Allow me to become the millionth writer to wax quasi-poetically about Deandre Ayton. I figured going last in line allows my Ayton-fest to become the most recent in your feed.
For those of you not paying attention to these NBA Playoffs, Deandre Ayton is the 22-year-old center of the Phoenix Suns, who is willingly allowing Chris Paul’s determination to ride his abilities all the way to the most unexpected of NBA crowns.
Prior to this playoff run, Ayton was primarily known for being the number one pick of the of the 2018 draft. By no means considered a bust, Ayton will always be compared to the #3 pick in that draft, Luca Doncic, and the #5 pick in that draft, Trae Young. Based on those players’ greater marketability and play-making ability, Ayton had at best become an afterthought.
That is no longer the case as Ayton is currently, and unquestionably, assuring the Phoenix Suns they chose the right guy.
It is an odd time in history to pick centers number one. For five consecutive years in the early 80s, centers were the top pick taken (Sampson, Olajuwon, Ewing, Daugherty, Robinson). The position didn’t lose its importance in later years either, with teams taking stabs on exponentially less successful big men like Michael Olowakandi, Kwame Brown, Andrew Bogut and Greg Oden. With big men busts such as those (okay, maybe not Bogut but the others for sure), in conjunction with a game that has evolved farther away from the basket, many believed the center position was a thing of the past, or at least considerably less important. After all, why pound it inside for two points when you can launch a high percentage shot for three? Look no further than every NBA team’s shot chart to see how the game has moved “downtown.”
Running your offense through a seven-foot center became as blasé as peach baskets and short shorts.
While height will never go out of style, fewer and fewer NBA teams run their offense inside out. Nicola Jokic is Denver’s offense’s centerpiece but is far from the traditional center of yesteryear, quite often looking to pass the ball out of the paint (to the tune of ten assists a game) than score from down low which he ably can. Karl-Anthony Towns continues to put up video game like numbers but so has every big man who has played on a Minnesota team where no one else can score, which to be fair, is most of them throughout history. And perhaps the game’s most dominant center, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, is a force. At seven feet, 280 pounds, (he’s actually lost weight lately) Embiid is as tough a cover as there is but he can still be found shooting from beyond the arc three times a game.
In three years, Deandre Ayton has made only seven three pointers. He doesn’t take them. He doesn’t need to. Suns head coach and current genius Monty Williams keeps Deandre right where he wants him, near the basket where he scores at a 63% clip. He’s shooting even better than that in the playoffs. How does 71% grab you from an efficiency standpoint?
That is because, and listen to me carefully, Deandre Ayton, is only asked to play within his means. Monty Williams, and to an equal extent Chris Paul, know exactly what they have in Ayton. This statement does not intend to negate his abilities. He is uber-talented. But Denver (with Jokic), Minnesota (with Anthony-Towns) and Philly (with Embiid) simply ask their centers (and best players) to do way too much, to account for too much of the offense and to carry too much of the workload. That is not the case in Phoenix where Ayton is simply asked to do what he’s best at within the context of the game: rebound, defend the rim and run the pick-and-roll (which he does to a tee) where he can catch an easy pass and then dunk it over his defender’s head.
Ayton is the best conditioned seven-footer we’ve seen in years. No one in their right mind would have listed Ayton as the most promising, young big man in the game… until these playoffs where his numbers are being compared to, wait for it, Tim Duncan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That’s giant company.
In Game One of the NBA Finals, his first ever appearance on the game’s biggest stage, Ayton dropped 22 points and 19 rebounds on the Milwaukee Bucks, a team whose greatest attribute is its size. Prior to the series, I thought Milwaukee might be able to use that size to frustrate the young Ayton. I was wrong.
Ayton is averaging a consistent 16 and 12 this post-season. Defensively, when he’s not blocking shots, he’s altering them which, again, is just what Phoenix needs. He’s not overextending himself because they’re not asking him to. He’s allowing the team’s other two stars, Chris Paul and Devin Booker, to create while waiting to get his. And he’s getting it. If this post-season isn’t Ayton’s coming out party, I don’t know what is.
In Game Two of the Western Conference Finals, Ayton’s Suns were down by one. With 0.9 seconds left on the clock, Monty Williams designed a play for Jae Crowder to inbound the ball. Ayton would be on the receiving end of said pass. With a blink of an eye left on the clock, there was only one way possible to get a shot off before time expired. It would have to be a perfectly executed pass to the big man.
What ensued will forever lovingly be known as the “Valley-Oop.” Ayton ran off a screen to which the Clippers defense could not recover. Ayton caught the ball and dunked it cleanly. The Suns would go on to win the game and series. If you didn’t see Ayton’s game brimming with confidence before then, you couldn’t miss it afterwards.
That was just the play Ayton needed to develop a coach’s confidence in him, his team’s confidence in him and most importantly, a young man’s confidence in himself. Deandre Ayton: Go-To Guy. Convincing young players to play within their means is a specific coaching skill. Monty Williams sure was the right guy for the job.
The Phoenix Suns are three wins away from an NBA title, thanks in large part to the varied skill set of a young Deandre Ayton. He’s going to be an even larger part of their future. While Dallas loved their selection of Luca and Atlanta’s perfectly okay with Trae, I think Phoenix is just fine with the young man they picked at number one.