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Vol.3, Iss.9: By Hook Or By Crook
Deandre Ayton has found his signature shot & the Suns look ready to add it to their star studded offense, in order to potentially go one step further in 21/22.
Once Upon A Time…..
This Newsletter has dedicated a number of Issues to Deandre Ayton. If you’re an avid subscriber, then you’ll likely recognise some consistent themes in the content below. Consider this Part 5 of the ‘Waiting On Dominayton’ Series. But for those of you who are new here, I’ve linked the prior 4 Newsletters on the topic of Ayton in the OT section. If you like what you read below, please feel free to browse those Issues as well. And of course, consider subscribing for all my future content too!
Never Say Never-Land….
What percentage of Deandre Ayton’s total shot attempts have come from within the paint this season?
The man in the middle for Phoenix is putting together an impressive statistical stretch in the final year of his rookie scale contract. In 24 games to date - Ayton is averaging 17.0 points, 11.1 rebounds & 1.6 assists per game. Coming on just 12 attempts from the field, while maintaining a career best 62.6% shooting clip.
Perhaps most astounding outside of the ultra efficient numbers though, is how the Suns Center is producing them.
The answer to that question above - 88%.
That’s right. Ayton has slowly crept to this career high over the course of his career. It began as 73% of total attempts from the paint in his first two seasons, before Deandre made a sharp increase in his third season to 83%. Now DA’s pushing a mark of almost 9 out of every 10 shots coming from inside the key.
Ayton has been searching for a signature offensive move, both he & his team can count on when the going gets tough. At times, it has been a frustrating feeling out process trialling far less aesthetically pleasing manoeuvres. Often, from much further out.
But the tough got going & now, Ayton’s hook has become a legitimate weapon. One which the Suns have been more willing to unleash on the opposition in attack this season. Despite continued struggles to create his own shot, Deandre Ayton & the Phoenix Suns appear determined to find a multitude of ways to get to this newly found failsafe.
By hook or by crook. Or by any means necessary, as you are about to see.
Early In The Offense
While it isn’t at all surprising that more shots closer to the rim has resulted in an increase in efficiency, it’s certainly a bit of a shock that Ayton has trended in that direction. After flirting earlier in his career with moving away from the bucket, it appears DA has instead finally succumbed decided to move further towards it.
And why wouldn’t you succumb when the numbers are this convincing?
Ayton is currently at a career high mark of 79.8% finishing inside the restricted area this season, while shooting a career low 35.7% from the mid-range.
Early looks in the offense like the one below, ensure Chris Paul assists Ayton (80) more than any other Phoenix player this season. Although the two have only shared the floor in 24 of 38 games, Paul currently contributes to more Ayton buckets than three other Suns he has more passes to - Booker (65), Bridges (59) & Crowder (42).
It doesn’t always have to be Paul to Ayton directly though. Phoenix often choose to leave one corner open in early offense situations. This strategy generally draws Ayton’s man as a help defender when the Suns attack via a drive. When Ayton runs in transition to his spot, there has been consistent reward for effort this season.
‘Double Drag’ is another staple of the Suns early offense package, where Paul claps his hands together to signal two bigs to come set dual screens. If Ayton’s defender chooses to drop, it allows CP3 to stroll into one of his many favourite spots on the floor. But if the defense switches, then Ayton can attack the smaller defender in the paint. Even if that defender is Draymond Green.
Out Of The Elbow
Looking at the non-restricted area of the paint is where things get really fascinating for Ayton this season. Despite shooting a career high mark inside the restricted circle, DA’s percentage of shots from that part of the floor has dipped to a career low 44.6%.
So how then has Ayton managed to reach 88% of his shots coming from inside the paint, you ask? Simple. Deandre’s attempts from elsewhere between the key lines has leapt to 43.3% of his total shots & he is again posting career high numbers with a 53.6% efficiency. All while reducing his attempts from mid-range & out, to just 12% of Ayton’s total shots. Another career low.
DA has done the seemingly impossible. Becoming a more versatile scorer, despite being pigeon holed into a paint coloured box.
The Suns will run Ayton out of various ‘Elbow’ sequences at the top of the key, to get a variety of different looks. You won’t often see Phoenix run actions to get DA a post up because he ranks in just the 30th percentile on those looks. But when the right opportunity arises, Ayton & his teammates are developing clever ways to create a post touch in a strong position. DA has 12 points on 13 post up hook shots this season.
The true beauty of Phoenix’s ‘Elbow’ set is that possessions will often begin & end in a similar manner, with the in between process appearing entirely different. Like the below, where the Suns force the Nets to switch on a DHO this time. Kevin Durant tries to scram switch to help the much smaller Patty Mills but it’s far too late.
Phoenix also love to hide their ‘Snap’ action in ‘Elbow’ sets. Another illustration of a similar beginning & end, with a different challenge for defenders in the middle. When Guards attempt to switch, Devin Booker will often shake loose for 3 as Ayton’s defender sticks with him on the roll. Occasionally though, if the defending Big looks to switch instead, it leaves Ayton to roll wide open down the middle of the lane.
Into The Pick & Roll
From day dot, the ‘Pick & Roll’ has been the most lethal way to get Ayton involved in the offense. This season Deandre ranks in the 83rd percentile as a P&R roll man, amassing 147 points on 110 possessions. That’s 1.336 points per possession or ‘Excellent’ under the Synergy ranking system.
Whether it’s catching on the roll or sealing in the paint while the ball travels elsewhere first, the hook shot has even become part of the arsenal for DA in the P&R.
