Vol.2, Iss.6: Is This The Ayton Awakening?
In the off-season, I outlined a checklist of sorts for Deandre Ayton to unlock his full potential. Did he just tick every box in his last 4 games and sprinkle a little extra aggression on top?
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The Sleeping Giant Might Be Back Too…..
Remember back in September when we spoke about Deandre Ayton and how he can reach the best possible version of himself?
No? Yeah, me neither. I don’t blame you.
September feels more like four years ago, not just four months. Maybe you just weren’t subscribing to the Newsletter yet back then. Either way, you can go back and read that Issue here. I’d highly recommend you do so, whether it’s as a refresher or first viewing. Not only will it provide further context for the conversation that is about to follow, but it’s also my favorite Issue to date.
What I tried to outline in that piece, was what I considered a roadmap for Ayton becoming the best version of himself on an NBA court. Certainly, his most impactful prototype.
As I recently watched Deandre average 22 points, 15 rebounds and 2 blocks on 64% shooting over his last four games, I couldn’t help but be impressed. I mean, how could you not? Despite the Suns going 1-3 over that stretch of games, Ayton was in career best form. He looked to have turned a serious corner. Something had clicked for him.
“It was some minor adjustments that we sat down and looked at together. And he was open to listening, and it shows … I think he’s finding that it comes a lot easier with what we talked about.” - Devin Booker on Ayton.
My first thought was - I wonder if the mini Covid break gave Ayton and the Suns an opportunity to break down what was going right and wrong for him so far this season? Phoenix had several games postponed and weren’t allowed to practice. So what better way to use the forced down time?
It was clear, the Suns were challenging Ayton. They had already been on him from the start of the season but this time it came with meaning. There was even a trade leak.
As far as Ayton was concerned - Challenge Accepted.
"The way's DA's responding is unbelievable...we knew he had it inside of him." - Chris Paul on Ayton.
Honestly, we all did. Why? Because he’d already shown us. Over his first two seasons, Ayton had shown all the flashes of what could make him great. He just wasn’t putting it together with any resemblance of consistency.
Then my next thought kicked in - I wonder how many of the keys to ‘Waking Up The Sleeping Giant’ Ayton displayed against Memphis, Houston and Denver? You know I just had to go re-read my old Newsletter Issue and check the tape. The answer? All of them.
Below we are going to explore how Ayton has recently put together arguably the best stretch of basketball in his young career. How he’s doing everything that makes his presence valuable, cutting out some of his easily fixable mistakes AND even adding a little extra spice on top.
Let’s get stuck into it, shall we?
Pro Tip: Head over to read/watch in your web browser instead of email. The GIFs tend to load better. Always open to feedback on how these are going for everyone too.
The ‘In His Sleep’ Package
These are the aspects of Ayton’s game that have been reliable since Game 1 as a Rookie. However, it’s nice to note that despite him picking up his performance in several other areas, Deandre has continued to do the little things. That and it’s also been nice to see the return of one skill in particular, after it went into hibernation so far this season.
1. Gravity On The Roll - Yeah, that ain’t ever going anywhere.
The Suns are currently Top 5 in the NBA for three point attempts per game. A large portion of the offense is predicated on Ayton setting screens and rolling hard right down the middle. While he still loves to slip screens too often (this was actually the improvement focus area of this section last time around), he has been doing a great job of using better angles on his screens with Chris Paul.
Basically every hard roll continues to draw at least two defenders and leave one Suns shooter open on the perimeter. Just ask Jae Crowder how nice it is.
2. Lob Threat - Tick. It took it’s time but it’s backkkkkk!
The vertical spacing Ayton provides should be invaluable to any team he is on. When that team has CP3, it should be incredible right? Right? Well prior to the last four games, Ayton was just 1 of 5 on Alley Oop attempts. In the last four games, he has gone 7 for 7.
Paul and Ayton have finally unlocked things, it seems. Clearly evident in the above set - which was the exact same play-call as #1 - but with a different defensive look. Paul had Jokic in all sorts.
