Vol. 1, Iss. 9: Waking Up The Sleeping Giant

Phoenix taking another leap next season might rest squarely on Ayton's shoulders. But how can the Suns take all his other physical attributes & create the player they need him to be?

A Quick Shout Out:

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Now, let’s wake up the sleeping giant…..

If you decided to go into the lab to concoct the ideal modern day NBA big man, your freak of nature creation would likely look a lot like Deandre Ayton.

Standing at 6’11, he can anchor a defense communicating on the back line while towering over most opponents on offense too. Weighing in at 250lbs, he’s built to guard NBA brutes while being able overpower most who try to defend him. A wingspan of 7’5 should allow him to protect the rim and disrupt all over the court at the same time. Smaller than average hands for his size at 9.5’’, gives him elite level touch with ball in (and to) hand. Powerful legs result in an impressive 900lbs leg press and reported 43.5” vertical leap, which allows him to play above the rim on both ends. Quick nimble size 18 feet afford him the luxury of sliding across all five positions defensively and gliding gracefully up & down the court in transition.

Physically, he’s got it all right? I say right.

Where I think the scientists went wrong, is they made him human. If they could have inserted a chip that removed any chance of ego, confidence or hunting shots getting in the way, then Ayton could be a real force in the NBA. If they also gave him unlimited endurance, you could combine all his physical tools with a never-ending motor and focus for 40+ minutes a night. He’d be unstoppable.

But…..he is human.

Thankfully though, a fairly down to earth and seemingly very coachable fun loving giant human. So the challenge for season three, is how can the Phoenix Suns mould the physical specimen who grew up on their doorstep into exactly the type of player they need him to be. Not necessarily the player he wants to be or the one many fans thought the Suns might be getting with the #1 overall pick in 2018.

Instead, the question is - can the Suns wake up the sleeping giant that is Deandre Ayton & make him the best version of himself that fits NBA basketball in 2021?

I want to spend this Issue of the Newsletter looking at the flashes Ayton has shown through 109 NBA career games. My hope is to illustrate how focusing on just these aspects of his game, could bring about greater consistency from the big fella and a role that best helps the team who invested so much in him two years ago.

Note: if you are currently reading this in your email, the content from here on is likely better digested on the site - here.

In His Sleep

Let’s start with what Ayton has brought to the table from literally day dot. In his very simplest form, Ayton can take advantage of his size on both ends in three very easy ways. He possesses elite gravity as a roll man, provides unique vertical spacing as a lob threat and can hold his own in the post as a one on one defender.

Physical Attribute: Size // End: Offense // Situation: Gravity On Roll

Ayton’s gravity on the roll, was existent right away. This clip is literally from his first ever NBA game. Ayton ranked in the 77th percentile on rolls to the basket this season, which means he has to be respected off the screen. Expect the Booker/Ayton Pick & Roll surrounded by three shooters, to be a Suns staple for many years to come.

Something To Easily Cut Out?

Setting bruising screens and diving down the lane dozens of times a game, can be quite a thankless task. I can empathise with Ayton that it may get a little tiresome. As the league starts to respect the shooters in purple and orange jerseys more, Ayton will get his payback. But for now the fact is, that’s got to be his role for the team.

Something to keep in mind; Ayton under 2 TOs this season = Suns 12-3. Ayton 2+ TOs this season = Suns 8-15.

Physical Attribute: Vertical Leap // End: Offense // Situation: Lob Threat

One way Ayton can get his reward, is as a lob threat. First game of his second season this time. When the floor is spaced well and defenders stay home on the shooters, Booker tends to generate a lot of attention. Ayton is the perfect partner because he can be a cheat code of sorts, as a release valve. With a fairly large catch radius, you just have to throw it away from everyone else if you are Booker.

We may lament Ayton not dunking more, but he finished at 80% efficiency on alley-oops this past season.

Physical Attribute: Strength // End: Defense // Situation: In The Post

DA’s post defense has been rock solid through two seasons. While other aspects of his defense have taken a bit more time to come along, he was reliable one on one down low from early in his rookie season. He has the necessary strength and basic fundamentals to guard just about anyone in the league in a situation like this one.

He’s Heating Up

Next up, three things Ayton has worked into his overall arsenal but that we still don’t see with full time precision or consistency. On offense, that’s his ability to punish smaller defenders in the paint or crash the glass for cheap extra points for his team. On defense, he’s shown an increased ability to stifle any action coming directly at him in the paint.

