Deandre Ayton is making great strides for the Phoenix Suns
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton is a man after his time, a throwback center better suited for the rough-and-tumble 1990s as opposed to today’s game. Fans often speculate what could have been if the Suns had taken All-Star guards Luka Doncic or Trae Young instead of Ayton first overall in the 2018 NBA Draft.
Because of this, Ayton is always going to be intensely scrutinized. Initially, his pick-and-roll defense was criticized upon entering the league. Now his lack of scoring from the pick-and-roll gets all the headlines.
Ayton has averaged five fewer points per game this season than what he has averaged so far in his career. His decrease in scoring does not mean he has regressed in his third season, but it paints a clear picture of his role in this title-seeking season.
Here’s why the stats are not telling the whole story.
Phoenix Suns: Why scoring fewer points is not a problem for Deandre Ayton
It is not necessarily a bad sign for the Suns that Deandre Ayton’s scoring average has dropped by over three points per game. It means Ayton is doing his job well on offense, which is primarily setting ball screens for Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
Given that Ayton is such a strong finisher around the basket, defenses always collapse on him when he rolls to the rim. Paul and Booker are great shooters off the dribble so their man must stay attached to them at all times. All help in the NBA comes from the weak side, so the weak side corner three will always be open for the Suns.
Case in point: when Booker was double-teamed on this possession, Ayton made a tremendous pass to Mikal Bridges as he caught the ball on the move. Bridges was open because Paul George, who was defending him, slid over to prevent Ayton from slamming it home.
Give Ayton credit for taking what the defense is giving him. Bridges, in particular, has benefitted exponentially from Ayton’s unselfish play, averaging five more points per game on a blistering 3-point shooting percentage (46.3 percent).
If defenders elect to stay home on the weak-side shooter, Ayton’s scoring average will increase significantly. If not, he will continue to give Bridges and other shooters open looks on offense.
Ultimately, the offense is not a problem, but the Ayton-Bridges duo is giving opponents too many good looks on defense. As scary as it sounds, Ayton’s improving footwork can further improve the Suns defense, already ranked first in points allowed per game.
Phoenix Suns: Assessing Deandre Ayton’s role on defense
Deandre Ayton’s role on the Phoenix Suns is to protect the rim, control the glass, and to defend opposing pick-and-rolls. His shot-blocking and rebounding totals have been consistently good for the Suns since he has entered the league. His pick-and-roll defense, however, has always been a major point of contention for the Suns fanbase.
Ayton has taken great strides as a drop man on ball screens in his third season. However, he still tends to drop a step too far back when the opposing ballhandler turns the corner on the screen.
For instance, the Denver Nuggets were able to leverage Ayton’s tendency to take one step too far back into an open 3-pointer. Look at how far back Ayton goes to defend Denver’s all-world center Nikola Jokic on this possession. Jamal Murray knocked down a wide-open 3-pointer because both Ayton and Mikal Bridges dropped too far back to recover in time.
Bridges is at fault because he inexplicably left Murray open, but Ayton was in the no man’s land of pick-and-roll defense while guarding Jokic.
He either has to slide over to defend Jokic’s roll or jump out to contest Murray’s shot. In this play, he should have slid over to Jokic while yelling at Bridges to stay attached to Murray, whose tendency is to shoot the ball as soon as he pulls the ball back with his right hand.
Moreover, his right foot was too close to the baseline, which gave Murray a clear passing lane to where Jokic was going to be. If Ayton had moved up a step and positioned his right foot closer to the 3-point line, he would have been able to defend the passing lane while also corralling Murray’s potential drive to the basket.
To his credit, Ayton made this subtle adjustment against the Clippers. Notice how his back is now turned to the weak-side corner, which allowed him to slow down Paul George long enough so Bridges can recover in time to block the shot.
Keep in mind, Ayton has less than a second to be in the right position. It is very encouraging to see Ayton recognizing his initial mistake and correcting it in the next game.
Ayton is doing a great job playing his role so far. Paul and Booker will continue to pass the ball to Ayton on the pick-and-roll. Ayton’s points per game will increase once defenses begin to stay home on Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder, who will almost always be positioned on the weak side corner.
On defense, Ayton’s footwork and positioning must continue to progress while defending the pick-and-roll. An indicator of how much progress is being made is where he is located when he is in drop coverage on the pick-and-roll.
If Deandre Ayton can expertly defend the pick-and-roll, the Suns will be able to sustain their top-ranked defense.