Over the course of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, there have only been three centers that have consistently produced numbers across the board to bring their teams success. One of those centers being Phoenix Suns big man Deandre Ayton.
The Suns have thrived whenever Ayton has truly shown confidence in his game as a 22 year-old. Phoenix is 8-3 through the first three rounds whenever Ayton records a double-double, and is undefeated in the postseason when he posts a positive plus/minus.
The playoffs have been Ayton’s shining moment, and the only two centers of the 16 teams that made the postseason to out-perform him are NBA MVP Nikola Jokic, and MVP finalist Joel Embiid. That’s pretty good company.
Additionally, over the last month and a half Ayton has proven to be a top-five center in the entire league, with his game improving rapidly in the most pivotal moments for his team.
The growth is obvious. The big man averaged 14.4 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game during the regular season. But he has upped those averages through the postseason, now tallying 16.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. His block totals have barely dropped to 0.9 per contest, but Ayton has been better at forcing teams to shoot outside of the paint with his freakishly athletic frame, still defending the rim at all costs.
Ayton ranked eighth in double-doubles amongst centers in the 2020-2021 regular season with 33 of them in 69 games. He was tied with Bam Adebayo and Karl-Anthony Towns.
However, half of the centers in this particular category ahead of Ayton did not produce wins for their teams while doing so. Unlike most other teams, the Suns held a 73.0 winning percentage out of those 33 games where Ayton reached double-double figures. Only Rody Gobert, Enes Kanter, and Jokic had better winning percentages.
The efficiency of Ayton goes even further across the stats too. The former Arizona Wildcat finished fourth in highest field goal percentage for the regular season at 62.6 percent. He is currently sitting a third for the highest percentage in the playoffs at 70.6 percent.
When comparing him to Adebayo, who many believe is a top-five center, Ayton has dominated the one-on-one battle four of the five games the two have faced each other in. Ayton has averaged 16.8 points, on 62.7 percent shooting, and 12.4 rebounds per game against Adebayo, who has averaged 16.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, and shot 54.5 percent. Obviously, this is not a large difference, but it should be taken into consideration whenever ranking Adebayo as a top-five center—and not Ayton.
All of numbers previously stated create an argument for Ayton as a top-five center; however, I believe how perfectly he plays his role on the Suns, while adding those stats, certainly lands him in the top five conversation.
Think of this: Who is the last No.1 overall draft pick to adapt to a role like Ayton has? So many first overall picks come into the league thinking the team has to build around them and want to be the centerpiece of an offense. Not Ayton.
He has shown that he is perfectly fine with his role as the Suns big man and he sticks with his strengths, making him more efficient than most centers that try to do too much during a game. This goes a long way, and has calculated to wins for Phoenix as they are now in the NBA Finals with Ayton to thank.
Not only has he complemented the Suns extremely well by taking on this role, but he has recently flipped the script on any concerns of him being a bust within the matter of just one season.
Speaking of No. 1 draft picks, Ayton is the fastest top pick to make it to the Finals since Kenyon Martin, who did it in 2002. Martin was drafted by the New Jersey Nets in 2000.
The scary part about the big man though is that his ceiling only continues to rise. According to Dave McMenamin of ESPN, a Western Conference Executive said that Ayton was the closest thing we have seen since the all-time great Hakeem Olajuwon.
That’s just about the highest praise one can achieve at the center position, and it certainly holds more weight with it coming from an opponent, rather than someone within Phoenix’s organization.
It may have happened in the blink of an eye, but rest assured, Ayton has arrived. It feels almost impossible now to discuss the NBA’s top centers and forget to mention his name.