Physical Attribute: Height & Touch // End: Offense // Situation: On The Switch

If you’ve been watching the NBA Playoffs, you will of seen teams switching a lot on defense and others looking to attack mismatches on offense. This Utah game was Ayton’s most efficient game of the season, going 8/9 from the field in the W. Ayton is in the 70th percentile around the rim on non post ups, and therefore provides a legitimate option for the Suns to punish teams for switching on defense.

Something To Easily Cut Out?

For all the reasons the previous clip was a positive, this one is a negative. I’m not a believer in trying to post Ayton up, even on mismatches to be honest. He is only 21st percentile on post-ups, which is not the end of the spectrum you want to be on to dedicate a portion of your offense to an archaic play-style. But when he finds himself in a situation like this one, he has to take his time to get an easy bucket.

Physical Attribute: Strength & Touch // End: Offense // Situation: Offensive Glass

Ayton had a career high 10 offensive rebounds in this win over the Bulls. Before I gush about his prowess on the glass, just a few words of caution. Interestingly, Ayton’s six next best o-board games in 19/20 were all in losses. He’s also only 48th percentile in points created off those second chance putbacks. I think Ayton can lead the league in rebounds on this end, as soon as next season. But it can’t come at the expense of worse defense.

Physical Attribute: Wingspan & Touch // End: Defense // Situation: Pick & Roll

Another season high (4 blocks) in another win. A trend? Here’s where that wingspan and touch really comes in handy for Ayton. Taking those physical gifts, Ayton has been able to get a lot more comfortable consistently defending action that is funneled in his direction. Notice the left hand block and retaining possession? Through his career so far, Ayton blocks with his left hand around 60% of the time and the Suns retain possession at approximately a 70% rate.

A little bonus stat - Ayton finished in the top 91% when finishing a Pick & Roll from the right side of the floor.

Raise The Alarm

Now onto a few things where Deandre has shown little glimmers of hope, and that will undoubtedly make the Suns harder to play without drastically overhauling what they already do. If Ayton can attack out of a DHO, shoot the open three and switch onto smaller players on defense just when those opportunities present themselves - it might be let off the warning signals!

Physical Attribute: Quick Feet // End: Offense // Situation: Fake Hand Off

I don’t believe the Suns 5-man has to evolve into a play-making big to have a real impact in the NBA. That’s kind of what I am getting at here. To be blunt, I don’t think he’d be very good at it and I think it would be a mistake. What I would like to see is plays like this one. A pretty rare sight for Ayton so far with the Suns and not something I am expecting to become a regular occurrence. But when you play with a guy like Booker and the attention he brings, you have to be capable of making this read and reacting.

Physical Attribute: Touch // End: Offense // Situation: Three Point Opportunity

If you are a regular reader, you know how I feel about Ayton’s shot distribution already. If you’re not - you can catch up with Issue Three. Deandre hit his first career threes in the NBA Bubble (of course, all wins) and quite frankly, I want to see more of it. Just look at the space down the middle once Bryant closes out late and then compare it to the example below.

Something To Easily Cut Out?

STOP. THE. MIDDY. Again, Issue Three. I’ve said enough on this already. The fact that Ayton’s man is camped out in the paint here and Ayton is behind the line when the pass is made, means the shot is just inexcusable. The sooner Ayton starts letting that rip from deep, the sooner that defender starts to worry. Then all of a sudden Booker is slashing through a clear paint instead.

Physical Attribute: Quick Feet & Wingspan // End: Defense // Situation: Switched On Small

The last glimmer of hope from his first two seasons that I’d like to see more consistently, is Ayton switching onto guards and wings. To be fair to the big fella, he’s been fairly good in those situations when they present themselves. They just don’t come up that frequently given the Suns defensive schemes. Again, if you are watching the playoffs then you will be seeing the need for C’s to switch when required. That’s when the true test will come for Ayton and the Suns, but I’d love a lot more reps before finding out on the big stage.

Full Woke Status

Finally, the additions Ayton could bring to his game next season that would create genuine excitement for what the Suns are capable of. If all of the above is present AND the Suns get a more athletic, aggressive & alert Ayton then the general NBA landscape will be paying A LOT more attention to our Phoenix Suns.

