Deandre Ayton living up to expectations at both ends — for better and worse

Deandre Ayton has lived up to his No. 1 pick status on offense. (AP)
Deandre Ayton has lived up to his No. 1 pick status on offense. (AP)

With Devin Booker establishing himself as a building block in the backcourt, the Suns selected 7-foot-1 big man Deandre Ayton with the No. 1 pick in the draft to form an inside-outside duo.

In the first 10 games of his NBA career, Ayton has lived up to expectations. After being named Pac-12 Player of the Year during his lone season at Arizona, he’s averaging 15.9 points and 10.9 rebounds while shooting 59 percent from the field. Ayton will be in contention for NBA Rookie of the Year this season. While the Suns are generally a mess on the court and as an organization, Ayton has already shown the potential to be their best player moving forward.

Ayton’s 21.9 Player Efficiency Rating puts him in elite company. Only 20 rookie centers have ever finished with a PER above 20 while playing at least 25 minutes per game. Of those 20 players, 13 are in the Hall of Fame with two more — Tim Duncan and Chris Webber — likely on the way. Three of the remaining players are active: Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis.

It would be easy to dismiss Ayton’s start as a small sample size, but Ayton’s stats haven’t been inflated by a fluke hot streak or anything like that. He’s simply done a great job of finishing at the rim and playing within himself offensively. As he adjusts to the NBA game, he should only improve as the season advances.

With an ideal combination of size and athleticism, he’s able to finish in the paint with either hand. His go-to move on post-ups is a right-handed jump hook that he can get off against any defender. His footwork in the post is solid and he’s even shown nice form on a turnaround jumper.

As a screener, he’s a threat to roll to the rim for lobs or to pop to the foul line for jump shots. His jump shot has been a bit inconsistent and could use more arc, but his form is solid and he should be able to extend his range to the 3-point line in coming seasons.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about the start to Ayton’s career has been his playmaking ability. He is proving to be a quick decision-maker and has regularly found teammates on backdoor cuts. During a recent post-up, he threw an impressive cross-court pass to the weakside corner. These are promising signs as the Suns look to add a secondary playmaker next to Booker.

In addition to tightening his jump shot, Ayton will need to improve his ball-handling. Coach Igor Kokoškov’s offense includes a lot of dribble handoffs, and Ayton has appeared uncomfortable handling the ball on the perimeter, oftentimes being overeager to get rid of the ball.

Overall, however, Ayton is an offensive stud. He’s already an above-average center, and at just 20 years old, he hasn’t even scratched the surface of his potential. Check out how easy he made this 24-point performance against the Grizzlies look:

Because of his build and offensive skill set, Ayton has been compared to Embiid. But, as Embiid himself pointed out on draft night, Ayton doesn’t come close to impacting the game on both ends of the floor.

Embiid is an All-NBA caliber defender; Ayton is a liability on defense in every aspect besides rebounding.

While guarding pick-n-rolls, he has a bad habit of floating between the ball handler and the screener, effectively covering neither player. He gave up several lob attempts against the Dallas Mavericks in the season opener by doing this. Opponents are going exploit this weakness in the pick-n-roll relentlessly. In one egregious play against the San Antonio Spurs on Oct. 31, Ayton let DeMar DeRozan take a casual stroll to the rim.

Ayton’s one-on-one defense has also been a disappointment in terms of effort. LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol and Pau Gasol have each blown by him off the dribble. Pau is a surefire Hall of Famer, but at 38 years old he shouldn’t beat Ayton to the rim.

Part of Ayton’s defensive struggles stem from being too eager to chase blocks. Against the Grizzlies, Marshon Brooks got the ball in the paint with Ayton in front of him. All Ayton had to do was stand with his arms up and Brooks would have had to kick the ball out. Instead, Ayton bit on a pump fake and Brooks got a wide-open reverse layup. Ayton consistently bites on pump fakes whether in the paint or at the 3-point line.

The Raptors were merciless in attacking Ayton on Nov. 2, throwing the ball between his legs four times in a single game.

Ayton’s defensive struggles are so frustrating to watch because he clearly has the physical ability to do so much more. Too often his effort is nonexistent. It’s really a question of whether he has the desire to be a competent defender at the very least. To a certain degree, defense boils down to pride. Will Ayton accept being a punchline on defense or will he commit himself to improvement?

The Suns aren’t doing Ayton any favors with their point-guard situation. Despite doing a good job of sealing off his man in the paint, Ayton doesn’t get many post-ups because there aren’t enough playmakers around him. Booker oftentimes acts as the team’s primary ball-handler, but he looks to shoot first, second and third. To maximize Ayton’s development, the Suns need to acquire a point guard to get him post touches and more pick-n-roll opportunities.

The Suns have their work cut out for them with Ayton on the defensive end. In Tyson Chandler, they had a former Defensive Player of the Year who would appear to be a perfect mentor for him. Instead of keeping him around until the All-Star break and letting Ayton soak up his knowledge, Phoenix curiously bought out Chandler, who joined the Los Angeles Lakers.

Assistant coach Corliss Williamson earned the nickname “Big Nasty” during his playing days, which included winning a ring as a reserve with the 2004 Pistons. Williamson might be just the person to bring out more tenacity and physicality from Ayton on the defensive end.

The Suns opened the season 2-8 and their top priority should be Ayton’s development on the defensive end. He’s already on pace to become an elite offensive player, but to reach his full potential and become a perennial All-Star he’ll need to become an adequate defender, too.

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