Another Unexpected Return…..
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We Are Going To Start A Dialogue…..
There is a statistical argument that Deandre Ayton has not made a leap at all during his first 12 Playoff games for the Phoenix Suns. In fact, an argument can be made that statistically speaking he has regressed overall during his first 3 seasons in the NBA.
Here are some traditional key indicators on a Per 36 minute basis:
18/19 Season: 19.1 PPG on 14.3 FGAs w/ 12.0 RPG, 2.1 APG & 1.1 BPG (58.5 FG%)
19/20 Season: 20.1 PPG on 16.5 FGAs w/ 12.7 RPG, 2.1 APG & 1.7 BPG (54.6 FG%)
20/21 Season: 17.0 PPG on 11.7 FGAs w/ 12.4 RPG, 1.7 APG & 1.4 BPG (62.6 FG%)
20/21 Playoff: 16.7 PPG on 10.6 FGAs w/ 11.0 RPG, 0.8 APG & 0.5 BPG (72.6 FG%)
But here’s the thing - it has NEVER been about stats with DA.
Last off-season I wondered whether we might see the sleeping giant Ayton appeared to be, finally wake up from his Sophomore slumber. I outlined a list of sorts - let’s call it a What Deandre Ayton Should Focus On Checklist. Included in it was a stack of impressive plays that Deandre had flashed throughout his first 2 seasons, proving what he was capable of. It just wasn’t coming with enough consistency. Yet.
Fast forward a few months to Ayton’s third and current season, I got prematurely excited Ayton may have in fact finally woken up. During a stretch of just 4 games, Suns fans saw a revitalised DA show the aggression we all craved. We were thirsty for it. Again, I highlighted how Ayton had managed to tick off that same checklist in roughly 100 minutes of play, when it took over 100 games previously.
It appeared to just be a tease of what was to come. Although Ayton had a solid end to his Regular Season campaign, the lack of aggression and inconsistency still reared its ugly head at the occasional inopportune time. Was this something Suns fans were just going to have to get used to?
Then came Ayton’s debut Playoffs appearance and that question has quickly been answered. When the moment comes, when the lights shine brightest, when there is the most on the line - Deandre looks ready to do what it takes for his team.
So here’s the real argument - Deandre Ayton will never be defined by stats during his career with the Phoenix Suns. Especially not during the Regular Season.
Instead, impact will always be the lens to look through when assessing Ayton’s game. Impact in the areas his team needs him most, and more importantly, when the team needs him most. Whilst it’s often an intangible measurement that is harder to quantify - made even harder by a world obsessed with stats and tangible results - the checklist can be the means to fix that. And the Playoffs can be the end to the argument.
So what better way to look at Ayton’s impact than by using the checklist and going through his WCF Game 2 film?
A game I would classify as easily the best of Ayton’s 190 game career to date. A night where all the work he has put in recently, culminated in a game winning moment that he thoroughly deserved.
The signs of a big game were there early with Ayton. Why? He set the tone from the beginning by busting out some of the more difficult items from his rarer packages. Ayton’s first half numbers were 12 points on 6 of 8 shooting, with 6 rebounds. Not bad. What was more impressive though, was how he was getting his points and stopping the Clippers on the other end.
Checklist Item - Attacking Off The Dribble (Raise The Alarm Package)
As of writing this sentence, Ayton has 99 field goal attempts in the Playoffs that have come off 0 dribbles. He has 25 field goal attempts with 1 or more dribbles. So it’s fair to suggest that putting the ball down on the hardwood is rare for the Suns Center. Watch as Paul George shades over on Cam Payne, undoubtedly because he expects to have time to cover ground to Ayton - who is more likely to just be a connector via another pass. Ayton recognising this and having other ideas is a huge step for him.
Checklist Item - Transition (Full Woke Status Package)
Watching Deandre Ayton run the floor in transition is a thing of beauty. Which is exactly why we’d all love to see it more often. Note at the beginning of the below where Ayton takes stock of those around him. The moment he realises no Clipper is going to check him, he takes off. Not only that, he has the presence of mind to shift out wide from the middle of the floor to be in the perfect spot for the alley-oop from Jae Crowder.
Checklist Item - Spacing The Floor (Raise The Alarm Package)
Originally, this item was all about Ayton spacing to the 3 point line and particularly, not taking bad mid range shots. The fact of the matter is, Ayton hasn’t taken a single 3 in the Playoffs to date. However, he’s also only taken 10 non-paint shots versus 114 inside the paint. If the opposition is going to help on drives and clog the paint, he has to make them pay. There isn’t a shot Ayton can take while touching the paint that I’d be mad at. He’s shooting 77% this post-season while touching it, after all.
Checklist Item - Help Defense (Full Woke Status Package)
Help defense has been the last bastion of the Deandre Ayton defensive evolution. The fact that he is making these read and react plays in the WCF is huge. Hell, we are in the WCF because he is making these plays. Not only does he help on Morris below as Payne is overmatched in the post, he then rotates back to his own man before cutting off the baseline after Mikal Bridges’ close out. Don’t let his 0.8 block average fool you, Ayton is playing great defense in these Playoffs.
The Main Event - Third Quarter Takeover
Ayton’s stats in the third, you ask? 8 points on 5 shots, with 5 rebounds, an assist and a block. But that doesn't even go close to painting the full picture. Again, if you haven’t picked up the theme by now - say it with me - STATS DON’T MATTER! Deandre played all but one minute in the term, and just had his fingerprints all over it. Showcasing an array of his different skills from each of his checklist packages.
Checklist Item - Post Defense (In His Sleep Package)
Defending bigs in the post was something Ayton was comfortable doing early in his Rookie season. Never do I sweat a possession where an opposition bully is trying to assert dominance against Deandre on the block. What makes this possession special though is how Ayton perfectly navigates sitting in ‘Drop’, cutting off George’s drive and then sliding over so Zubac can read The Valley clearly across his chest. Textbook.
