Deandre Ayton is perhaps the most hotly contested player in Phoenix Suns history. Lost in all the heated debate about his next contract, his true value and his fit with the Suns is a far more interesting basketball discussion about his game.
With DA set to get a max from somebody as a restricted free agent this summer, and the Suns’ second-round flameout being accentuated by Ayton’s sideline spat with coach Monty Williams, it’s no wonder this is all anyone wants to talk about. But since we’ve already covered his murky future in Phoenix, his upcoming free agency, sign-and-trade scenarios and everything else, why not take a break and talk about hoops for a change?
After exploring where Ayton excelled in Phoenix’s offense and how the Suns fed him in Part 1 yesterday, Part 2 of the latest Bourguet Breakdown will hone in on the disconnect between his role and the role he wants, where he’s shown flashes, and where he still needs to grow in order to become the kind of max player (or even No. 2 option) he envisions.
The Deandre Ayton disconnect
Entering the season, Ayton told anyone who would listen that he expected more. After his coaches and teammates spent an entire playoff run praising his sacrifices, DA used that word for the first time himself.
“Throughout the playoffs and Finals, eventually I started to realize I was starting to turn a lot of heads from a lot of doubters, and I think it was funny because I sacrificed a lot,” Ayton said. “And I don’t think the world’s really seen my game and the type of window I have to where I already know what the requirement is, it’s just me adding on.”
Ayton mentioned the work he put in during the offseason and how he was telling coaches the things he wanted to do. He casually dropped that he didn’t like his “big man role,” called the prospect of playing with JaVale McGee in a dual-big lineup a “dream,” and wistfully harkened back to his days playing the 4 in college.
From Day 1 of the new season, it was clear the Suns would be walking a tightrope between Ayton’s desire to do more and how the team felt he’d raise their ceiling the most.
“I don’t like the big man role, but that’s the job at the end of the day,” Ayton conceded. “That’s the thing I’m great at.”
DA would go on to average 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. He didn’t quite match his career-high scoring numbers from his rookie season, but the trade-off was a career-high 63.4 percent shooting for a 64-win team.
Critical in all of that success was the fact that he thrived by doing the little things: setting good screens, rolling hard, finishing around the rim and running the floor. Ayton ranking in the 96th percentile for transition points per possession was one example of being an elite play-finisher by just making hustle plays. His work on the glass was another, since a whopping 56 of his 443 made field goals came directly after an offensive rebound.
Using the word “role” can have a negative connotation, but when DA starred in his role, he often blurred the line between “superb fit” and “max player” — even as a guy who was assisted on 81.2 percent of his field goals.
However, in terms of the max contract discussion and the expanded role that he and his diehard following believe he’s capable of, that number is awfully high. In fact, only seven centers in the entire NBA were assisted on a higher percentage of their made 2-pointers this season.
The gap between Ayton (80.9 percent) and other max-caliber bigs like Joel Embiid (51.3 percent), Karl-Anthony Towns (53.7 percent), Bam Adebayo (60.8 percent) and Anthony Davis (64.7 percent), or even more one-dimensional rim-rollers like Rudy Gobert (72.4 percent) and Clint Capela (76.5 percent), was more of a chasm.
Ironically enough, the “Feed DA” crowd is right about one thing: Deandre Ayton still needs to be fed in order to be most effective.
Self-creation is the next frontier
As encouraging as Part 1 was, it’s important to remember that those sources of offense — pick-and-rolls, post-ups and even midrange jumpers — all relied on someone else, with very minimal dribbling involved. DA needs to be fed, but most max players are capable of eating themselves too.
Again, none of this is meant to minimize Ayton’s tremendous capability for finishing plays. But after watching all 443 of his made field goals and meticulously dividing them all into subcategories, a staggering 331 of them came from making the following basic plays:
- Finishing gimmes at the basket set up by someone else via pick-and-rolls, dribble drives or fast breaks
- Offensive putbacks
- Hooks, floaters or jumpers that were either catch-and-shoot or required one dribble
That’s automatically 70.4 percent of his made buckets right there. Another 66 baskets (15.2 percent) came on plays that were slightly tougher but still required minimal self-creation, such as face-up jumpers off post-ups, pick-and-roll/post-up plays that led to a quick hook shot off the dribble, and pick-and-roll plays leading right into midrange or turnaround jumpers.
Beyond that, there were 15 buckets where DA actually dribbled his way to an impressive finish in the pick-and-roll, 12 where he dribbled his way into a tough make out of post-ups, and only nine instances otherwise that featured honest-to-God self-creation. Even after lumping all three of those into the “self-creation” category, that’s only 8.3 percent of his offense where he actually put the ball on the ground and created for himself.
As tantalizing as these glimpses were, they were the exception, not the rule:
To be fair, Ayton’s hook shot was so effective, he often didn’t need to do more. As we mentioned earlier, if DA gets fully comfortable putting the ball down just once or twice, these rare but simple pick-and-roll reads will become a regular occurrence:
Keep mixing in those turnaround jumpers off the bounce, and the Suns (or whatever team he lands on next) will be cooking with gas:
Unfortunately, these clips are so salivating because they’re pretty much the only examples of it that exist from last year. According to NBA.com, Ayton only took 13 shots all season off more than two dribbles. Yes, he’s a center, not a ball-handler, but for reference, Devin Booker (630), Chris Paul (558), Mikal Bridges (111) and even Jae Crowder (29) took more than twice that amount.
