When the Phoenix Suns drafted Deandre Ayton with the first overall selection in 2018 — a draft class that looks to be one of the best in recent memory — he entered an organization without much of anything defined. There was Devin Booker, who was steadily establishing himself as one of the league’s best young scorers but had questions to that point about his impact beyond putting points on the board. Beyond him, there wasn’t much more to say about Phoenix when Ayton (and Mikal Bridges) arrived.
The Suns’ track record of draft picks prior to 2018 was, well, rather awful thanks to a combination of bad picks and bad development, compounded by constant coaching turnover. It was not the ideal situation for a player that had immense talent but was in need of structure. Ayton had a strong rookie year, averaging 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, but was overshadowed by the performances of Luka Doncic and Trae Young picked behind him. His offensive ability was never in question, but despite having the physical tools, his defense left plenty to be desired and on a team with little in the way of continuity — Ayton’s 71 games played was the third most on the team behind Bridges and Jackson — his flaws were compounded and more noticeable.
His sophomore season got off to an even worse start as he got popped for a 25-game suspension for testing positive for an illegal substance, putting he and the Suns behind the 8-ball in Monty Williams’ first season. That time to sit proved to be an opportunity for Ayton, however, as he could watch and learn as Williams tried to build a culture of accountability from the ground up. When he made his return to the floor, he showed the physical dominance inside that made the Suns take him first overall, averaging 18.2 points and 11.5 rebounds per game as the second option to Booker, along with 1.5 blocks (up from 0.9 as a rookie) as he steadily began finding his comfort in a structured defense.
This season, Ayton found himself as the clear third option for the Suns, with Chris Paul joining the backcourt alongside Booker to form one of the league’s best units. As such, his regular season averages dipped to 14.4 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, but his efficiency took a massive leap as he embraced his newfound role, posting a 65.3 true shooting percentage, by far the best of his young career. That is thanks in large part to taking more than half (53 percent) of his attempts in the restricted area this season, feasting on lobs and pocket passes as a roll man as well as becoming one of the league’s best putback men, cleaning up on the offensive glass as defenses were forced to bend toward his star guards.
Ayton is an excellent screener with his massive frame, and his partnership in the pick-and-roll game with Paul and Booker, both of whom are incredibly patient as the ball-handler to draw the defense out and assess the situation, has grown to be as good as there is in the NBA. Ayton is a master of the delayed or wide roll, sticking with his screen to create maximum space, letting Paul snake the screen coming back across the court, and then Ayton swings wide to dart in behind the defense once the big has committed to stepping up to Paul and the guard is in chase to get back to his man.
On defense, the Suns center is leaps and bounds from where he was as a rookie, finally showing the fluidity in movement that he’s always had offensively on the defensive end, thanks mostly to being comfortable in his role and understanding his coverages and what he’s supposed to do.
When Ayton was coming out of college, one of the things that was so frustrating about his defense was that he looked to be constantly having to think through his actions, which slowed him down compared to the instinctual play he displayed on offense, where his confidence in his footwork was so evident. Now, just look at the way he mirrors Giannis Antetokounmpo, stoning him on a drive and on his counter to force a kickout.
Tremendous defense from Ayton on Giannis. pic.twitter.com/sXbmTKuBsD
— Bally Sports Arizona (@BALLYSPORTSAZ) April 20, 2021
Those skills developed over the past three seasons have been put to the test during the Suns’ postseason run, and through 11 games, Ayton has passed with flying colors. Ayton has faced formidable foes in the Lakers and Nuggets, who both boast tremendous frontcourt talent, and the Suns big man was particularly impressive in holding up against league MVP Nikola Jokic in the sweep of Denver.
Ayton’s patience on both ends of the floor is notable. On offense, he understands the timing needed in the pick-and-roll to allow Paul to draw two defenders before lobbing it up, once again showing off the lethal nature of his wide roll, letting Paul slither toward the baseline before tossing it up to the hard-charging Ayton, with no chance for a recovery from the weakside or Jokic sinking back.