3. Post Defense - One day Bigs will learn this isn’t how to attack Ayton.
Of all the things Ayton needed to improve on defensively, banging in the post was not one of them. However, it doesn’t seem other NBA teams have quite caught on just yet. No more evident than the fact that the above play was one of many that could have been chosen over the last four games.
This was my favorite though. I’ll just let Deandre explain why, in the clip above.
Bonus Aggression - One hand catch, cock it back and throw it down? Yes, please.
To end our initial section, I want to introduce the first of four Bonus Aggression clips in this Newsletter. Anyone watching Ayton in these recent games, will know his nastiness meter has been off the charts recently. In all honesty, it’s worth pointing out and drawing attention to. His team feeds of this energy.
We go back to another lob play. It’s actually a Spain Pick & Roll, but Air-Ayton touches down early in the Atlantic Ocean colored key before Cam Johnson can even pop out and make it all the way to Spain. The one handed hammer has Paul giving Ayton a look akin to Westbrook’s “Who Dis?”.
The ‘He’s Heating Up’ Highlights
Our next batch of three, consists of plays that Ayton hasn’t always been consistent with but that generally show he’s locked in on any given night. When Deandre is giving you the ‘usuals’ above plus this package, you are generally getting a productive night from him on both ends.
4. Switch On The Small ‘O’- Check. Punishing this much more now.
Ayton leads the league in ‘Paint Touches’ at 12 per game. That hasn’t exactly gone up drastically recently either, with just an extra 1.8 per game over the last four.
What does look to have altered though, is Ayton’s willingness to punish the small that switches onto him. And so he should, as he ranks 88th percentile around the basket on non post ups. His combination of size and touch is truly elite. It remains key for the Suns to continue to run action like the above to get the ball to Ayton in advantageous positions, rather than force feed him on plays the defense can telegraph for turnovers.
5. Offensive Rebounds - Put-backs are becoming a key signal that Deandre is ‘ON’.
At 3.3 per game, Ayton is currently 8th in the NBA when it comes to Offensive Rebounding proficiency. However it’s worth noting that the 4.5 he’s averaged over the last four games, would have him tied for the best in the league.
Add that to Ayton’s 87th percentile ranking in scoring off put-backs and you get a seriously dangerous asset for the Suns to exploit. This version of Ayton that is forcing his way to the front of the rim, taking the ball at its highest point and never bringing it back down - is a real concern for opponent defenses. My challenge to him is to be leading the NBA by season’s end in O-Boards.
6. Pick & Roll Defense - Just keeps getting better and better.
I’ve said this before but here it is again for good measure; the Deandre Ayton / Mikal Bridges defensive duo, could soon be the league leader for PnR coverage in the entire NBA.
Their complimentary skills are just perfect for how teams want to defend this action in the modern NBA. While Mikal is usually very good at wriggling his wiry frame around screens, he gets absolutely stonewalled by this Cousins pick. But not only is Ayton already much higher than your standard NBA Center sitting in ‘Drop Coverage’, he can also switch his hips on the move and recover in time for the impressive block.
Bonus Aggression - Get to the front of the rim and throw it down, Big Fella!
I wanted to include this extra bonus clip for two simple reasons.
(a) It’s just another great example of Ayton smartly making his way to the front of the rim and throwing it down with a bit more aggression. #1stInTheNBAGoals.
(b) Actually, let’s just sit on the second reason until the bonus in the next section.
The ‘Raise The Alarm’ Clips
This next collection of clips are the plays that should have Suns fans really excited, if they keep coming with any semblance of regularity. They have been few and far between in the past but as other facets of Ayton’s game continue to grow, the Suns opponents have been looking to attack Ayton in other ways. This opens up even more scenarios for Ayton to impact the game.
