LAS VEGAS — Top overall pick Deandre Ayton made his debut for the Phoenix Suns on Friday at NBA Summer League in front of a packed Thomas & Mack Center crowd eager to see whether the No. 1 pick would dominate and prove his star power.
Instead, what they saw was a solid but not memorable performance from Ayton, as he had 10 points and eight rebounds while making four of his six field goal attempts. His alley-oop finish early in the game earned an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd, but he was relatively quiet for the rest of the game, going about his business and not making the impact some had hoped.
It was far from a bad outing, but he didn’t pop like some other players did on the first day in the desert. Whenever that happens with the top pick, there are grumblings about whether he’ll live up to the hype in the NBA, especially with non-shooting big men in Summer League. Ayton, like so many bigs in Summer League, finds himself at the mercy of his team’s perimeter players to get him the ball on offense.
Josh Jackson had 16 shots on Friday night, clearly taking on the “primary scorer” role for the Summer Suns. This often happens with second-year players in Summer League, as teams look to get a guy who will have a bigger role during the season more reps on that end of the floor. Beyond Jackson, Elie Okobo, Shaquille Harrison, and Davon Reed all had more attempts than Ayton, as the Summer League game almost always lends itself to being more guard-oriented in general.
Ayton won’t be the primary option, and guards in Summer League tend to look to get theirs rather than feed a big man down low. So Ayton is left to ply his trade, by trying to be a more active screener and roller while hunting for rebounds and taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.
The problem for Ayton is that the offensive end is where he shines, while the defensive end is a serious work in progress. The good news for Suns fans is you can see Ayton trying on defense, which means he’s committed to working on his biggest weakness as a prospect. The bad news is you can really see Ayton trying on defense and thinking through everything he’s doing on that end of the floor, which often leaves him a half-step behind.
Ayton has a ways to go on defense in becoming a more fluid, natural defender — and he may never be especially good on that end of the floor — but the optimistic view is that he appears to want to be better on that end, which isn’t always the case with offensively gifted centers. However, for those looking for Ayton to dominate in Summer League, they’ll likely leave a bit disappointed, both because Ayton himself won’t have a significant defensive impact due to limitations and he won’t be able to show out on offense without the Suns imploring their perimeter players to feed him the ball as their primary option.
That’s not to say it can’t happen, and he won’t have better games than his debut, but based off how Phoenix played in the opener, it would be a pretty dramatic shift for them to suddenly put their focus on giving Ayton the ball. Instead, fans should look for Ayton to continue growing more comfortable with the physicality of the NBA game — something he noted after his debut — him to show flashes of dominance when offered the opportunity, and for glimpses of improvement on the defensive end.