The recognition of when to play it slow and when to go quick is one of his most impressive traits. See here against the Lakers, as Gasol jumps immediately over to Paul and Ayton sees that LeBron tried to fight over the screen. Putting him on his back hip, he darts straight to the rim for the wide open lob.
When teams adjust to that by hedging high on Paul to try and trap him before he gets downhill to put them in conflict, Ayton is quick to roll into space at the top of the key, with the hands and athleticism to catch the ball 15 feet from the hoop and take it to the rim against late closing help.
He is a near perfect foil on offense for his star backcourt, taking full advantage of his time in Chris Paul’s Pick-and-Roll Camp to put defenses in constant conflict. Because Ayton isn’t just a lob threat but is capable of catching the ball high up the floor and driving to the rim off the bounce — with a terrific in between game outside the restricted area where he shoots 51.7 percent from 3 to 10 feet from the rim, per Basketball-Reference — he creates space for Paul and Booker with his roll gravity, allowing them to get to their preferred spots on the right and left elbow, respectively, where they are lethal as pull-up shooters.
Defensively, he held up against Jokic as well as anyone has all season, showing his strength in the post to keep Jokic from getting deep position for easy buckets and forcing him to live outside the restricted area. In the Western Conference Finals, Ayton is facing a vastly different test against a Clippers team that has found its stride this postseason by going small. In Game 1, it took some time for Ayton to get involved offensively, a product of Paul’s absence in COVID-19 protocols as he didn’t have a pick-and-roll partner capable of feeding him against shorter defenders.
It was also a testament to Ayton’s willingness to continue playing within the Suns system, as he wasn’t demanding post-ups against small lineups and, eventually, the Suns started to crack the code of L.A.’s defense. The Clippers threw various looks at Ayton, from small ball to Ivica Zubac to DeMarcus Cousins, and the Suns offense was able to adapt to each over time, with Ayton seeking out the pockets of space to attack the rim, finishing with 20 points and nine rebounds on 10-of-14 shooting, feasting at the rim over and over again.
1-0 PHX lead… Game 2: Tuesday at 9:00pm/et on ESPN pic.twitter.com/CTndq65JT6
— NBA (@NBA) June 21, 2021
His versatility is often overlooked because so many of his finishes look the same, throwing down a thunderous dunk over the helpless opposition, but Ayton is willing to venture all over the court to create space for others and find space for himself to operate. Sometimes that’s at the free throw line to break a zone, other times it’s lurking in the dunkers spot daring his defender to step up in help, and most often it’s barreling down the lane opposite or trailing the ball-handler, ever ready for a pass high or low.
On defense, he’s just become solid, even if not always spectacular, which is all the Suns really need. They deploy some terrific wing and perimeter defenders, and Ayton has become a steady pick-and-roll defender, moving his feet much better to cut off drives and using his length to quickly sink back to try and break up lobs. Against the Clippers’ small-ball, he uses his length to his advantage, knowing he can give a solid contest without needing to step too high and give up drives to the rim. He’s not an elite, super-switchable defender, but he’s capable in space and also good at avoiding disaster in the form of fouls.
Ayton has yet to commit more than four fouls in a game this postseason, an impressive feat given the competition he’s faced, as he’s become a master of verticality and has accepted the hard truth for bouncy, long defenders that you can’t block everything and oftentimes your best defense is simply being in the way. In the NBA, that often means guys score anyway, but he is as good as there is in the NBA at being tall and using his massive size as a deterrent and obstacle for opposing players to have to contort to score around.
For many teams, defining everyone’s roles — much less getting everyone to buy into those roles — is a major stumbling block. The Suns have done this as well as any lineup in the NBA, with seemingly every player understanding what they’re asked to do and being willing to do that, recognizing how it helps the team. There are a number of great examples of that, like Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Dario Saric, and Cam Payne, but Ayton as a recent No. 1 overall pick might be the most impressive of them all. He has the ability to dominate but is happy to do so in his defined space, which can be incredibly difficult for a young player to embrace. Having that structure can feel limiting, but it also can maximize your talents.
That’s the case with Ayton, who is flourishing in his role and the Suns are soaring because of it.