The Phoenix Suns have only gotten eight games of experience with Kevin Durant, but we know more or less what to expect from their three superstars. KD immediately elevates the offense, Devin Booker has been on a tear with or without Durant, and Chris Paul’s adjustment as an off-ball threat makes the Suns offense more versatile. But where does Deandre Ayton fit into all this?

Going into this first-round matchup against the LA Clippers, and even the 2023 NBA Playoffs in general, Ayton may be the Suns’ biggest X-factor. Historically speaking, the Clippers have been willing to go small against opposing bigs, and although those lineups haven’t been very effective this season, Tyronn Lue may have no choice but try and gum up the works against Phoenix’s high-powered offense.

The question for this series — and for the Suns’ entire playoff run — is whether Ayton can make opponents pay for choosing the big fella when they’re forced to pick their poison.

Bearing that in mind, here’s a look at what we’ve seen from DA in his limited sample size playing with Durant, where opponents might try to force his hand, and how the Suns can deploy him more effectively on offense.

The pick-and-roll gravity of Deandre Ayton

The bread and butter of Ayton’s offense is his pick-and-roll game. According to The BBall Index, he ranks in the 95th percentile in points per possession as the roll man on pick-and-roll sets, and he’s shooting a career-high 77.6 percent at the rim this season.

“He’s a great screen-setter, strong body as well,” Durant said. “So if you switch a smaller guy on him, he can bury him in the paint.”

A lot of DA’s looks are wide-open layups or alley-oop dunks generated by masterful pick-and-roll manipulation from Paul or Booker. But if DA catches the ball when he’s already downhill, he’s capable of taking two gigantic steps through the help defense and finishing anyway:

Coach Monty Williams’ offense has always been friendly to rim-rolling bigs, and DA is no exception. Whether it’s in Double Drag, Chicago or the Suns’ middle-third pick-and-roll (Spain), the gravity of scorers and ball-handlers like Durant, Book and CP3 typically leads to bunnies for Ayton.

“The offense is fluid to where it’s so much space on the court, and having a player like Book of his capacity, just probably seeing two or three guys a night, finishing my rolls is easy dunks and just paint touches all night,” Ayton said.

Looking just at Ayton’s shot attempts since KD arrived, the early returns have offered higher-quality looks on significantly lower volume. In 59 games without Durant, DA averaged 8.1 made field goals and 13.8 attempts. In eight games with KD, those numbers dropped to 5.4 made field goals on 8.8 attempts, but Ayton’s overall shooting improved from 58.7 percent to 61.4 percent.

When defenses have to worry about one of Booker/KD popping out of staggered screens, with the other one in the corner, Paul coming off an Ayton screen and DA rolling, they’re forced to make nightmarish, split-second decisions. DA’s been particularly effective on that front late in games, getting a big layup out of Double Drag against the Oklahoma City Thunder and free-throw attempts out of the same set against the Denver Nuggets.

Every night, it might be someone different.

“At the end of the game, it was me and DA in pick-and-roll,” Paul said after finding DA late in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. “It might be KD and Book. But I think with our team, we got so many guys that’s willing and able to do whatever.”

Because Ayton is so automatic around the basket, his rolls have a magnetic pull on help defenders — even with guys like Booker, KD or the Suns’ other shooters sitting in the weak-side corner. It’s exactly what happened late against OKC, when Ayton’s dives generated two corner 3s for Durant on the back side.

“Sometimes you put Book in the screening action as a misdirection guy and put Kevin in the corner and vice-versa,” Williams said. “But it was just based on how they were guarding the pick-and-roll. They went small and started switching, and if you’re gonna switch a small onto DA, it probably is gonna force help from the weak side.”

Ayton’s gravity has shown up often in these first eight games with Durant. Williams has compared it to a play-action pass in football, where the obvious run up the middle winds up serving as a disguise for a longer pass and a bigger gain. Just watch how Ayton’s rolls suck in help defenders, putting them in impossible positions that lead to discombobulated rotations:

“I’ve played with guys that can get into the paint and make plays, and you got guys like D-Book on the other side, you got DA rolling to the rim as well, that makes us dangerous,” Durant said. “When you see the play develop, you see it as the game goes on, you start to see these plays develop, and what may be there late in the game.”

According to The BBall Index, Ayton ranks in the 76th percentile in scoring gravity. That number might not give him enough credit, simply because his screen-setting and subsequent dives are the first cogs that get this engine up and running.

“That action for us is like an action that takes advantage of all those guys’ skill-set,” Williams said. “But Deandre doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to screen and set the right angle that makes the defensive guard trail.”

In turn, the floor-spacing gravity of Booker, KD, CP3 and the Suns’ other shooters should ensure Ayton gets easier shots. DA has already acknowledged how his role’s changed over the last month or so, and last year, there might have been concerns about DA wanting to do more. But especially since Durant’s arrival, Ayton’s been all about embracing the little things — much like he did in 2021 when they reached the NBA Finals.

