EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Deandre Ayton wants to grab-and-go, be playmaker for Suns next season
PHOENIX — Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton has plenty to look to improve on this upcoming offseason, as every rookie does.
When asked on Wednesday what he’s looking to add to his game for next season, the first answer was a bit surprising.
“Taking the ball at the rim and pushing it,” he said. “That’s what I’m gonna be doing next year.”
It’s a fascinating thing for Ayton to say given the direction the league is going in. Ball-handlers 6-foot-8 and up are starting to run the league, from Giannis Antetokoumpo, LeBron James and Nikola Jokic to younger stars like Luka Doncic and Ben Simmons.
Ayton’s just about limitless talent makes it not seem like a completely foolish wish, but adding dribbles to his offensive game in the half-court was even something that was a process throughout this season.
But it’s important to emphasize he is growing out of that.
He went from often looking to square up and take a mid-range jumper or relying on a one-to-two dribble setup for a hook shot to legitimately incorporating plays off the bounce into his game.
He’s been more open to contact and that’s really expanding his game there.
This is not to say this is indicative of Ayton turning into LeBron or some type of playmaking center, but to see this part of his game and his defense progress give some credence to him diversifying more.
His coach is behind it, but it goes beyond that in Igor Kokoskov understanding that Ayton is not a traditional big man in any sense.
“He’s a basketball player. He’s not necessarily a five-man,” he said Friday. “He’s not a center — he’s a modern center.
“Many, many times you guys ask me when he’s gonna be able to shoot threes, now playmaking on the break, and then post catches, we’re switching a lot and he can guard LeBron … but the point is he’s a versatile basketball player. He’s not an old-school center.”
For those wanting the more expected responses of a 3-point shot and strength for Ayton’s focuses this offseason, he mentioned both of those.
Ayton went from jokingly shooting a 3-pointer or two in his routines during the first half of the year after practice and before games to legitimately incorporating sets of shots into them. That’s coming.
As for strength, Ayton didn’t even feel the need to mention it because he knows like everyone else that it will come naturally.
“I think that’s gonna happen regardless in this offseason dealing with our training staff,” he said. “I got bullied a couple times by some of these centers — guards too — to where I can’t move. They just showed me ways your legs need to get stronger and just looking at film and saying, ‘How did he move me like this?'”
That’s another key bit of this. Ayton watches a lot of film and he’s doing so for this potential aspect of his game in the future too.
“I really look up to Giannis when he does stuff like that,” he said of the grab-and-go. “How he controls the ball in transition because it opens up the floor for everybody. Shooters are in their corners and it’s unusual for a big dude to be dribbling that much so everybody thinks they’re guarding their man but no, he’s coming full steam ahead.
“Somebody’s gonna have to help a little bit and that’s when the shooters get open so that’s what I’ve been studying a lot.”
Antetokounmpo is certainly the right name to look up to for that.
He turns defense into offense on his own protecting of the rim, the primary job for Ayton defensively.
And that specific video example is the one Ayton should look at. Antetokounmpo is certainly faster and more fluid than Ayton, but we saw a brief tease of Ayton handling in the open court earlier in the season.
When Deandre Ayton’s athleticism matches up with doing basketball things it is frightening. pic.twitter.com/f8MTclW1Y7
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) March 3, 2019
The X-factor should be possessions like that in which Ayton takes three dribbles or less like Antetokounmpo did above, and then make the play.
Another example of that at a more controlled pace is something Ayton said himself when it comes to his presence bringing the ball up while defenses are still getting back.
Watch Miami’s Josh Richardson look at Eric Bledsoe while Antetokounmpo dribbles up. He sees where his man is, but when Antetokounmpo is coming towards the free-throw line, you need to help.
Now players will naturally be pulled towards the ball, but the argument becomes how much extra attention Ayton warrants in that role.
According to Jamal Crawford, Ayton’s floor sense and vision are built for those types of possessions.
“A lot of guys who add [pushing the ball in transition off misses to their game] can’t see the floor like DA does so if he brings up the ball with the way he sees the floor … He’s already gonna be great but he’ll be out of this world (if he adds that),” he said Friday.
To put it simply as well, Ayton bringing the ball up at his size is “intimidating,” as Crawford noted.
Ayton’s feel for moving the ball quickly and effectively has shown despite him not really having a role this season in the offense to show it.
Ayton had a rough night but check out this pass after running down the floor to get position. Excellent. pic.twitter.com/XY8gKKeQAC
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) February 3, 2019
This one against Memphis truly takes a certain touch to find the window.
“To me, that’s the best part of his game,” Crawford said. “As crazy as it sounds, the way he sees the floor it’s almost like LeBron.”
There’s really nowhere else to go besides seeing Ayton try it.
“If he can rebound and be a push guy, I’m all for it,” Kokoskov said. We’re gonna see that pretty soon.”
And if we see it be successful?
“If he does that progression in his game he’ll be one of five guys that big that can do that?” Crawford proclaims, speaking to the rarity of that skill-set for a guy Ayton’s size.