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More touches necessary? Deandre Ayton is improving without them

Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade (3) shoots the ball against Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) during the second half of an NBA basketball game on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019, in Miami, Fla. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

The first win in 18 tries for the Phoenix Suns of course presents a rare window to reflect optimistically on the worst team in the NBA.

For that, let’s go back to the middle of the three-game road trip Phoenix returns from on Tuesday. After falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the All-Star break, it was rookie center Deandre Ayton proclaiming, per AZCentral.com’s Duane Rankin, that it was time for him to take over. The comment, Ayton said later, was to motivate his teammates.

We can parse what that means alongside the fact that Ayton’s Twitter account retweeted — and soon un-retweeted — complaints from Suns fans who demanded he hasn’t been receiving enough touches.

Let’s leave that for your own interpretation. Back in Optimistic Land, Ayton’s impact and improvement over the course of the year is going unappreciated.

He’s doing big man stuff averaging 16.4 points, 10.5 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game. Those averages haven’t changed much since the start of the year, but advanced tracking data shows significant strides from Ayton.

At the rim, where tracking data is reasonably accurate, he’s allowing opponents to shoot 62.5 percent on the year, far from elite numbers like 54 percent for Joel Embiid, Myles Turner and Gobert, the three players in the NBA who defend more than eight shots within six feet of the basket per game.

But take a look at the monthly splits, and the story shows waves of improvement for Ayton, who in a 124-121 win against the Miami Heat on Monday didn’t post a block but played a strong second half in terms of activity.

Month Defended FG% < 6 ft. (FGA)
October (8 games) 70.9 (7.9)
November 64.9 (7.6)
December 62.0 (6.3)
January 54.2 (7.4)
February (9 games) 55.0 (6.7)

“We have to be realistic,” Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov told Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “What do we need? Deandre is not our problem. Deandre is our solution. We need so much from him that that’s (why) we talk about him so much. For us to win the games, we need him more. Nothing happens overnight, especially with big guys.”

With pressure on the Suns to break their franchise-record 17-game skid, Ayton’s activity level shined Monday despite a shrug-worthy 14 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and no blocks.

After Miami center Hassan Whiteside clobbered the Suns for 29 points on 14-of-19 shooting to go with 11 rebounds, Kokoskov once again defended his rookie.

“It’s a lot of possessions that weren’t just Deandre,” Kokoskov said. “Our pick-and-roll coverage allowed their guards to get in the paint and break the paint, get to rim, he had to switch. So once he was switching on the guards, that’s how Whiteside was in position to rebound the ball.”

Late, it was Ayton switching again onto Dwyane Wade, challenging a potential game-winner before a rebound was ultimately secured in the final seconds. That was a game-winning play to be sure.

Could the Suns get Ayton more post touches like they did in a near-win against the Golden State Warriors earlier this month? Absolutely.

Would it help the Suns win? For sure.

Do they want to? It’s hard to say because there’s an argument that focusing on the fundamentals during games is the important thing right now.

After an early-February loss to the Warriors in which Ayton reached the 20-shot-attempt mark the only time this year, Kokoskov was asked about whether Ayton was capable of the offense running through him. The head coach responded with the same message from the preseason: Ayton is the defensive anchor and that above all else is what’s important.

This is about fundamentals first.

Getting back to more NBA.com tracking data, Ayton is more subtly a key piece to the Suns’ offense. He affects the gravity — if only he had more shooters around him — and ranks among the most active screen assist and screen assist points scored players in the NBA.

The Suns are very aware there’s more to tap into. They’re working on Ayton’s three-point shot after practices, after all.

They’re playing the long game. It’s just a matter of whether this current staff can stay on long enough to see his development through.

“We keep saying that the only way we can develop a young team is in a winning environment,” Kokoskov said. “Our individual goals — nothing can replace team success. The only way we can help these young guys get better and improve is winning games.

“Again, obviously, some guys played well last night but the main thing for all of us and our mentality has to be we have to win every quarter.”

Doug & Wolf

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