The combination of Ayton’s size, athleticism and unblockable hook shot gave him the advantage most nights, but a limited arsenal made the scouting report simpler for teams who did their homework.
As effective as that hook was, Ayton sometimes grew dependent on it. In the clip below, watch as he forces it to no avail against longer, more physical defenders. There are a couple of opportunities for him to continue driving left, but he repeatedly spins back to his right to go into that right-handed hook — something the Dallas Mavericks planned for in their second-round matchup:
His counter for that? A turnaround jumper, another nearly unblockable shot. DA got very comfortable going downhill, taking one or two power dribbles, spinning back to his left and staying under control long enough to connect on some pretty difficult shots:
DA’s improved touch opened up this second avenue to finishing plays, but just like his hook shot, the turnaround jumper had a tell. While Ayton would almost always spin to his right to lead into the hook shot, most of his turnaround jump shots saw him spinning or driving left.
Draymond Green and the Golden State Warriors were all over this every time they squared off, forcing DA into brutally tough shots and even a travel by overplaying the jumper as soon as he started his spin:
Developing a left-handed hook shot would be helpful to keep post defenders honest, but ball-handling is the main key to unlocking Ayton’s full tool bag.
In some instances, it was a matter of now knowing how to attack defenders in space, especially when the low man sagged off. In the first three plays below, DA turns down prime real estate in front of him, air-balling an awkward push shot in the first clip and settling for midrange jumpers in the next two. (Even the Indiana Pacers broadcaster couldn’t believe it.)
The rest convey a similar lack of feel, with Ayton barreling ahead into two unwieldy floaters; drawing an offensive foul; misreading the court and pulling a Derek Zoolander by spinning right into the help defense rather than going left into an open layup (much to Booker’s chagrin at mid-court); and spinning into a layup that should’ve been a travel (as Draymond Green animatedly suggests):
There’s a reason Ayton only had 27 drives total in 58 games: He’s not completely confident handling the rock.
That discomfort shows up in little things, like his frequent use of two-handed, overhead bullet passes, how he finished with more turnovers (91) than assists (84) this season, or how almost half of his assists (40) came on handoffs. Improving his ball-handling — especially with the left hand — would certainly help there.
Ayton’s lack of creation for others isn’t an issue; he doesn’t have to be Nikola Jokic to be effective in Phoenix, nor does he have to be KAT shooting 3s off the dribble or Joel Embiid with his plethora of razzle-dazzle moves.
Still, outside of finishing easy dump-offs, DA’s repertoire is currently confined to hook shots spinning right and turnaround jumpers spinning left. It’d be helpful to have something of a bag off the bounce to convert awkward plays like these:
With that being said, the glimpses are there, which is encouraging for a 24-year-old with room to grow. Ayton barely upped his number of shot attempts during the playoffs but still increased his scoring average to 17.9 points per game on 64 percent shooting, and his percentage of assisted field goals dropped from 81.2 to 78.1 percent.
Part of his success stemmed from how comfortable he looked closing the gap off the dribble:
He also asserted himself with some actual dribble-drive attacks. Putting the ball on the ground once or twice allowed Ayton to be physical and go through his opponent when the defender came to greet him:
Developing a more reliable handle could also create opportunities to catch defenders off-guard.
Even in the last two examples below where he missed the finger roll and got blocked by Anthony Davis, the Suns would be more than happy to see him successfully attack defenders off the bounce like that. In the last example, recovering AD’s block even freed up a 3 for Booker:
Deandre Ayton’s future
Someone is going to pay Deandre Ayton the max this summer. Whether it’s the Suns or another team via sign-and-trade remains to be seen, but what’s been lost in this heated debate over his value to Phoenix and whether he deserves the max is the indisputable fact that Ayton makes this team better, and vice-versa.
At age 37, Chris Paul needs an elite rim-rolling big like Ayton to free up his patented elbow jumper. At age 24, Ayton needs a legendary floor general like the Point God to boost his efficiency and optimize his talents. The Suns need a two-way center like DA to contend, given that they probably won’t get equal value back in a sign-and-trade and their window with CP3 is closing soon. And as we’ve covered here, DA needs a complete team with other creators like the Suns to help his game blossom.
As a No. 1 or No. 2 option on a team like the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers or San Antonio Spurs, maybe Ayton would improve leaps and bounds from an individual standpoint. But those struggles to create for himself without a top-five facilitator would undoubtedly hold him back from an efficiency standpoint, or at the very least, hold his team back in the win column. As the Warriors and Boston Celtics showed, there is still very clearly a place in this sport for defensive-minded bigs, but their true strength lies in having multiple ball-handlers and primary creators.
Learning to create in this league is a trial by fire, and not to burst his bubble, but any team that’s signing DA is planning on using him as a hyper-efficient center…which means primarily as a rim-roller…which is where the Suns currently maximize him.
To that end, both DA and the Suns’ best option seems to be keeping this uneasy partnership intact, mending bridges and continuing to grow together. We’ll see if cooler heads actually prevail, but based on where Deandre Ayton’s game is now and where he has yet to go, both parties may be worse off if they decide to part ways.