Ayton’s heat map has evolved over time to become far more centralised & that’s no more evident than in the P&R. The Suns C ranks in the 80th percentile this season when the screen is set high in the middle of the floor, which makes up for roughly 75% of his total P&R possessions. Right side - 84th %ile. Left side - 68th %ile.
When they aren’t trying to disguise it, Phoenix are happy to run their ‘Spain P&R’ action (AKA ‘Snap’) directly out of a high ball screen. The deadly trio of Paul, Booker & Ayton being the most common combination. When teams look to trap Paul coming off the screen, it leaves one defender stuck between Booker & Ayton. Why is that fatal? Well, CP3’s processing speed is too fast & Book is quickly catching up. Ayton shoots 61.4% on passes from Book this season.
The more traditional two man P&R proves just as dangerous for defenders against the Suns. A classic ‘pick your poison’ proposition. If the opposition plays it straight up by dropping Ayton’s defender before trying to recover, DA can attack with a sequence of exquisite footwork. On the other hand, if two defenders chooses to switch, Deandre will just walk the smaller defender underneath the hoop where they become helpless.
Phoenix are so difficult to guard with Paul at the helm, partly due to the fact CP3 will just sift through his rolodex of plays until he finds what he likes. After setting up in ‘Double Drag’ here, Paul calls an audible & Ayton simply flips the angle of the screen to create the Suns ‘2 Up’ action. The defense is so preoccupied with what might be coming, that Paul flows right into a normal P&R & shuffles Ayton’s defender all the way back to the restricted area before dumping off the pass.
Late Bail Out Options
With almost half of the Suns season complete, Deandre now sits as a clear #2 scoring option for Phoenix between Devin Booker at 23.5 points per game & Chris Paul at 14.1. There has even been some All Star buzz for the Bahamian big, should voters feel the Suns deserve triplets in Cleveland on February 20, 2022.
At 19%, the hook shot has become a one in every five shots proposition for Ayton & is fast becoming a big reason for his candidacy as the third key cog of the PHX offense.
Not only has Deandre used his new signature move as a way of becoming more than just a play finisher around the basket, he is also deploying the hook to add to what the Suns currently do. Ayton is now saving his team on broken possessions, creating new wrinkles within the offense & continuing to generate extra opportunities for the Suns.
As far as second chance points go, Ayton has turned his 70 offensive rebounds so far this season into 42 extra shots & 60 points. And that’s just for himself. When Deandre isn’t going straight back up with the ball on a hook, he is often finding wide open shooters out on the perimeter. Over 20% of his remaining O-Boards have resulted directly in made 3s for teammates.
A new wrinkle Ayton has discovered recently is the ‘duck in’. This possession has basically every hallmark of the current Suns offense that runs so beautifully. Check them off below; Paul attacking the ‘Empty Corner’, Book setting ‘The Nuisance’ back screen, Mikal Bridges ‘slipping’ the screen before relocating & Jae Crowder ‘lifting’ to draw his defender away from the action. Now you can add the Ayton ‘duck in’.
Finally, Ayton is gaining momentum as a bailout option for the Suns & his teammates are showing confidence in throwing the ball his way. In the Playoffs last season, Ayton feasted on being left open on the roll as teams dared the Suns to make the extra pass. But so far this season, there has been more cases of sending the rock Ayton’s way to make something happen rather than just feeding the wide open man.
We began with a question, so let’s finish in the same fashion.
Based on current 21/22 NBA Season stats - if we gave Ayton 100 hook shots, Booker 100 pull-up threes & Paul 100 middies inside the circle around the FT line - who would end up with the most points?
The answer is Book - but just 2 points separates the three after 300 shots.
Booker’s pull-up 3 is currently a 40.2% shot, or good for 120.6 points generated per 100 shots. CP3’s middy from his favourite spot on the floor is next - a 59.8% shot so far this season - generating 119.6 points in this test. Then comes DA. At 59.3%, Ayton’s hook trails the other Suns stars by the slimmest of margins with 118.6 points.
So is the head of the snake evolving from a dangerous duo up top into a legitimate three pronged hydra?
Booker came first, as the baby faced assassin was thrust into the spotlight & asked to captain a group of lost young men when all other leaders had abandoned ship. That led to an unusual development path but all of a sudden, the missing pull-up 3 piece has possibly arrived.
After some initial trepidation among the fanbase, Book gladly assumed the position of second in charge - on & off the court - to the next big arrival who hit town. CP3 was now in Phoenix & after a few little hiccups, Paul was back to refusing to grow old. Continuing to hit the patented middy with ease.
After falling short on their first expedition together in 2020/21, it seems Booker & Paul are now ready to join forces with Ayton’s hook in order to go one step further in 2021/22. Armed with a three level repertoire, which if it holds, could become a Championship winning formula for the Phoenix Suns.
It would be a journey that shares initial parallels with the story of Hook, Peter Pan & Rufio, even if it doesn’t quite end in the same traditional way. But perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Peter Pan once said, “I remember you being a lot bigger” to which Hook responded “To a ten year old, I’m huge”.
Growing up isn’t always a bad idea. Especially if you are a near 7 foot giant that makes almost everyone else look like little kids.
As I mentioned up top, here’s a recap of the previous Issues published that focus on the play of Deandre Ayton:
Part 2 - Waking Up The Sleeping Giant
Part 3 - Is This The Ayton Awakening?
Part 4 - Deandre Ayton Has Arrived