Deandre Ayton’s star turn has been impressive—but it’s also forcing us to reconsider his ceiling.
Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
About a week before Christmas in 2019, Deandre Ayton was late to a game at Staples Center against the Clippers. It was his first in nearly two months, thanks to a 25-game suspension handed down by the NBA after Ayton violated its drug policy by testing positive for a banned diuretic. In the aftermath, Suns general manager James Jones issued the type of self-condemning statement that teams rarely make toward one of their own building blocks, writing: “This does not uphold the standards and principles we have set for the team.”
Ayton was apologetic and sincere addressing his punishment and return on that December night. At the same time, he brushed off his tardiness as incidental, later blaming it on “L.A. traffic.” The Suns struggled during their No. 1 pick’s absence, but Aron Baynes, their 32-year-old backup center, played well enough (when he was healthy) to create something of an awkward dynamic upon Ayton’s return, given his presumed importance in the short- and long-term as a starter.
Ayton sprained his ankle against the Clippers. Then, when he made his second comeback six games later, he came off the bench in five of the next eight. The three he started were at power forward, next to Baynes. Ayton was out of shape, rushing shots, inconsistently diving hard to the rim. Through it all, Monty Williams—who coached Anthony Davis during his first three seasons—wasn’t fazed. “We’re going to develop him and bring him along the right way,” Williams said at the time.
Fast forward to last week, minutes after the Valley-Oop instantly cemented itself as an iconic moment in franchise history. Ayton was bouncing through questions during a celebratory postgame press conference when a reporter asked how he’s come to realize the difference between showing up to collect a paycheck and showing up to earn it. “There was times where I wouldn’t even come in on days off,” he said, before praising the effect his head coach has had.
But some bumps still carried into this year. “To see his growth, man, I get goose bumps, seriously,” Chris Paul recently said. “We done had some heated conversations this season, especially earlier in the season, but man, I genuinely love him.”
There have been nights during this postseason when all of that struggle, the growing pains and hard lessons feel like they were endured in a previous lifetime. The player Phoenix hoped and prayed it was getting when it chose Ayton ahead of Luka Dončić and Trae Young has arrived ahead of schedule, granted in a much different form than anyone anticipated.
Far from the capricious X-factor so many expected to see heading into the playoffs, Ayton has instead enjoyed the most consistent and significant breakout run of any young player. Young has no doubt starred, but he also started last year’s All-Star game and has long been guaranteed to receive a max contract extension as soon as he became eligible. Ayton was more of a mystery box. So far, he’s been the absolute best version of exactly what Phoenix needs.
When recently asked about the seemingly overnight transformation from a solid but unreliable two-way anchor who might not hold up against the rigors big men must deal with in playoff games that are largely decided on the perimeter, Ayton recently said “Honestly, the world having me as a question mark in the playoffs, that got to me a little bit. And I’m going to change that.”
Change it he has, in interesting ways. Ayton is making 70% of his 10.7 field goal attempts per game, and 79% at the rim, where 7.1 of those tries come from. Heading into this postseason (reminder: it’s Ayton’s first!), the highest field goal percentage any player has ever had taking at least 150 shots was James Worthy’s 62.2% in 1985. The gap between Ayton’s field goal percentage and Worthy’s is the same as Worthy and 77th-ranked Kiki Vandeweghe, who shot 54.4% in 1983.
As a roll man, we haven’t really seen anything that rivals Ayton’s volume or efficiency, a fact supported by data and the millions of eyes that are watching him regularly sky over the box to catch lobs that’d otherwise reach the third row, or muscle his way through traffic and still finish over a rotating backline defender.
According to Synergy Sports, 30.2% of Ayton’s possessions in this postseason are finished as a roll man, which is up 11% from the regular season. The increase makes sense when you consider that in Synergy’s entire database—which goes back to the 2005 playoffs—the only player (on a minimum of 50 possessions) who has ever been more efficient after setting a screen is 30-year-old Al Horford. All the buckets Ayton has scored in these situations don’t even account for the wide open threes he produces by rolling his massive frame toward the basket. (Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges say thank you.)
All the fat has been burned out of Ayton’s attack. By focusing on less glamorous sides of the game (putbacks, rim runs, contested rebounds, sturdy pick-and-roll defense, screens, etc.) he has excelled without stretching himself in ways that might blunt his impact.
Out of every Suns player who’s logged at least 100 playoff minutes, he ranks sixth in usage rate, behind Dario Šarić and Torrey Craig. This less-is-more coming out party creates a few separate ways to view Ayton’s run. One is that he couldn’t be in a more ideal spot, surrounded by elite three-point shooters, ball movers, a point god and another top-tier scorer who attracts a massive amount of attention. Almost 90% of all Ayton’s shots have come in the paint, 83% have been assisted (up from 72% during the regular season) and despite averaging five more minutes in the playoffs, his post-ups have been cut nearly in half.
