NBA Position: Center
General Information: 19 years old, played for Arizona. From the Bahamas.
Measurables: 7’1”, 260 lbs, 7’5’ wingspan
2016-17 Season Statistics: 20.1 PPG, 1.6 APG, 11.6 RPG, 0.6 SPG, 1.9 BPG, 2.0 TOPG (35 games played, 33.5 minutes a contest) – 61.2% FG, 73.3% FT, 34.3% 3P
Summary: Ayton is one of the most physically gifted prospects in the last decade. With his mid-to-low post scoring ability, developing mid-range shot, and rebounding instincts, he produced at an incredible level despite playing out of position and playing with all the drama surrounding the Arizona program. Five years ago, Ayton would be so clearly the best prospect in the class that Phoenix would have submitted their selection on lottery night... but given his significant defensive weaknesses, there’s a legitimate debate on whether Ayton can really be a two-way star.
Offensive Breakdown: Ayton’s body was forged from the heart of a dying neutron star. Standing at 7’1” with a 7’5” wingspan and 260 pounds of almost sheer muscle, Ayton still manages to run like a wing while also dominating the low-post like a titan. His physical tools are only made even more incredible considering he says he didn’t lift weights before college. This draft class has some special players with amazing physical gifts, but Ayton’s combination of size, power, strength, explosiveness (43.5 inch vertical!!), and agility reigns supreme above the rest. He looks the part of a modern day David Robinson or Patrick Ewing.
He’s got a developing combination of a strong face-up game, back-to-the-basket dominance, and soft touch on the mid-range (and further) jumper that projects him to be a primary scorer in the NBA. Despite playing away from the basket a fair bit and swapping with fellow center Dusan Ristic across the high/low post on offense, Ayton finished with insane efficiency; he shot 60.7% on post-ups (117 attempts, 94th percentile) and 71.5% on not-post up shots around the basket (200 attempts, 96th percentile). He’s also a major lob threat for obvious reasons.
One of the best showcases of Ayton’s scoring ability (some bad, most good) came in a early December matchup against UNLV and potential 2nd round big Brandon McCoy—watch Ayton’s highlights from the last two minutes of the tight game.
He shows a strong understanding of his own physical dominance and knows he can score on pretty much anyone one-on-one. While that instinct was certainly what you want to see from a top option, it also led to Ayton going out-of-control on a good number of plays. He was apt to get lost in the post, and while he could get out of binds because of his physical outlier status, he needs solid footwork refinement in the NBA. He’s also not fluid enough on the move (yet) to where I’m confident he’s going to be an immediate straight-line drive threat, but this is a clear avenue for development.
His size and ability in the post is going to be a natural deterrent for teams who might try to play small on him. It’ll take time for him to adjust to doing this against NBA-level forwards, but he’s so crafty in the mid-to-low post, he’ll figure out plenty of ways to punish teams if they try to guard him small. The question will be if he gives up equivalent efficiency when HE’S guarding the smaller opponents, but on offense...
Being able to knock down shots and pass out of the high-post or at the elbows are the ultimate cheat codes for unlocking Ayton’s dominance. He wasn’t incredibly consistent on jump shots over the course of the year, finishing at 37.5% (39th percentile, per Synergy), but the developing touch is there. Through both his role in the Arizona offense and what looked like natural preference, he probably ended up gravitating to the mid-range a bit too much for his efficiency numbers; 44% of his shot attempts were two-point jumpers, according to hoop-math.com. Take a look at his form (and note some semi-open avenues to the hoop).
There’s hope that his 34.3% clip from three is a sign of things to come, but it’s key to point out his low attempts (12 of 35 over the season). Perhaps due to his height, he’s got a low arcing shot that might lead to an inordinate number of front-rim clanks. As with any of the classes big, his deep shooting efficiency/translation is a huge element to watch.
Ayton developed as a stand-still passer midway through the season, especially in the low block/elbow when teams came to double-team him. As Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman pointed out, Ayton generates 1.304 PPP against hard double-teams in the post; he’s in the 95th percentile on scoring attempts, and 89th percentile in pass outs. He’s shown solid patience when doubled and doesn’t turn the ball over often. With his long arms, he can hold the ball out of reach, and can see over the trap and find the open teammate.