7. Attack Off The Dribble - You reach, Deandre teach.
At times, Ayton’s timidness has really worked against him. One area of the game where this exists, is the defense gambling on plays because they know DA will often be unwilling or unable to punish them if the risk doesn’t pay off. It’s really been a calculated risk for a guy like Cousins in this scenario. Until now.
Where in the past Ayton may have frozen at the mere sight of a wide open lane to attack (often preferring to defer to a teammate with a pass), this no longer seems to be the case. DA is beginning to illustrate a willingness to put the ball on the deck and attack the space. And why wouldn’t you want him to, with moves like this? It doesn’t even have to become a regular occurrence, so long as he is making opponents pay for being over-aggressive against him.
8. Take The 3 - If you dare him, he’s going to take it now.
Ayton on 3s so far this season - 2 of 9. In the last four games - 1 of 5. Not exactly anything to write home (or here) about. Or is it?
Let’s throw in the fact that #22 had two toe touchers against the Rockets, both of which tickled the twine. So for arguments sake, shall we say 3 of 7 in the recent games then? He thought he was shooting threes and for this purpose, that’s all that matters.
What if I told you Ayton took just 3 shots outside of the paint in the last four games that weren’t designed as three-point shots? What if I also told you he took just 12% of his shots from between 10-19 ft, which made up close to 30% of his looks last season? This was the area to improve on (or just straight up eliminate tbh) in the last Issue.
Guys like Jokic are going to give him the longer shot and if he continues to be willing to take it, while cutting out the mid-range, you can check back with the Moreyball Issue for how little it really matters on just how many he makes from behind the arc.
9. Switch On The Small ‘D’ - He’s no easy beat.
Ayton’s ability to hang on the outside with guards, makes him a serious asset to deploy for the Phoenix Suns. We saw the PnR before against the Rockets, but this play is just more of your traditional switch.
Again, Ayton is able to meet the guard quite high out on the perimeter. He currently ranks 2nd among all C’s in the NBA for defended attempts outside 15ft. His length can often adjust opponents shots from deep. The next choice is to attack him off the dribble. The only problem being, it’s often not any easier. Ayton is able to use both his quick feet and long reach, to protect the rim.
Bonus Aggression - Who is this guy?
Another quick attack off the dribble move, for the bonus aggression example in this section. This is also where we call the number of the earlier point that was told to go sit on the bench for a little while.
(b) I want to also just quickly talk about Ayton as a play finisher and his overall usage rate. With this impressive stretch of games, there are going to be calls from fans for more touches and shots. I just want to point out that all these recent impressive stat lines have come on the back of barely any change to his usage. It has gone from 18.9% to 20.6% in the last four games. One of which was missing Devin Booker. His touches have gone from 51.6 to 54.8. Also, D-Book. Meanwhile, his shot attempts have gone from 10.8 to 14 per game. Again, Book.
So while out of the box plays like this one are awesome to see, it’s important to note that they are still the exception rather than the rule. More importantly, Ayton has been this impactful while playing virtually the exact same role. It’s just with more purpose.
The ‘Full Woke Status’ Film
Finally, we get to the last bunch of highlight plays. If there is ever a time where Deandre is taking care of business with everything above AND consistently adding what it to come, then I might be running out of compliments and expletives.
10. In Transition - He’s looking to beat everyone down the court.
First things first, Ayton’s conditioning recently looks MUCH improved. As I’ve covered in depth several times before, it really is the key that unlocks everything he does well. And is also generally the reason for his flaws featuring more prominently in some games.
But when he’s flying, Ayton is one of the most breathtaking big men in the league. He routinely rates in the upper echelon for scoring in transition and it’s easy to see how. Whether it’s an open lob like this one against Jokic or a seal in the paint, Deandre is starting to understand the importance of getting down the court first. Every time.
11. Creating FTs - It’s looking more and more positive.
I’m going to be honest with you for a second. I’ve purposely avoided talking about Ayton’s FT numbers this season. I think most of you regular readers would know my thoughts by now and for the rest, it generally just tends to get me in more trouble than it’s worth. Here’s the rub though - there was simply no excuse for Ayton’s embarrassingly low FT numbers and anyone who was making them, wasn’t being honest with themselves.
