Deandre Ayton’s role in the Phoenix Suns’ offense has been a hot topic ever since he entered the league. He has been a consistently good offensive player, but there still seems like there’s a lot of room for him to grow. There’s been plenty of blame to go around for his stagnation on offense, both in and out of his control.
Some of it has been due to the way he has been utilized, the Suns’ team construction, and his own lack of aggression at times. Now that Bradley Beal is in the fold, it seems like Ayton’s offensive role will once again take a back seat, while an opportunity to take a leap seems as unlikely as ever.
However, you could argue that we actually did see Ayton take an offensive leap this past season, right before the arrival of Kevin Durant.
After an illness kept D.A. out for a week in mid January, the big man returned with a vengeance. Over the next 13 games, Ayton averaged 22.5 points on 61 percent shooting to go along with 11 boards per game. It was arguably the best stretch of Ayton’s career.
That hot streak ended with Durant’s debut, as Ayton was definitely impacted the most of the Suns’ core players by the superstar’s arrival. Now the third, and sometimes even fourth option behind Chris Paul, Ayton’s scoring numbers dropped precipitously.
He only averaged 13 points per game in the eight regular season games with Durant in the lineup. That continued into a lackluster postseason, when Ayton barely cracked 13 points per game there as well. The Suns will have to find a better way in which to get Ayton involved on the offensive end.
One solution could be to stagger the Suns’ core four players. This is something that former head coach Monty Williams rarely did, but it is fair to point out he also didn’t always have the necessary personnel to accomplish it.
In those eight regular season games last year, Ayton shared the floor with Booker and Durant for 21 minutes per game, or about 70 percent of his total minutes. Staggering Ayton with one of the other stars, so he gets more minutes as a second option, can lead him to reaching the level of play he did before Durant’s arrival.
Booker seems like the logical fit to pair Ayton with while Durant and Beal take their rest. They’ve been teammates for five years now, and their offensive chemistry really clicked throughout this season when the roster was ravaged by injuries. Ayton won a player of the week award early on in the season when Paul was hurt and Booker was setting him up.
Booker is also the de facto point guard on this roster, so having someone that can consistently get Ayton the ball is paramount. Surrounding those two with additional shooters, possibly in the form of Eric Gordon and Yuta Watanabe, would be lethal in opening up space for Ayton and Booker to operate.
It’s also possible that Jordan Goodwin ends up being a serviceable point guard, in which case Ayton can be staggered next to Beal or Durant instead of Booker. This strategy can continue into the playoffs, but will be less effective in that environment.
Since the Suns main players’ minutes will rise, so will the percentage that Ayton is the third or fourth option. Ayton’s role will have to adjust from that of a scorer on offense, and it will be interesting to see if the Suns can explore his passing ability more.
Ayton has always showed good passing instincts and is a willing passer, almost to a fault sometimes. The Suns can have him operate out of the high post, similarly to how the Miami Heat utilize Bam Adebayo. With Ayton’s strong mid range game, along with the gravity generated by the Suns’ stars, rim runs that Ayton can feed would be plentiful.
Ironically, Ayton has also always been a good entry passer, so there could be occasions where he facilitates a look to Durant or Booker in the post. Of course, Ayton getting high post-touches is not going to be a go-to set for the Suns, nor should it. But it could be a good way to keep him involved in the offense, while the other players are still ultimately the ones taking the shots.
A more familiar goal for Ayton will be to restore him as an offensive rebounding force. He’s still well above average in that regard, but isn’t the near-elite offensive rebounder he was a couple seasons ago when he was averaging over three offensive boards per game.
It’s a great way to take advantage of the attention paid to players on the perimeter, while also generating offense for himself. Those extra looks for the other three stars might be the most important thing Ayton can provide on offense for the team in the playoffs.
While it’ll be easy to overlook Ayton’s offensive game next season, it’ll still play a big part in the Suns’ success. If he is able to excel in any of the roles laid out above, it’ll take the Suns’ offense to a whole new level.