Another big boon for Ayton’s top scorer chops is his low turnover rate—11.3%, 2.4 turnovers per 40 minutes—which is remarkable considering his heavy usage in Arizona’s offense. His hands aren’t great yet, and he can bobble or mishandle passes he really should snag, but his turnover numbers are the best of the classes bigs. Looking at the statistics of all the freshman bigs taken in the top 5 of NBA Drafts since 2011, Ayton had the second highest usage rate (behind DeMarcus Cousins), the third highest assist rate (behind Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns), AND the second lowest turnover rate (behind Anthony Davis).
It’s also not surprising that Ayton is a force on the offensive glass, snagging 3.4 per game (13.5% rate, second in the class to Marvin Bagley). His explosiveness allows him second (and sometimes even third) jumps before opponents might even get off one. Check out the clip below—he misses the dunk, but look at how quick Ayton can gather the ball and go right back up.
Defensive Breakdown: Ayton is not a great instinctual defensive player at this stage of his career. The obvious good news is that his outlier physical tools don’t magically vanish on defense, and if he’s got the drive to improve, after a few years of adapting there isn’t a real reason why he couldn’t be a good defender. Plenty of medicore collegiate defenders have made that transition before. With his size and athleticism he could be a dominant rim protector, and he’s got the quick feet and length to disrupt switches and bother shooters. The concern is that level of adequate defensive skill is a good ways off, and that means Ayton isn’t a guaranteed plus-defender in the modern NBA game.
Ayton’s tools give him plenty of extra cushion while his awareness catches up to game speed. He can quickly flip his hips and use his length to wall off opposing guards... he just needs to do a better job at anticipating the opponents movements. That will lead to more plays like this.
But even when Ayton shies off his assignment or moves to help, his tools allow him to get back to his man quickly. The play below against Arizona State shows Ayton sliding in to cut off the drive, and what would have been an obvious open kick-out was turned into an easy block.
That said, NBA points will make that read much sooner, and Vitaliy Shibel doesn’t have the quick release that most NBA wings have. Ayton’s gonna have to make this play at 1.5 times speed in the NBA. And with some speed issues in the college game, that’s not a great starting point.
Throughout the season Ayton made strides as a rim protector, going from 1.2 blocks a game in his early non-conference schedule to 2.3 per conference game... but his 6.1% block rate is so bad it’s in the Jahlil Okafor or Frank Kaminsky territory. He reacts slowly on help defense whereas guys like Jaren Jackson Jr. or Mo Bamba would be ready to hunt out the ball. He also offered nothing on steals, snagging just 0.7 per 40 minutes at a 1% rate. That’s inexcusable for a collegiate player with Deandre’s tools.
Ayton’s defensive issues were on full display in Arizona’s early tournament exit to Buffalo. Watch the highlights below.
Over the span of the game, we see Ayton fall out of defensive position when he can’t deflect the pass (0:14); give a half-hearted help-D swipe at a rim run (0:23); get toasted like a strawberry pop-tart on a crossover (0:32); lose Harris on a drive to the basket (0:52); same play redux (1:12); get shook for a step-back (1:36); and get separated from Harris on a screen by his own teammate and take a terrible recovery angle on the cut (1:42). A player with Ayton’s speed and wingspan should not get beaten off the dribble so easily by a collegiate level athlete and offer nothing as a recovery shot blocker.
Again, Ayton’s going to improve. He was showing better effort on post- and help-defense toward the end of the season. As long as he has the drive to get better, the sky is the limit. But considering Ayton’s weaknesses and how modern offenses are attacking big men, it’s going to be the real focal point to watch in his development.
Ayton weathered a rough season at Arizona, which was supposed to be a top squad until they realized they weren’t consistently good (and they still won the Pac-12 Championship! That’s a... big deal?) He also had to mentally shoulder the ESPN confirmed/ unconfirmed/ maybe totally wrong “Sean Miller paid Deandre Ayton!” scandal, but in the six games following that story breaking, Ayton averaged 21 points and 13.5 rebounds on 64% shooting.
There are whispers on twitter that Ayton has a less-than-ideal work ethic (evidenced by his semi-inconsistent motor on the court) or is some level of malcontent in the locker room. Miller, for one, rewarded Ayton regularly for his effort. Check out this quote from a piece by ESPN’s Myron Medcalf.