All this has served him and the Suns well. As has a quality of competition that hasn’t been, shall we say, intact. If you’re an Ayton skeptic, you’ll quickly point to the fact that he has not been forced to match up against a healthy Anthony Davis, the lethal Jamal Murray–Nikola Jokić pick-and-roll or small-ball lineups that have Kawhi Leonard in them. This is obviously unfair to Ayton, who has no say over his opponent’s health. All he did in the second round was neutralize Jokić one-on-one better than any big man has, while dominating his space against three teams that haven’t been able to exploit his shortcomings.
It hasn’t all been smooth, though. In Game 5 of the conference finals, with Ivica Zubac out of the lineup, some of the issues tied to what Ayton can’t or won’t do could not be ignored. The Clippers defended him with Nicolas Batum or Marcus Morris and stayed small, either switching pick-and-rolls that involved Paul or Devin Booker or forcing the Suns to attack a smoke-and-mirrors zone.
Ty Lue’s bet was that Ayton couldn’t pound his guards and wings in the post; every time the Clippers fronted him until he gave up and drifted out of the paint, it paid off. (On one early paint catch off a roll, Ayton tried to seal Terance Mann but was moved off his spot before a quick jump hook fell short. The Suns made little effort to feed him from that point on.)
That was only step one, though. L.A. further offset Ayton’s force by crashing the glass as a group whenever he seemingly held inside position on his man. Ayton only came up with three offensive rebounds (down from a whopping nine in Game 4).
On the defensive end, the Clippers treated Ayton (who finished -22) exactly how they did Rudy Gobert in Game 6 of the previous round, putting whoever he was guarding in the strongside corner and then driving that half towards the rim. The results would either be a decent look around the basket or, if Ayton helped—which he just about never did, unlike Gobert—an open-corner three.
Afterward, Lue was asked why he went with Batum over Mann (who killed Gobert from the corner in that Game 6). “I just wanted to try to get Ayton out of the paint a little bit more. I wanted to see who he was going to guard, with Marcus and Nico in there at the four and the five. So it worked out in our advantage. I just think being able to spread him out.… It was great for us because now we were able to move him around a little bit more and we were able to get open shots.”
Outside that uncomfortable stretch, Ayton’s defense has been stellar, enough for his coach to make some borderline outlandish comparisons earlier in the series. “DA has defensive gifts that not many bigs have. The guy that he reminded me of is like two guys, LaMarcus [Aldridge] and [Kevin] Garnett in pick-and-roll coverages, the way that they talk and their athleticism to switch and cover for the guy on the ball.”
You can’t teach size. You can’t teach strength. You can’t teach the coordination, skill and touch Ayton has as a 22-year-old. And that brings us to yet another way to process Ayton’s first playoffs: with a splash of optimism! Looking back on the 2021 playoffs in five years, the most telling part of his revelatory run might just in fact be everything he isn’t doing.
This is not a call for Ayton to step outside his lane anytime soon, but using this postseason as a baseline, one that should infuse him with plenty of confidence going forward, it’s hard not to rethink Ayton’s ceiling.
Consider, as an example, his outside shot. Again, this isn’t a call for Ayton to extricate himself from the paint. But there should be a day when leaving him open at 18 feet isn’t survivable. A threat that can open lanes for everybody else. All the better if/when he develops a reliable three-point shot.
Ayton’s rolls have been devastating, but there will soon be a day when Paul isn’t around to unlock them. When defenses sink in to take away those point-blank opportunities, Ayton can pop out to the midrange for open looks that he’s already comfortable taking and making.
The next element worth a look is his post game, which has disappeared—with good reason—in these playoffs. Ayton’s post-ups are down from 27.5% of his used possessions during the regular season to 11.6% right now, where he’s scoring a paltry 0.54 points per possession.
Back-to-the-basket bully ball doesn’t need to be the primary way Ayton attacks similarly sized centers. But if he can develop a more patient game on the block, one that gift wraps his freakish agility and raw power into a package that can draw double teams, instead of settling for the quick face-up jumpers he’s fallen in love with, Ayton can be even more of a matchup nightmare than he already is. He can initiate offense more often than he finishes it while punishing teams that go small against him—as the Clippers did on Monday.
There won’t be as much urgency for Ayton to develop if the Suns win the title. But if they come up short, Paul’s pending exit shines light on Ayton’s inevitable need to be more self-sufficient. (“I think he was the best thing that happened to my career,” Ayton recently said about his point guard.)
None of this is aimed to delegitimize an incredible playoff debut from an absurdly talented prospect who’s been willing to sacrifice for the good of his team. Ayton was humbled early in his career. And while he likely wouldn’t choose that road again, the adversity served a purpose: Instead of producing like a typical first pick might, he’s embraced and shined in a much simpler role, free of pressure and complexity.
What that says about who he can be going forward is very much up in the air. If you’re bullish, Ayton is just scratching the surface of a skill set that will eventually make him an unstoppable weapon. If not, all his weaknesses will be particularly damaging in the future, when Phoenix’s roster is less ideal than the magical one they’ve constructed in his third season.
More NBA Playoffs Coverage: