Not No. 1: Deandre Ayton and the versatility of modern NBA centers

May 29, 2018, 6:01 AM | Updated: 3:11 pm
Arizona forward Deandre Ayton (13) dunks against Oregon State in the second half during an NCAA col...
Arizona forward Deandre Ayton (13) dunks against Oregon State in the second half during an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Wherever you land in the debate of who the Phoenix Suns should take at No. 1 overall, you have to admit that the entire process has been fascinating.

Real Madrid’s Luka Doncic has added a wrinkle that takes conversations in approximately 4.6 million different directions.

Some say Doncic is a mystery. As the NBA’s most scouted European ever, he is anything but a mystery. Even if the games are in Europe, you yourself can sign up on the EuroLeague’s website and watch all the Doncic tape you could possibly want.

Some say Doncic isn’t as NBA ready as his competition at the top of the draft. As the EuroLeague’s best 18-to-19-year-old ever, he is anything but unready for immediate NBA contributions.

Some see highlights or hear brief scouting reports on Doncic and assume he’s a point guard, then criticize his ability to create separation against NBA point guards and defend NBA point guards. He is not a point guard.

Some see highlights of a Doncic breakaway dunk such as this one and say the athleticism concerns are overblown.

While some takes that hold enough heat are always overblown, Doncic blowing by a power forward and throwing down an impressive slam with full-speed momentum doesn’t silence those concerns.

You get my point.

In today’s day and age, everyone has enough access to information and video to have a knowledgeable opinion on NBA Draft prospects.

There’s a high level of detail to separating these prospects, though, especially when a draft class is this good and you have two prospects as good as Doncic and Deandre Ayton.

The funny part is, that nuance has been provided for Doncic outlooks by many naysayers as I just said, but in my experiences the past few months, has not been for Ayton.

That is where a divide lands. I made my case for Doncic at No. 1 and have seen every counterargument possible against the notion.

That’s where we will discuss Ayton as a prospect, focusing on why I believe he’s not the No. 1 prospect.

You’ve heard the pitch on Ayton as the top guy.

“When a guy is that big and that dominant, you take him!”

It’s hilariously simple with Ayton as a No. 1 prospect. He is the best athletic specimen the draft has had this decade. He can physically dominate games and overwhelm NBA centers. Monster rebounder. Fast for his size. Skilled scorer around the basket. Can stretch the floor. Great hands. Great passer. Will not fail to be great in the NBA.

We mostly stop here, and despite what you may believe, I agree with most of those assessments.

When you dive deeper, though, and watch Ayton over the course of a full season, small punctures begin to appear in his scouting report.

Some will call this “overthinking” but these are the same little flaws we’ve been writing about since November and watching for since he came to Tucson. If you want to turn down that notion, DraftExpress’ preseason scouting video of Ayton from November covers a lot of what we will be discussing today.

For one, Ayton is anything but a complete offensive big man.

Ayton can back down guys and get to the bucket where he finishes well. He has a spin move or two in his arsenal out of the post. He can face up and hit a jumper.

The other gaps are where I’m concerned. What he showed facing up and attacking the basket or scoring in other ways was concerning. I’m far from saying he doesn’t have the potential to do this, and the situation on the floor at Arizona certainly didn’t help, but he would constantly rush things.

This is where the Anthony Davis, Demarcus Cousins and Joel Embiid comparisons just offensively fail and make you shiver. Ayton is not fluid as a scorer despite being an extremely fluid athlete. He’s stiff with his dribbles and shows little to no feel for scoring creatively. In today’s NBA, that is important given Ayton’s other shortcomings we will get to.

To be fair, the flashes are there for him to at least occasionally change up his scoring game. Once again, that’s more of the basic stuff I outlined earlier about his scoring package, but some of these moves are impressive like this absolutely terrifying score on UNLV that is two points before you can blink.

How good is that pivot to face up followed by a quick dribble spin and then a spin back to shoot over his right shoulder? Those plays were hard to find for him, but the potential and moments were there.

Three narratives we can focus on here is that Ayton was double-teamed all the time, and has an outstanding post game that comes with even better touch. All of those aren’t 100 percent true. His shot selection was rather simple, he had his fair share of possessions against single coverage and the touch on his jump hook still needs work. That’s important given the aforementioned lack of variety in his post game.

Per The Stepien’s shot charts, Ayton shot an alarming 35.9 percent in the short midrange area, which is where he’s taking more of those looks out of the post and facing up. That’s in the 28th percentile amongst bigs in the database, a poor number.

In that range for his post moves, how will his skillset fare against NBA-level bodies and defenders that are going to find him a bit predictable?

When we step out to his jumper in the long midrange area, that’s where we get an absurd 50.9 shooting percentage in an excellent 93rd percentile, a testament to how much he knocks down that shot.

A worthwhile tidbit here is while Ayton shot 34 percent from 3-point range, he only attempted one a game and shoots the ball on a line with little arc. Will his shot translate to the NBA 3-point line?

For the sake of time and a comprehensive argument regarding his offense further out, I urge you to read The Stepien’s JZ Mazlish and his film breakdown on Ayton’s face-up game that is loaded with worrisome visual evidence to balance out any over-the-charts optimism you might have about him off the dribble.

The one red flag where I have the most confidence compared to those who are down on Ayton is his physicality.

His motor is not a concern. The dude works hard and is always trying to be in the right spot. When faced in positions where he can obviously overpower his defender, though, he didn’t show a natural acumen for doing so.

I saw countless possessions like this on tape where he fell in love with a simple hook or just shot his midrange jumper.

This can be attributed to wanting to avoid foul trouble and not having a great feel for his own body against players he can legitimately bully, which is why I’m willing to brush it off.

The mindset for physical domination, however, was not shown on a consistent basis despite the flashy 20 and 10 numbers throughout the year.

If you don’t believe me, watch the way he set screens or boxed out. He’s the worst screen-setter of the lottery-projected bigs by a mile and he rarely boxes out on the glass. He didn’t need to do this in college and he absolutely must in the NBA.

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported a troubling tidbit in mid-February that Ayton sees himself more as a power forward.

Back then, already telling us he was 6-foot-10 (but hoped he’d grow to 7-foot-4), Ayton described his position as “center,” though that would be one of the last instances in which he would willingly portray himself as such. Later in his high school career, he became infatuated with the idea of being a power forward, which has continued to this day, despite the fact that modern basketball has gone in the opposite direction. The fact that he’s listed as a “forward” by Arizona and is starting and playing heavy minutes alongside another 7-footer, Dusan Ristic, is not an accident. It’s entirely by his own design.

The worry for a guy of Ayton’s size potentially not wanting to be a center does not need to be expounded upon any further. Do me a favor and go watch that video on his post touch misses again for the first one against UNLV. Why is he pivoting out for a hook shot instead of bumping into the defender to draw an easy foul right under the rim? It’s the same thing he did in the UMBC play.

I think an NBA coaching staff and spacing will sort that out, but I’m still not completely ruling it a non-concern.

Defensively is where there’s a giant flashing red sign of caution in his evaluation, but also where he has the highest upside out of everything he does.

Look no further than the Wildcats’ only game in the NCAA Tournament, a blowout loss to Buffalo.

Like I said earlier, Ayton had his 14 points and 13 rebounds. The production was there, but Arizona lost that game because Buffalo saw Ayton’s defensive limitations.

Watch these clips of his mistakes defensively.

He’s trying, but the instincts are non-existent. Buffalo flat-out attacked him in that game and forced him to prove he can make the right defensive decisions nine times out of 10 like you have to in the NBA. He was struggling, to say the least, a struggle The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks expanded on here.

My tagline for his rim protection woes has been “he just stands there.” I can’t say he has bad defensive instincts because he doesn’t have defensive instincts.

What else can you call that?

It’s an absolute headache to figure out because when you put Ayton on the ball defending, he has a great understanding of blocking shots and moving his feet on guys he can hang with.

With concerns in mind, if he gets his head on straight, all the proclamations of him as a top prospect should actually get you the most excited about his defense. He could be an all-time great defensive center.

Let’s add up all of our concerns.

We’ve got worries about his face-up game, his physicality and his defensive awareness.

Where I struggle the most is if two of those translate, and that’s with the hope he changes his mentality in the paint to be a true center.

If Ayton’s offense is rim runs, post touches within 10-15 feet on basic moves and jumpers, there’s doubt to his versatility as a high-level scorer. Even with his tremendous passing feel out of the post and great finishing at the rim, he is limited right now on offense compared to what today’s great NBA bigs are doing.

If Ayton’s defense amounts to him becoming a very good rebounder and on-ball defender who can’t consistently make the right reads as an off-ball defender and can’t be a viable rim protector, he is a limited defender right now compared to what today’s great NBA bigs are doing as well.

Those are the if’s I struggle with in having him as a No. 1 prospect.

To go back to the Buffalo game, that’s a microcosm for the entire debate surrounding Ayton. Going into that game, the question was how a team like Buffalo with no size stops Ayton — the answer was they relentlessly attacked him on defense to cancel out any positives Ayton had because of his overwhelming size.

Watching the NBA Playoffs, especially, and I know for a fact that version of Ayton wouldn’t be able to survive. Hassan Whiteside, who is similar to Ayton in that he’s great in certain areas but limited in others, was virtually unplayable for the Miami Heat against the Philadelphia 76ers.

I’m failing to see where this dynamic center is when we look at what great centers are in the NBA today.

Look at what Al Horford did for Boston, Embiid did for the Sixers and Davis did for the Pelicans. They are dynamic offensive players and game-changing bigs defensively.

For those who disagree on Ayton’s offense and how it compares to the top bigs we’ve seen in the playoffs, The Stepien’s Cole Zwicker did an outstanding deep look at the offense of playoff bigs in relation to this draft’s top bigs and will have more coming on defense that you should really consider reading if you think Ayton is a no-brainer at No. 1.

You can also be great like Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert or Karl-Anthony Towns by being exceptional in a few facets of the game, but even in the most competitive NBA space, Gobert and Towns were both unplayable at times against a team like the Houston Rockets.

Is Ayton going to be exceptional as a post-up scorer and rebounder? Maybe with the added accents of his reliable passing and shooting. Can he be balanced enough if he’s not fantastic in those two departments?

I’m really not sure if he can be a multi-dimensional big man, and that’s why he’s No. 2 for me.

Ayton is, quite frankly, more of an upside selection than most are willing to let on.

That’s not a slight at him. If Ayton winds up being the top selection by the Suns, that’s a terrific foundational piece to go next to Devin Booker. I’m more than ready to be wrong and see him fulfill his potential as a two-way monster.

But, do I think Ayton is the wrong choice? Yes.

When it comes down to the intricate details of both Ayton’s and Doncic’s respective games, that’s where I see Doncic’s shining and Ayton’s suffering.

Both are outstanding NBA prospects, but even as an Arizona grad who would love to see the best NBA prospect the school has produced in purple and orange, I still maintain Doncic is the guy the Suns should pick.

Empire of the Suns

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball during the first half of Game Seven of the Weste...
Kellan Olson

Suns’ offseason questions: How much should Phoenix rely on Chris Paul?

Chris Paul's injury history in the playoffs means the Phoenix Suns have to rethink the way they are shaping their roster going forward.
17 hours ago
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns reacts during the first half of Game One of the Western Confere...
Kevin Zimmerman

Offering Devin Booker supermax contract extension is no-brainer for Suns

Here's one move that should not take more than a second's worth of brain energy: Extending Devin Booker to a supermax contract.
17 hours ago
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns shoots against Robert Covington #33 of the Portland Trail Bla...
Kellan Olson

Suns’ offseason questions: Deandre Ayton’s future, luxury tax concerns

Empire of the Suns looks ahead to the biggest questions for the Suns this offseason, starting with Deandre Ayton's restricted free agency.
17 hours ago
Head Coach Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns watches the action against the Dallas Mavericks durin...
Kevin Zimmerman

Phoenix Suns’ flaws piled up well before flop in Game 7

The Suns put together 82 games to set up higher expectations. It was a bar so high that Phoenix got clotheslined by it.
4 days ago
Cameron Payne #15 and Jae Crowder #99 of the Phoenix Suns react during the fourth quarter against t...
Kellan Olson

Suns’ best chance at title in franchise history ends in unimaginable fashion

A month ago, the Phoenix Suns were the odds-on favorites to win the NBA championship. A month later, their season is over. What happened?
4 days ago
Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns dribbles the ball against the Dallas Mavericks in the second quar...
Kellan Olson

Suns-Mavs Game 7 preview: Chris Paul’s struggles, Dallas’ winning formula

With a surprising series against the Mavericks going seven games, the Suns' season is on the line, and they need to get Chris Paul going.
5 days ago
Not No. 1: Deandre Ayton and the versatility of modern NBA centers