Without any contacts surrounding the program, I can only judge Ayton based of his effort (mostly positive, some lapses) and development over the season... and I’m optimistic on his development as a shooter, passer, and rim protector. NBA teams will have much more insight on the young man’s attitude, but from what I’ve seen, I’m not concerned that he’ll be a poor worker or a poor teammate, especially if he came to Sacramento and was surrounded by the gym-rat youngsters in De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield (a fellow Bahamian) and Bogdan Bogdanovic.
The role of the modern NBA big man is the singular reason why (1) I have Luka Dončić over Ayton at the top of my Big Board, and (2) why Ayton sits securely at No. 2 for me above the rest of the class. The debate of Ayton’s strengths and weaknesses in today’s NBA game has been going on since November, but can be easily summed up by this question.
Who is watching these final four teams and thinking, "man, I really need a guy like Deandre Ayton to win in the NBA"?— Tim Lawrence (@TimLawrence10) May 16, 2018
Boston’s run through the Eastern Conference has been on the backs of their hyper-switchable, shot-creating, sharp-shooting wings, and the stellar all-around contribution of Al Horford. Golden State’s dominance comes from playing five guys who can (to varying degrees) shoot, pass, dribble, and switch on defense. Houston plays one big—Clint Capela—and he’s proven to be one of the better NBA bigs at playing guards on switches. Cleveland is a outlier in the conversation, but the other three teams are here because they got ahead of the rest of the league on adding these new age players and adopting the new age system.
Meanwhile, two of the top contenders for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award this year—Utah’s Rudy Golbert and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid—were played off the floor at times in the playoff because Boston and Houston ran their hyper-floor spacing lineups. For how good Golbert and Embiid are as rim protectors, they aren’t as good covering in space. This isn’t so much a question about offense, as bigs will get their buckets in a smart offense against a smaller defensive lineup, but rather the new defensive role of bigs; you gotta be able to switch, run, and cover shooters like the rest of the league.
Ayton can score from 10 feet in. He might be able to shoot (I’m optimistic), he might be able to pass (I’m optimistic), and he might be able to dribble (less optimistic, but it’s in the realm of outcomes). After a year or two of development, Ayton should be able to play offense against pretty much any team and find ways to score. But can a playoff team survive with Ayton being so mediocre/bad on defense, especially when he’ll NEED to switch/cover a full range of NBA players with varying degrees of shooting abilities, change-of-pace speed, and handles? That tape against Buffalo and their wing heavy team sure paints a nasty picture.
Maybe Ayton can become an above-average NBA defender. He’s certainly got the tools for it. But he also may have been born a decade or two too late to be a full two-way NBA superstar.
At the same time, the only big in the draft class who is a great space defense prospect is Jaren Jackson Jr., who sits third on my Big Board. But for all of JJJ’s defensive and floor spacing ability, he also never showed signs that he can be a top alpha scorer in college, let alone the NBA. And the rest of the bigs—Bagley, Porter Jr., Bamba, Carter—all have Ayton’s space defensive issues or are worse at it. And given that, I’d opt for the guy with the most promise as a primary scorer and the best physical tools... and that’s Deandre Ayton. I trust that Ayton’s low-post/face-up game has a better chance to produce a primary scorer over Bagley’s driving, Porter’s mid-range, or Bamba’s claws.
Fit with Sacramento:
The Kings need an alpha scorer to develop with the developing guards on the roster. They need a top notch rebounder to solve their major problems on the glass. And they need a big man who can develop in the half-court, but who can also keep pace with the high-speed youngsters in the open court.
Deandre Ayton fits all of these obvious issues. He’ll likely take extended time getting caught up to the speed of playing against an NBA defense, and he’ll need to accept a way higher usage of pick-and-roll plays (only 80 attempts as the roll-man while shooting a poor 41%) given the Kings horns offense. But unless one of Willie Cauley-Stein or Skal Labissiere are hiding massive usage abilities in their developing games (or Harry Giles, but... we’ll see), having a dominant low-post/face-up scorer with a developing jump shot has worked in the past for Sacramento. Ayton’s range of scoring abilities could conceivably make him a solid fit on offense with either Cauley-Stein or Skal, although one of every pair might get annoyed with the other dominating the “control the ball from the top of the key” role.
The brute force that the Bahamian titan can throw around was unmatched in college, and while it’s fair to wonder just how immediate or easy his NBA transition will be given his defensive weaknesses, his combination of low-post success, face-up game potential, and physical tools make him arguably the best prospect in the class.