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Complexity of Deandre Ayton’s outlook shown in Suns’ recent two-game spurt

Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving (11) passes the ball as he drives against Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) during the second quarter of a basketball game in Boston, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Phoenix Suns No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton was always a unique draft prospect, and that’s not because he’s one of the best 7-foot-1 athletes you’ll ever see.

Ayton has the undeniable floor of a highly productive offensive center. An overflowing bundle of double-doubles was to be expected in his rookie season, as is that continuing for the rest of his career while he develops around that.

But that doesn’t mean Ayton is a complex, dynamic scorer. He’s limited to hook shots, mid-range jumpers and finishes around the rim at this point in his career, but because of his excellent touch and physical profile, that’s enough to average over 16 points per game.

What further complicates matters is how far he has to go as a defender, lacking the instinctual reactions to provide the basic necessities of an “anchor” presence around the rim.

This adds up a frustrating viewing experience. Not many players can enter the league with the potential to dominate it in due time, but Ayton has that in his grasp.

He needs to keep changing and improving to do so, but to a lesser extent, Ayton needs growth in order to be an overall positive.

That was showcased through the Suns’ two-game stretch on the road over the weekend, where Ayton showed his recent improvements but the sinkhole effect of his defense hurt his team in two losses.

Let’s start with the great signs he’s shown offensively as of late, with a bright and shiny disclaimer that this is a 20-year-old rookie and the overall tone here should reflect that despite the criticisms.

Ayton’s number one fix that needed to come through 25 games of the regular season was being more physical as a finisher around the rim.

Because of his sheer strength, Ayton should never pivot away from a defender here when he has a chance to initiate contact and get closer to the basket.

Help defenders surround him against Washington, but Ayton takes one power dribble to drop the shoulder, create space and finish.

Another example.

The more finesse move is Ayton using his one dribble to spin over his right shoulder and finish with the left hand. Instead, one power dribble with contact and a finish on the other side.

He’s averaging under three free throw attempts a game, but entering Sunday’s matchup with Brooklyn, Ayton had attempted 19 in his last four games. That number will continue to rise if he bodies guys like this.

Ayton’s energy levels are usually OK. Where he raises his ceiling, though, is when he is running the floor constantly, rolling hard to the rim and battling on the glass.

He quickly goes from 10-14 points a game on those aforementioned gimmes to 20-plus points a game when moving at a certain pace.

Watch as Ayton jogs with Devin Booker down the floor, and once he sees the space, he shifts up a gear. When he gets one dribble away with space, it’s game over because of his finishing touch.

That’s an extra bucket or two a night, and how about when he works on the offensive glass like this?

Looking at that same four-game run prior to the game against Brooklyn, Ayton collected 26 offensive rebounds, a remarkable number.

Once again, we haven’t even been breaking down the individual offense. If he keeps at the above, how do teams stop him once he’s making moves like these on a consistent basis?

His 26 points and 17 rebounds against the Wizards were terrific.

But, and you knew the but was coming, his defensive performance canceled that out to an effect where he was an overall negative of the night.

As the tweet points out, that was only a stretch of the game. Ayton had plenty of more bad highlights against Washington.

His starting opposition, Thomas Bryant, was a perfect 14-of-14 from the field for 31 points, and Bryant was in the G League last year. Bryant’s motor on rim runs and the offensive glass wrecked Ayton’s timid reaction speeds and lack of boxing out.

Ayton’s biggest weakness is making more than one defensive rotation, a baffling flaw that cannot be understated, and the Wizards tore him to shreds on it.

To be transparent here, this was Ayton’s worst defensive game in weeks and he’s more than physically capable of canceling out multiple actions.

He cuts off the lane here before picking up his man again and locking him down, speaking to the defensive strides he’s already made.

His defensive potential is highlighted by what he’s the best at as a defender right now — switching and sliding onto ball-handlers.

This is a game-saving play on Saturday.

We had a repeated trend the following night.

Ayton had one of his best overall games of the season on Sunday against Brooklyn, posting 26 points and 18 rebounds.

The Suns wouldn’t have even been in the game in the mid-third quarter had Ayton not played that well, but a run of the Nets specifically attacking Ayton in the first quarter left him responsible for at least 10 points.

Watching Ayton at times is like a swinging pendulum, where a great offensive play on one side was naturally — due to gravity — followed by a defensive miscue on the other, a neutralization effect of sorts.

But as he has in December, Ayton played better over the course of the game on both ends, forming one of his most complete performances. This should be the gold standard for him the rest of the season.

If those brain farts on defense aren’t there, the scale tips and sways heavily towards an impactful outing, which we saw in Brooklyn.

In a funny way, Ayton’s overall basketball game makes more sense when you talk to him enough times. Ayton is a wise-cracking guy with a vibrant personality. He seems hyper-aware, seeing basketball while considering all factors. But at the same time, he talks in a way where he has a certain tunnel vision about his approach.

He has said multiple times this year his game is not being the primary scoring option, being fed in the post seven or eight times a quarter. He gets his buckets off the jumper, hustle and positioning. From there, he gets in a rhythm and can develop as the game progresses.

That can be backed up by the roller coaster of Ayton playing his best once he gets himself going, as those clips from Washington and Brooklyn can attest to.

What that speaks to is a very young player still developing the mindset of not just the end goal to utterly dominate, but finding his style of play as a rookie 20-year-old.

In simpler terms, there’s some maturation left to go through, and that shouldn’t be an issue or worry, especially when we are already seeing signs of it.

In his last five games, Ayton is averaging 22.8 points, 15.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.0 blocks and 0.8 steals per game. The eye test shows you a different player compared to Ayton’s initial impression in the first six weeks, and some of the statistical increases as of late pointed out also back that up.

The worry 25 games in was that Ayton wasn’t improving as much as he needs to. With what we discussed at the top, Ayton is a fairly raw offensive big man that requires growth to positively change games going forward.

As you’d expect for a rookie not even halfway through their first season, there’s still more progress to be made there. But in the Suns’ last two weeks, the building blocks for Ayton’s path to greatness are at least being arranged and starting to get laid down.

He’s already evolving and changing before Christmas in year one and that’s a strong sign the Suns will get the center that was promised at the top spot of the 2018 NBA Draft.

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