Phoenix Suns: How Deandre Ayton Can Become a Top 3 NBA Center

Phoenix Suns, Deandre Ayton (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Phoenix Suns, Deandre Ayton (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images) /

After a wild beginning to the summer which crammed a run to the NBA Finals, the NBA draft, and free agency’s opening all into a three week period, the Phoenix Suns can finally take a step back and assess themselves ahead the 2021-22 season. Diving in for them, Deandre Ayton deserves our attention first and foremost.

After the solid playoff run we just witnessed from him, it feels fair to call Ayton an indisputable top five, full-time NBA center. Of course “full time,” means to eliminate Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis from the discussion, as they only play the position during select moments.

But with Ayton, I place him just outside the top three for now, with last year’s top two MVP voting leaders Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, as well as Bam Adebayo, currently ahead him.

The Adebayo over Ayton placement might offend some, especially considering the polar opposite playoff runs each player just experienced. Adebayo exited during round one while putting up some not so great numbers, while Ayton broke efficiency records on his way to the Finals. But with recency bias aside and pure skillset considered instead, I feel compelled to give Miami’s guy the nod.

During the postseason, Phoenix’s offense boiled down to a constant use of pick and roll variations, as well as handoffs to set up rhythm shots or isolation sequences for Devin Booker and Chris Paul. It also lead to either open rim runs for Ayton, or clean shots for perimeter snipers whenever the defense collapsed inward on him.

This basic offensive design worked extremely well, but only to a point, as we saw during the Finals that the right personnel can blow it all up.

To bring Phoenix’s offense to a screeching halt, one must stop their backcourt from consistently winning one on one matchups, and fight over screens to prevent switches onto slow footed centers. This allows said centers to fall back, and position themselves properly to prevent Ayton from operating as a lob threat.

If you check those two boxes, then you can easily stop Phoenix’s shooters from finding good looks, as it makes any help defense required to cover them more easily distributable. In addition, you prevent Paul or Booker from going nuclear throughout the course of the game, depending on what type of defender is stationed on either guard.

But now back to Ayton. Blowing up that basic scheme severely diminishes his offensive value even more so, almost to a point where he becomes a more negative than positive influencer on the court.

Ayton will always be a brilliant cutter, always steal points off of the offensive glass, and always carry his reliable mid-range jumper into battle with him. But still, he does not embody a consistent offensive threat if his team fails to put him into two specific circumstances: either as a roll man, or with an early post-up/iso opportunity.

When the Milwaukee Bucks accomplished this and primarily shut down Phoenix’s pick and roll plans, Ayton essentially became a traffic cone that set screens for large stretches during offensive sequences.

Now compare this to Adebayo, who frequently ran the floor with this team, and pulled up from mid-range last year. He too illustrated an ability to drive hard to the basket on his own accord when nobody else managed to create anything.

That entirely differs from Ayton, who lacks both those tendencies, hence making shot creation and transition ball handling areas of Ayton’s game that boast the biggest margins for improvement.

Ayton does not deserve to have these holes within his game entirely pinned on him though, as I believe it has more to do with coaching and what kind of green light Ayton is given, rather than just pure lack of aggression or skill. But nonetheless, I believe his handles could use work especially when compared to other elite, slashing bigs such as Giannis or the aforementioned Adebayo.

Improved ball handing and shot creation would do wonders for Ayton’s game, as well as Phoenix’s offense, allowing it to take pressure off Paul and Booker to create literally everything for their team. In doing that, you also make sure that opposing teams cannot take away Phoenix’s point of attack so easily, because it now extends beyond just pick and rolls.

Making sure that Ayton adds to his game in this way also partially fixes Phoenix’s free throw problem.

Last year, the Suns ranked 29th in free throw attempts per game, but if Ayton learns to attack more frequently on the dribble-drive and just generally as a shot creator, he could fill up this hole seemingly all by himself, and put pressure onto opposing defenses. For proof, look no further than the Finals, where Giannis’s relentless desire to attack the rim pushed the Suns to the edge simply because they allowed excessive free-throw attempts while falling into foul trouble.

Ayton is not Giannis, but he remains incredibly athletic, coordinated, mobile, and skilled. He may not shoot ridiculously well from the field anymore if he incorporates these suggestions into his game simply due to increased volume and shot difficulty, but possessing the threat of an engaged, in rhythm Ayton raises Phoenix’s offensive ceiling by several more stories.

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With more time for him to develop his game, Monty Williams, Paul, and Booker need to understand that Ayton must elevate himself this way. Especially as Paul starts to grow older and the pick and roll centric offense starts to lose a bit of value, Phoenix will need to depend on Ayton more than ever. His 15.9 percent playoff usage rate will not cut it if we reach that point.