“Just being out there with [Durant] and understanding him just being out there, it was like me rolling to the rim, and everybody just coming in the paint on me, you have open shooters,” Ayton said. “Same goes for him, whenever he has the ball or he’s on the floor, if even his tippy-toes are on the floor, man, they’re gonna have to change up their defensive coverages a little bit.”

How defenses might cover Deandre Ayton

The Suns’ offense with Durant on the court has posted a 117.7 offensive rating, which would be the second-best mark in the NBA this season. There’s no doubt they can score. But come playoff time, when possessions become more critical and opponents have more time to scheme, teams may be more willing to force Ayton to beat them.

Before Durant’s arrival, and even when he was sidelined in March, defenses clogged the paint on Ayton’s pick-and-rolls with drop coverage, forcing guys like Torrey Craig and Josh Okogie to beat them from the outside. Without KD, the Suns struggled to keep those defenses honest and open up the paint. With him back, opponents have to choose what they’re willing to give up, and so far, Williams has liked the Suns’ balance on offense.

“I think that’s just what the game dictates, presents,” Williams said. “I like the fact that we’re not forcing things.”

Even so, the Suns can’t just live with jumpers, nor can they expect their starting center to accept a life of screen-setting without ever getting rewarded for doing the dirty work. Booker and KD will get their looks, but that elevates the importance of the Chris Paul-Deandre Ayton pick-and-rolls to keep opponents guessing.

Shooters in the weak-side corner have to keep defenders honest, but more importantly, the Suns have to find ways to punish opponents for going with drop coverage to take away DA’s rolls.

“I would say mainly how these teams are guarding me, man,” Ayton said of his low number of field goal attempts a few weeks ago. “They’re saying, ‘Bruh, y’all got KD and Book and 3, we just gonna lock up the paint.’ I think they just gonna live with the jump shots.”

The most obvious way for DA to capitalize is to knock down the midrange jumper defenses concede. This is nothing new; according to Cleaning The Glass, Ayton is taking a career-high 57 percent of his non-garbage time shots from the midrange.

“He’s getting a hit on our man and then he’s finding the open space, and you know how he is in that midrange-to-little paint area — automatic,” Booker said. “We try to play to everybody’s strengths, and that’s one of his. So when he has space in that pocket, it’s money.”

The bad news is Ayton’s gone from an elite 56 percent shooting on those looks last year to a good-but-not-elite 48 percent this year.

Make no mistake about it: A center shooting 48 percent from the midrange is good! But if you’re a defense having to choose between a middy for CP3/Book/KD, a corner 3 for any of the Suns’ shooters, a layup for DA on the roll, or a Deandre Ayton middy, which one do you think they’ll be most willing to give up?

It’s Ayton’s middy by a mile.

In a recent game against the Milwaukee Bucks (without KD, to be fair), Brook Lopez was in drop coverage all night. Ayton couldn’t make them pay, shooting 8-for-19, with most of those being midrange jumpers.

“It’s tougher because they’re giving you the shot DA got, that’s what they want,” Williams said. “They’re one of the best at taking away 3s, especially corner 3s.”

The Bucks may be an elite defense designed to take away corner 3s, but their coverage won’t be unique during the Suns’ upcoming playoff run. Defenses know Ayton can be hesitant to attack the low man when he catches the ball in the short roll. If his momentum isn’t already carrying him downhill, he doesn’t have the handle to close that gap by putting the ball on the ground and making a move:

Some opponents like Nikola Jokic or Domantas Sabonis have brought out the best in Ayton in recent years. Last season’s overtime win over the Portland Trail Blazers was one of DA’s best in attacking the short roll, even off the bounce.

But by and large, the big fella has become somewhat predictable in how he approaches those situations. He’ll typically settle for jumpers, despite having plenty of room in front of him to operate. He avoids openings where a dribble or two with a pump-fake might get him to the foul line. Even when he catches the ball in the lane, his “default direction in traffic is backward,” as ESPN’s Zach Lowe put it.

Ayton’s fallback plan when he catches the ball in the paint is to take a right-handed hook shot over his left shoulder. His one move off the dribble — a spin move — is usually designed to get him that exact shot. And to be fair, it’s been effective for him!

“It’s always good having a guy like that that can control the ball off the catch that can shoot a hook, shoot a jump shot and finish at the rim,” Durant said. “So he provides a few options for you. Regardless of how deep you go in the paint trying to make a play, he can be there as a safety valve.”

However, it’s worth noting that Ayton has increased his volume of hook shots from last year…despite dropping from 66 percent efficiency to 57.5 percent this season.

Draining nearly 58 percent of your hook shots is still impressive; it’s just not as automatic as last year, and the scouting report seems to be out on disrupting his rhythm. Just watch how his primary defenders already know where DA is going and are able to contest his go-to hook, or how help defenders know when to collapse and strip the ball on his spin move:

Some of these examples are maddening, especially when he has room to spin over his right shoulder or just dribble to his left. He’s the NBA’s Derek Zoolander, and until he becomes an “ambi-turner,” these are the scenarios defenses will be okay with surrendering.

