“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.”
The biggest area where DA could stand to improve in the pick-and-roll is with his comfort level putting the ball on the floor. Opponents know to blitz Paul and Booker to get the ball out of their hands, but when Ayton caught the ball in the short roll, the results were mixed.
DA did flash potential in that area. The circumstances where Ayton threw in a spin or otherwise impressive move on the go were rare, but he doesn’t need to impersonate the Tasmanian Devil to be effective.
These clips are a few of the only times it happened all season, but Ayton occasionally realized that even one quick power dribble could help close the gap between himself and the low man:
It also helped him power through contact for better looks:
And most of all, he could finish with basic, straight-line drives to the rim:
After one such drive against the Spurs, Booker joked he had been waiting three years for DA to make that play. The numbers back up the idea that Ayton could stand to attack the basket more. According to Cleaning The Glass, which excludes garbage time, only 42 percent of Ayton’s shot attempts came at the rim. That ranked in the 32nd percentile among centers.
After an impressive game against the Portland Trail Blazers (which prompted another Bourguet Breakdown on his improvement in the short roll), Paul praised his ability to attack those situations off the dribble…almost as though he wanted to make it clear this was the blueprint for DA’s future.
“If ever there is any issue, I will show him the film from this game, ’cause that’s how dominant he can be,” Paul said. “That can be him every single night, and when he plays like that, it’s gonna be real tough to beat us.”
For all the chatter about Ayton being held back, he’s still — by far — most effective as a pick-and-roll threat, with two of the game’s best playmakers setting him up (and vice-versa, thanks to his gravity).
Midrange release valve
To this point, most of Ayton’s offense seems to revolve around dunks, layups, putbacks and hook shots. Stopping there would deprive him of the credit he deserves for refining his midrange touch.
While he’s not a 3-point marksman just yet, DA is one of the NBA’s best from the midrange, where the Suns shoot an alarming number of shots. Per Cleaning The Glass, a whopping 55 percent of Ayton’s shots came from the midrange, which ranked in the 99th percentile at his position. In the playoffs, with Booker out and CP3 ailing later on, that number increased to 58 percent.
“I’m realizing teams have adjusted and locked down the paint — I won’t say completely, but when it comes to rolling and trying to look for that dump down, I won’t say it’s not there, but teams are making it difficult,” Ayton said. “So I’m just playing in the short roll now, taking what they give me. Obviously there’s gonna be times where I have to just put my head down and post up or try to draw a foul, but right now, that’s what’s going for me. That’s where I can work my game and that’s all college again, to be honest: pump-faking jabbing, all that stuff.”
Fortunately, Ayton was nearly automatic from that range, drilling 56 percent of his middies during the regular season. The jab step were very much alive:
“His touch is just phenomenal,” Booker marveled. “It’s something that I’m inspired by, and he does it so quick. He catches it in that pocket and he gets it on the rim. He’s just progressing in that aspect of his game so well, especially when there’s like a low man there and he catches it.”
When Paul was sidelined and the Suns lacked a floor general who could generate easy looks at the rim, DA and the rest of his teammates relied on that midrange prowess as a bailout option on offense.
“That’s a big-time release valve,” Cam Payne said. “It kinda is like a [phew], like a breath-taker every time he knock it down.”
In those 15 games without Paul, 62 percent of Ayton’s shots came from the midrange, and he made a jaw-dropping 61 percent of them. As the season went on, he progressively looked more comfortable firing away after pick-and-roll seals:
And even on turnaround jumpers in the post:
As a release valve, Ayton could pull up for floaters when he caught the ball in the short roll, and he made 55.9 percent of those shots. He also drilled 52 percent of his turnaround jumpers, showcasing his efficiency in finishing off plays. What was once “settling” soon became one of the deadliest aspects of his game.
“I think he gets too much criticism for taking jump shots,” Williams said. “He can make those shots. I think there’s a balance, though, of taking those shots and also going down in the paint and getting to his jump hook and offensive rebounding and that kind of thing. But I don’t look at it as settling, ’cause he makes a lot of those shots.”
From his pick-and-roll prowess to his work in the post to his growth as a midrange gunner, it’s clear Ayton is a high-level finisher. The next question, which we’ll dive into tomorrow, is what it’ll take for him to initiate more of his own offense.
For Part 2 on Ayton’s flashes of self-creation and where he needs to improve, click here.