However, there is now hope. In his last four games, Ayton is averaging 4.3 trips to the line per game. That places him around Top 10 for C’s and just behind Rudy Gobert, who I often draw parallels with in terms of current role. More importantly, in positions such as this one against Jokic - Ayton is pushing against his natural inclination to take the jumpshot and instead forcing contact.
This Suns team struggles to get to the line. They need Ayton to unlock this facet of his game, now more than ever. And recent signs are good.
12. Help Defense - Going from some of the time, to most of the time.
As we have explored at length already, Ayton’s individual defense is extremely reliable. Particularly when in situations where the action is coming at him, Deandre is very tough to score over and mistakes are now few and far between. It is where he is required to make an extra read and/or reaction, that Ayton still has some extra room to grow into. But if he’s currently standing in a Size 13 shoe of potential, then he started in an 11 and his final size is around 15. Not long to go now.
While Ayton’s 1.3 blocks per game is currently only good enough for 23rd in the NBA, his more recent stretch of 2.0 over the last four would place him in elite company. Only Gobert, Myles Turner and Clint Capela currently average over 2.0 blocks a game as NBA starters. That’s a group Ayton should be aiming to stay in touch with for the remainder of the season.
Bonus Aggression - He can do it, puts his back into it.
Of all the plays this past week, this one shocked me the most and therefore it had to be included. I have never seen Ayton take a dump off pass in the dunker spot and move a guy the size of Jokic, like he barely existed. Ever. Not like this. Going off the bench reaction, they hadn’t either.
Quick side note: How many great bench reactions did we get this week, all thanks to Deandre Ayton? I honestly never want to hear again that his aggression doesn’t matter. I’ve got the receipts (that’s what the kids say these days, yeah?), in all their bench reaction glory.
I was speechless when it happened live and for that reason alone, it does not require any further comment. So let’s wrap this bad boy up, shall we?
“The best players in this league, they do it night after night. Not just once every few games,” - Chris Paul on Ayton.
Well Mr.CP3 and loyal reader, therein lies the question - is this DA here to stay?
It is JUST four games. There has also been other mini stretches of Ayton’s NBA career thus far, that have appeared just as impressive. At least going purely off the numbers. Yet, this still feels DIFFERENT.
The added aggression is just not something we have witnessed before. That alone is cause for extra optimism. As are the comments from Ayton and those around him.
So, has it all just clicked for Deandre all of a sudden?
Ayton has literally gone and ticked every box I’ve been asking for, in just a four game stretch of extremely impressive play. I asked if he could ever get to the point of understanding that he needed to “out-run, out-work and out-jump everyone he comes up against”. Recently, I would say the answer is undoubtedly a big fat YES!
Re-visiting this checklist has been fun. I hope you share that sentiment too. If I’m honest, I can’t possibly say for sure that I think this recent play is what we can come to expect every single time Deandre pulls on a Suns jersey. But what I can say, is that the signs from the Big Fella are very promising. He’s woken from the slumber.
As far as any final thoughts on the matter go, I’ll leave that to the current Head Coach of the Phoenix Suns.
“We hope he understands that he can be that kind of player every single night,” - Monty Williams on Ayton.
Yes we do Mont, yes we do.
Finally, if you want to re-watch all these clips again without any silly GIFs or breaks in play - you can do so at the below.
Just the sheer reference of overtime gives me PTSD this week, but I can assure you all of the content below is better than how the Suns fared against Denver in their last 2 games.
Gerald Bourguet has taken his podcast talents to VOTS and you might even hear me over there very soon.
Zona Hoops continues to bang out great content and this one from Dom Tesoriero is particularly good.
This was a great feature on Mikal Bridges from the Suns own writer, Cody Cunningham.
As was this one from Spencer Davies on the Basketball News.