Possible counters for the Suns

Without Paul George (and maybe even with him), the Clippers don’t have the personnel to stifle Phoenix’s high-powered offense. Williams and the rest of the Suns’ core four have also been on the same page about being adaptable and taking what the defense gives.

“We don’t say to any of our guys, ‘You gotta get 20 shots,’ ‘you gotta get 10,'” Williams said. “It’s just what the game dictates. We feel like we have a team of willing passers. If DA gets 20, 25 shots in the flow of the offense, everybody would be happy about it because he’s an efficient scorer, but it’s not something that we choreograph at all as far as shot distribution.”

“You don’t know how they’re gonna guard it ’til you start the game off, and then we just learn,” Chris Paul added. “You don’t go into the game saying they’re gonna do this. Stuff constantly changes, so I think that’s something that we’ve been good at is just adjusting.”

Even so, the Suns need to be prepared in the event their opponent can actually put Ayton in a position where he has to make plays. For example, if Ivica Zubac stays in the drop (where he’s done well against CP3 in the recent past), or if DA struggles to punish mismatches with deep seals against LA’s switch-heavy, small-ball lineups, there are a few other counters Williams could lean on.

The most obvious one is pretty basic: Make good contact on screens, and let three of the greatest midrange scorers in NBA history do their thing.

“I think the court’s open now, and one screen is opening up the whole floor for me,” Ayton said. “So I think K getting back, they’ll get back to me where they do their thing and I’m dominating down low.”

Modern NBA defenses typically prefer to surrender midrange jumpers over shots at the rim and 3-pointers, but the Suns have the personnel to make their opponents pay for that approach…especially since DA was tied for fourth in screen assists per game and ranked sixth in screen assist points per game.

“We just want to play the game the way it’s presented to you, and I think a lot of those times, when he’s setting screens on some of our best scorers on the team, he’s gonna get an opportunity to get those layups or those dunks or even get a post-up opportunity for a jump shot,” Durant said. “So we gotta continue to utilize the screen-setting, continue to get downhill as a ball-handler and stuff will start opening up, whether it’s the drop-off to DA or the corner pass or your shot as well.”

The Suns have also tried to get DA a touch early on to keep defenses honest. Williams loves starting off games with this set, where Paul feeds Booker or KD curling off Ayton’s screen at the elbow. DA immediately rolls (usually with his side of the court completely empty) for an easy bucket:

“We’re used to seeing a lot of double-teams, a lot of blitzes coming out of these pick-and-rolls, and there was always a low man, but I think I will be having the easiest job of just rolling under the basket and waiting for that ball to be dumped off to me, or offensive rebound,” Ayton said. “Whether there’s a mismatch or whatever, it’ll be a lot of one-on-one down there, second effort. And I can’t wait, ’cause that’s the thing that’s gotten me to the Finals, being that second-effort type of big and being an anchor on defense as well.”

Phoenix has also experimented a bit more with putting Ayton in the dunker’s spot. That’s a natural byproduct of getting Durant the ball and letting one of the greatest iso scorers of all time cook, but just having Ayton run in transition, dive to the rim against zone coverage or simply stand near the basket opens things up for others:

One thing is certain: Deandre Ayton’s role on offense will revolve around doing more of the little things, such as sprinting in transition, crashing the offensive glass, setting good screens and rolling with intention.

Gone are the days when Booker was out injured, Mikal Bridges was learning how to be a No. 2 option and the Suns needed to feed DA in the post. Adding a guy like Kevin-Freaking-Durant, DA’s touches were always bound to drop:

  • Touches: 44.1 per game with KD, 52.9 per game without KD
  • Frontcourt touches: 19.3 per game with KD, 29.0 per game without KD
  • Elbow touches: 3.4 per game with KD, 5.6 per game without KD
  • Post-ups: 2.4 per game with KD, 4.2 per game without KD
  • Paint touches: 8.8 per game with KD, 11.4 per game without KD

Those are pretty drastic differences, and the Suns will need to find ways to keep him involved despite his more limited repertoire of moves in a perimeter-based system. But this is also the point where it’s worth reminding everyone that Phoenix’s offense with KD has been elite, despite not carving out designated “FEED DA” opportunities.

The big fella admitted there were “less smiles” in the practice facility these days, but it’s a matter of focus and concentrating on the task ahead. And for his part, Ayton is excited about running pick-and-rolls with the likes of Paul, Booker and Durant while he competes for his No. 1 goal.

“My goal is to be on top of this world, to be honest,” he said. “Win a ring. And that’s what I play for, that’s what I sacrifice for, and that’s why I love to play, knowing that I could get a chance at that.”


Gerald Bourguet serves as PHNX's reporter, writing savant and podcast co-host for all things Phoenix Suns. He's been a basketball fan since the day he could say "Michael Jordan," graduated from the Walter Cronkite School at ASU in 2013 with a BA and MA in sports journalism and has been covering the NBA ever since. As a credentialed media member since 2015, Gerald dealt with his Suns-related depression through his writing...until the Bubble Suns changed everything. Now, the Artist Formerly Known as Zewio is just as excited to cover winning basketball as Suns fans are to enjoy watching it.