Four years ago the Phoenix Suns identified Deandre Ayton as the most talented player in his draft class. After being taken with the number one overall pick, the Bahamian has largely delivered on his potential through a gifted offensive repertoire.
Having re-signed with the franchise on a four-year, $133 million contract, Ayton and the Suns are now looking for another step as he enters his fifth season in the league. The 24-year-old has been ranked fifth in a recent position rankings – where could he be among centers in 12 months time?
Where many players need to work on their mechanics and skillset, the growth of Phoenix Suns big man Deandre Ayton may lie in his mindset.
There are always physical skills to be worked upon for any elite athlete – I’m a big advocate for Ayton developing and incorporating a three-point shot, particularly given the feathery touch he possesses from the mid-range and free-throw line.
Ayton does otherwise have a very polished offensive game, proving one of the most efficient big men in the league. A big facet of this is his hook shot, manifesting into a double-edged sword for he and the Suns offense.
Ayton shot 66% on hook shots last season – elite by anyone’s language. However, there are times where you can bemoan his lack of aggression whereby he appears to settle for these attempts.
Clearly Ayton feels more comfortable turning and shooting over a defender from a few feet, rather than creating significant contact in a layup or dunk attempt from the restricted area. That’s fine in certain positions when he’s defended by an opposition center, but the frustrating aspect is when he has a clear mismatch, a notable height and strength advantage, yet still goes to the hook.
Last season Ayton took 276 attempts from the restricted area, in comparison to 288 attempts from the remainder of the paint. This continued in the playoffs as he took 62 and 66 shots respectively. This isn’t a usual ratio for the top scoring centers in the league.
Joel Embiid took 389 attempts in the restricted area last regular season, in contrast to 303 from the remainder of the paint. Nikola Jokic had a balance of 487 and 409 attempts from each area.
These differences between Ayton and Embiid/Jokic is even more surprising given the latter are focal points of their team’s offense, and their dominance often leads to doubles/traps on the post.
Ayton’s hook shot is fantastic, but the facts remain that he shoots 17% better from the restricted area than he does from the rest of the paint. He has the skills and physical capacity to eliminate the hook against smaller defenders, instead punishing mismatches in more dominant fashion.
Ayton has a horrid free-throw rate as a result of his current game, shooting just 2.4 per game last season. The hook is about eliminating potential contact by turning from the defender – a legitimate skill no doubt. But why not put more pressure on the officials, particularly against a smaller or incompetent defender who will likely bail him out with a foul.
No one is expecting him to reach Embiid’s level of 11.8 free-throw attempts per game, nor even Jokic’s average of 6.3. Doubling his rate to nearly five attempts per game should be a realistic and ideal goal, if not this season then certainly next.
The last factor is what increased offensive aggression could mean for the other side of the ball. Ayton is a good defender – a solid disruptor at the rim who can also compete on the perimeter when switched onto guards. However, he also had a TOTAL of 40 blocks last season, 12 less than CARMELO ANTHONY.
While blocked shots are clearly not the be-all and end-all, they can prove defining moments that alter the momentum of games. Perhaps increased aggression could also see a higher block rate for Ayton, ultimately allowing him to return to his career-high season of 1.5 per game.
Right now, Ayton is a good player on both sides of the ball. If he does want to become a great one though, a change in mindset and further aggression could be the key to unlocking his next phase. This is not only on Ayton himself, but also on the Suns organization to foster an environment where this is possible.