Checklist Item - Pick & Roll Defense (He's Heating Up Package)
Here’s where we really get into the duality of the man. Post defense? Sure. Comfortable in Drop? Never been better. Okay but what about when the screen is set much higher and you have a literal flamethrower handling the ball behind the arc? No worries says DA. Steps up to line to prevent the shot, makes George attack the space behind him, flips the hips and slides with PG13 all the way. Impressed? Yeah, me too.
Checklist Item - Switching On Smalls (He’s Heating Up Package)
A minute later now and the Clippers still haven’t scored. Spoiler Alert - this trend is about to continue. The Suns are essentially forced to switch, as Payne gets stuck on the screen. Reggie Jackson thinks he sees food. Ayton agrees. It’s just that Jackson has his role all wrong. Poor Reggie gets swallowed whole on the drive and Ayton retains possession to start the break.
Checklist Item - Offensive Rebounding (He’s Heating Up Package)
Alright, look at the time above and the time below. Now look where Ayton is when Jae’s shot goes up. We are now in the middle of the most impactful 2 minutes of Deandre Ayton’s career. Pretty cool huh? Now let me allow you in on another little secret. Mikal Bridges gets the Offensive Rebound stat on this play. And the bucket. With no assist. Say it again with me folks…..STATS DON’T MATTER!
Checklist Item - Creating Contact (Full Woke Status Package)
One of the aspects of Ayton’s game that most Suns fans would love to see is more free throws. Currently he averages 2.5 for his career, 2.5 for this season and 2.1 in the Playoffs. While the below play doesn’t end in FTs, it is the type of play the Suns need to run to create more opportunities for Ayton to get to the charity stripe. And he does his bit too, by not hesitating and attacking the rim at full speed. If he can continue this, the rest will sort itself out.
Checklist Item - Lob Threat (In His Sleep Package)
When Ayton and Devin Booker setup for a high screen parallel to the right sideline, you are guaranteed a highlight play. Let’s call it The Four Point Play Guarantee. My favourite play of the game. Why? It incorporates everything I love about the Suns 2 young guns. A sacrificing screen from Ayton, Book puts George ‘in jail’ and then draws ridiculous attention from the defense as he snakes through the lane. Next comes the eye contact, the point, Book testing out Ayton’s ridiculous catch radius and SLAM!
After the big third quarter, Monty held off as long as he could to bring Ayton back into the game. Whilst he ended up playing just over half of the final period, it was the final three minutes where he capped of an amazing night for Phoenix. 4 points, 3 rebounds and the adulation of 16,645 screaming Suns fans.
Checklist Item - Gravity On The Roll (In His Sleep Package)
Gravity on the roll was literally the first NBA skill Ayton had in his bag, hence why it’s referred to as part of the ‘In His Sleep’ Package. Usually you will see it illustrated by a high Pick & Roll, Ayton diving down the middle of the lane and shooters being left open while their defenders panic at the thought of giving up a wide open dunk. But here we see the Suns fake a Spain Pick & Roll, and as Ayton appears to dive back down the lane drawing Paul George’s attention - Mikal flashes to the top of the key and knocks down a much needed 3. Beautiful.
Checklist Item - Finishing In The Paint (Raise The Alarm Package)
Now this item is a little different to originally defined too. In days gone by, the hope was that Ayton would have the confidence to attack smaller defenders in the paint when they are switched onto him. Oh, how far we’ve come! Ayton has been a bail-out option all Playoffs for the Suns guards and here he takes it to the 7 foot Zubac with a shimmy and a shake. 70% on hook shots in the Playoffs. More of those please, DA!
Checklist Item - A Game Winner (The Bonus Package)
You made it! We are finally at the crescendo of Ayton’s masterpiece. The Suns 1 measly point down, just 0.9 left on the clock and therefore not many options for Monty Williams to draw up on his whiteboard. For the previous 2879 seconds, Ayton had been the Suns best player. He deserved to cap off his night. Cam Johnson flies off a screen, Booker makes a #nuisance of himself and Jae throws it perfectly above the rim. All that is left for Ayton to do, is what he has been doing all Post-Season long. Keep it simple. Finish off the good work of his teammates, while covering for the prior mistakes of others. It should therefore be no surprise at what happened next.
And there it is - Deandre Ayton just ticked every box I’ve been looking for in just 35 minutes of play. Incredible.
But before you go…..mentioning Deandre Ayton’s 190 career Regular Season and Playoff games in the introduction was not a flippant inclusion. It's the equivalent of just shy of 2.5 full NBA seasons. That’s all the former #1 pick has played and now, the Phoenix Suns are on the doorstep of the biggest stage in basketball.
For Ayton to do what he has done through this incredible stretch is a credit to the athlete he is. As I’ve written about extensively, DA was born with all the god given gifts you could ask for in a modern NBA Center. But it has also taken a tremendous amount of work and sacrifice to get to this point. The coaching staff and players around him clearly challenged Ayton to be the best version of what they needed him to be, in order to reach the heights of this season.
That isn’t necessarily the best version of what Ayton believes he can be going forward or even what he might eventually become for the Suns. Those questions are for another time.
All I know for now is one thing - Deandre Ayton has arrived and I’m caught up in the Bahamian rhapsody!
If you want to watch all the clips again (+ a few more) uninterrupted…..
A quick wrap up of other content from me and a few others, from between the end of Games 1 and 2 of the WCF:
Last Newsletter Issue - WCF Podcast.
The Rest Of My Game 2 Film Thread.
The Timeline PodcastGame 2 Reaction Pod.
Kellan Olson’sGame 2 Recap.
Share The Four Point Play