Physical Attribute: Speed & Cardio // End: Both // Situation: Transition

What play-type was Ayton in a league of his own this past season? Transition offense. Ayton sat with the top 5% in the NBA when it came to getting out in the open court, so you have to wonder why he wouldn’t put himself in a position to take even more advantage of it. He can beat any big up the court when he wants to and increasing his aerobic capacity would allow him to do all of this for longer periods of time.

Physical Attribute: Speed, Strength & Touch // End: Offense // Situation: Creating FTs

Ayton had a season high 11 FTAs in the January win over Boston, which was a welcome sight considering he averaged a measly 2.3 for the season. Again, how to get Ayton to the line more is something I’ve covered previously in Issue Two. It’s on the Suns coaches, as much as it’s on Ayton himself. But some signs of aggressiveness from Deandre would be nice, when the opportunity arises. Ayton showing a willingness to attack when all eyes are on Booker, is one way to take advantage of his 75 FT%.

Physical Attribute: Vision & Wingspan // End: Defense // Situation: Help

The key missing piece to the Deandre Ayton defense puzzle is an increased awareness of where his help is needed in rotation settings. This OT play from his rookie season is spectacular, albeit scarce amongst his full NBA resume to date. If Ayton can make these reads on a more regular basis next season, the Suns could take a significant leap on the back of a huge rise up the defensive rankings.

Something To Easily Cut Out?

One reason why Ayton’s defensive rotations are still somewhat lacking, is perfectly on show in this clip. In his second season, he was in the right position on a much more regular basis than as a rookie. However, there is still a tendency to default to selfish defense in the form of worrying solely about his own man scoring. When Ayton sheds this small shortcoming and realises everyone’s man is his responsibility as the anchor, the Suns have a chance to be truly elite on that end.

Some Final Thoughts If You Aren’t Asleep Yet…..

If you are still with me, I want you to ask yourself this one question - if you can guarantee Deandre Ayton focuses on improving one thing this off season, what is it?

For me, it's still conditioning. As it unlocks more of what he already does.

When Deandre Ayton’s third NBA season comes to a close, he will have played a maximum of 191 games (and hopefully a taste of Playoffs) out of a usual 246. Some nagging injuries, THAT suspension and Covid-19 means the Suns will get roughly 50 less games than normal before likely inking the #1 pick’s rookie extension.

It’s hard to see a scenario where that next contract isn’t a max, to be honest. So with that in mind, can the Suns convince Deandre that he’ll get his big day by just being the best version of his current self? And that focusing more on what he’s shown he’s capable of already is a better idea than adding more of what he believes he can do?

My number one priority for him this off-season would be to hit the treadmill and come back in the best shape he possibly can. The idea, at least in my mind, would be for him to take the flashes he’s given glimpses of so far and bring it every night. Just do it better and on a more consistent basis than anyone else in the NBA.

Now I know Rudy Gobert With A Modern Twist is not exactly the inspiring path most would like to take with the Suns franchise Center. And I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. But I do believe it is how Ayton has the most impact in this league as a winning player, and that’s important for the Suns playoff hopes going into next season.

He may never win the battle of justifying the position he was drafted or in front of whom. But that doesn’t mean you waste years trying to make him someone he is not. The physical gifts are real. He may not read the game as well as others. Or have a feel that the MVP candidates tend to possess. Or even play a position that the NBA is trending towards. But instead of waiting for the unlikely or impossible outcome of reversing any of those traits, why not lean into what Ayton really is? A sleeping giant.

One who has all the tools to be a dominant two way big (that leans defense) for the Phoenix Suns and help them win that way. All you have to do is make the man himself realize that to make up for his deficiencies - he needs out-run, out-work and out-jump everyone he comes up against. That’s a foreign concept for a guy who has been bigger and stronger than his peers for most of his basketball life. As is the need to sacrifice some of the things he thinks he’s good at, for the greater cause. He may no longer be the star on his team but he can be just as impactful. All he has to do is buy in.


Overtime?

Shout out to who is essentially now the resident The Four Point Play Newsletter graphic contributor (@ridiculouscage on Twitter) for his help with the Ayton image.

Got any questions you’d like answered? Feedback to give? Suggestions for topics you’d like covered over the off-season? Random other assortments that you’d like to share? Drop them all below in the comments and I’ll get back to you.

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