What Deandre Ayton’s improvement means for the Suns’ title hopes

Deandre Ayton has adapted his game as the Suns have improved. Will it be enough for Phoenix to win an NBA title?

No NBA team has improved more drastically from last season to this one than the Phoenix Suns, who after missing out on the playoffs for a decade — and at times serving as comic relief for the rest of the league — now threaten the Utah Jazz for the best record in basketball. Rather than slow-rolling another season with Devin Booker’s free-agency clock ticking, Phoenix built upon a surprising — if ultimately fruitless — run in the Orlando Bubble last summer and took the leap it had been eyeing for years. Acquiring tough-minded veterans like Chris Paul and Jae Crowder has given shape and direction to a promising, if slightly green, young core, while forward strides from Booker and Mikal Bridges have put the Suns on the edge of the NBA championship picture.

That rapid reshuffling paid immediate dividends for a team desperate to taste the postseason again, but where does it leave a fledgling center whose gradual course of development suddenly turned into a fast track to championship contention? Deandre Ayton, at age 22, has been asked to do the work of a veteran, and how he responds to that burden in the playoffs may well decide what all of that offseason change amounts to. A cursory look at Ayton’s surface-level numbers reveals a striking and fundamental change in his offensive role; a reduction in scoring, shot attempts and usage rate have accompanied a spike in efficiency, suggesting a player moving from a primary offensive role into a more complementary one.

That shift hasn’t curtailed his development, only rerouted his immediate trajectory. It has required not only the coaching staff to tweak how and where the big man is deployed, but a shift in focus from Ayton as well. Ayton isn’t a star; he’s something more practical. Gone are the days when the young center could consistently demand the ball in the post, take his time working against a defender, and look almost exclusively for his own shot. Instead of applying his strength and speed to one-on-one scoring, he’s using it to find the openings created by Paul and Booker, and give them easy targets as a finisher. Ayton is both taking and making shots within four feet of the rim at career-high rates while cutting his long mid-range attempts almost in half. His job now requires quicker decisions with the ball — making the extra pass on time, pivoting into the next action, going up strong off the catch — and a better sense of what to do without it.

He’s adapted well, though many of his decisions still seem tinged with uncertainty. It’s as though Ayton understands what he needs to do, but hasn’t had time to fully rewire his instincts. This is most clearly noticeable when Dario Šarić takes his place in the lineup. Šarić clearly isn’t the same athlete or physical force Ayton is, but his superior shooting, passing and help defense connects the Suns on both ends of the court. Phoenix is outscoring opponents by an overwhelming 10.5 points per 100 possessions with Šarić on the floor, compared to a merely robust seven-point margin with Ayton at center. That’s a nice insurance policy to have behind an unproven starter, but Ayton still offers the Suns certain advantages Šarić cannot, and some of those ingredients will become essential in the playoffs. He’s practically the only Sun with any significant gravity above the rim — a key counterweight against defenses eager to load up on Paul and Booker or stay home on shooters. Ayton is an adept screener, capable of hammering guards with his wide frame or helping the methodical Paul play cat-and-mouse:

Ayton has also been the most efficient roll man in the NBA this season (among players to finish at least 100 possessions in that role), and while he undoubtedly benefits from playing with two All-Star playmakers, he’s also improved his feel for how to play off of those threats. Ayton may no longer be a focal point, but he knows how to make himself a viable option on any given possession. He has soft touch around the rim and is learning how to slip into vulnerable spots spots of defenses when they get preoccupied with other threats:

He also carves out easy points on the offensive glass and, as much as the offense has shifted into Paul and Booker’s hands, can still efficiently attack mismatches in the post when necessary. It’s on the other end of the court, however, where Ayton will truly be thrown into the fire in the playoffs. Phoenix has relatively few center options — none of which are ideal — and their defensive flexibility will rest more upon Ayton’s ability to execute different schemes than varying their personnel.

Ayton isn’t a preternatural defender; it’s clear that the reads, rotations, and decisions he’s asked to make don’t always come naturally. Yet he’s within a few steps — often literally — of the level Phoenix needs him to reach. His superior size and athleticism make Ayton a more fearsome rim protector than Šarić, even if he doesn’t always use his physical tools to their fullest extent. He often allows shooters into his space without much resistance and occasionally gets caught in no man’s land in pick-and-roll coverage, taking himself out of position without applying any real pressure to the ball. But Ayton can also be an effective roadblock, using his chest and his reach to stymie runs to the basket from even the league’s best finishers:

When he has time to track the action and position himself correctly, the 6-foot-11, 250-pound center can wreck layup attempts:

Opponents have shot under 52 percent this season within six feet of the basket with Ayton nearby, and Suns opponents shoot 2.5 percentage points worse at the rim with him on the floor than with him off. It’s when he ventures beyond the 3-point line that Ayton’s defense becomes worrisome. His mobility will be called into question in the playoffs when opponents will attack him on switches and test his foot speed in the pick-and-roll, and while he’s a capable switch defender, Ayton remains inconsistent in that crucial defensive area. He’s also hesitant getting out on shooters and unsteady containing quick guards in the pick-and-roll. The Suns usually keep Ayton near the paint by dropping him back against the pick-and-roll, but the wrong matchup can pose serious problems, as Thursday’s bout with Kemba Walker and the Celtics demonstrated:

This sort of inconsistency is typical of a center treading a terrain that has shifted under his feet, but the Suns will need a more consistent sense of urgency from Ayton as he continues to trim some mental lapses from his game. Ayton, clearly, can be a key pillar of a strong regular-season defense, but Phoenix’s sightline has risen, and thus his margin for error has shrunk. And while he may not be their best option in all scenarios, the best version of the Suns involves Ayton, gradually, realizing the best version of himself.

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