The 5: Big questions for Deandre Ayton’s return from suspension
The Phoenix Suns are four games away from getting their franchise center Deandre Ayton back after a 25-game suspension.
There have been highs and lows for the team without Ayton, but it’s mostly been unexpected highs that add more questions as to what to look out for when he presumably comes back on Dec. 17 against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Here are a few of them:
Where does his return benefit the Suns the most?
If you’ve heard Monty Williams or James Jones on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station in the last week, it sure sounds like Ayton is going to be the team’s starting center once he’s 100% back in the mix.
Aron Baynes missing nine games due to injury eased this into place a bit easier than you might have thought a few weeks ago when the Suns were the surprise of the NBA, particularly behind the terrific play of Baynes.
Luckily, Baynes is a veteran accustomed to reserve role of 15-20 minutes a game, so the transition won’t be an issue for him.
Naturally, your head will lean towards the offensive side of the ball being where Ayton coming back helps the most, but it actually might be on defense due to some addition by subtraction in the rotation.
The core defense when Baynes isn’t on the floor has been an outright disaster with Kaminsky as the starting center.
In the 10-game stretch where Baynes missed nine, the Suns were 25th in defensive rating at 116.1. Kaminsky’s defensive rating was 120.7 over that stretch and the Suns’ dropped to 109.2 when he came off the floor.
That severe of a margin will not happen with Ayton. He’s a better defender than Kaminsky, solely based on the fact that he’s far more athletic, as well as being much more of a presence rebounding. Think of Ayton’s return actually helping this current team the way they benefitted from no longer giving legitimate minutes to the likes of Josh Jackson and whoever was at point guard.
But Baynes’ communication as the anchor has been integral. No matter how much Ayton talks, which is a question too if he does so frequently, there are specifics a second-year player just isn’t going to have down like Baynes.
There’s also, you know, how being Aron freaking Baynes provides a physical presence teams think about when coming in the lane. Baynes has been extremely effective at using verticality despite the notion that Ayton’s athleticism makes him the better rim protector.
Baynes has defended 5.1 shots per game this season on 23.4 minutes, with opponents shooting 52.8% on those.
On 30.7 minutes a night last season, Ayton defended 5.7 shots per game and the opposition shot 64.9%.
Even when he was less than 100% on Monday, Baynes was still doing his job behind the defense on a night the Minnesota Timberwolves got to the rim at will.
Ayton’s recognition of these plays unfolding is going to be important, as he’s shown an impressive ability to defend ball-handlers one-on-one and block shots there. That, though, is where most of his blocks and rim protection as a whole came last year.
Once that (hopefully) evolves into meaningful back-line defense, like he showed in the season opener, we’re in business.
And if we’re actually in business as quickly as this season, that’s a huge, huge boost for this team to have 48 minutes of a rim presence defensively.
How does the team adapt and maintain effectiveness on offense with a post presence?
Ayton was one of the league’s best players on post-ups last year. Of the 11 players who attempted at least three shots per game out of post touches, Ayton’s 54.6% shooting was the second best.
In something that has been repeated through this space since the last quarter of Ayton’s rookie season, he has rapidly progressed as a post scorer, developing his own moves outside of a faceup jumper/bully ball into a right hook combo he mostly relied on in college.
Yes, this is going to slow things down in a “point-five” offense that wants quick decisions and plenty of ball movement.
But you can keep everything chugging and still find Ayton in those looks.
And a bucket like this going to help the offense loads when it’s getting sluggish and desperate for a basket.
Incorporating Ayton’s post game into the offense should be the least of concerns given the track record we can go off with Williams and Ricky Rubio’s joint effort running the offense.
Williams admitted Monday he has moments where he looks at Rubio on the court to tell him the play to run and then he sees Rubio already calling out that same play. The two are synced up already and they will be on this front as well.
Through the first hint of Rubio working with Ayton, it was obvious that the Spaniard prioritized feeding the big fella and getting him the ball.
And looking beyond the two-man game with Rubio, just wait until they really start cooking on looks making the defense choose between Ayton and Devin Booker.
If there’s a concern on offense, it’s on how things look when it isn’t run around him, which leads us to…
Will he shoot 3s?
The matter of Ayton shooting three-pointers in the preseason was looked at as more of a luxury if he could do so efficiently, but the team has thrived off the spacing that Baynes and Kaminsky provide. This could put the team in a position where Ayton has to shoot them now.
Despite not taking any within the offense in his first year, Ayton can shoot. He did so at the University of Arizona, albeit on less than two attempts a game, but that was nearly two years ago and from a pure eye test after practice perspective, his shot looks better from distance than it did when he first got here.
The divide, of course, is that Ayton was at his best as a rookie when he was marauding the offensive glass and, as previously mentioned, is good in the post too.
Even if Ayton is shooting 35% from deep, that’s not where he’s going to help the team the most on offense, and it’s not close. But an open lane for ball-handlers and dragging the rim protector away has helped, more so, create the drive-and-kick game for everyone on the team.
This wonderful bit of improvisation below from Rubio is possible because Towns is on the right elbow to stay within range of Baynes. If Ayton was at the elbow or the block here, the pass back to Rubio from Booker might not be open and Robert Covington might not need to help off Dario Saric, either.
That’s where the Suns’ superior ball movement of making the extra pass or three has led to some of the top assist numbers in the league, while also giving the primary ball-handlers Rubio and Booker a reliable safety valve when they get cut down.
Check out the savvy drop-step back by Baynes as he audibles from a roll after seeing Karl-Anthony Towns commit all the way to Rubio.
But, as previously mentioned, Ayton’s speed on dives off pick-and-roll is going to be such a welcome addition that this team has desperately missed.
Because, when Ayton is diving and working on the offensive glass like he did against Sacramento grabbing three, that’s another area he can add something no one else can.
Look at the ocean of space for Ayton to pop to for a three on the right side near the Suns bench. Is that something he will do more of now? Popping on those screens is where he can find most of his three-point attempts, so it’s going to be fascinating as to how Williams chooses to deploy him.
How much his presence as a post option clogs the lane, or in the opposite effect, creates enough gravity to move the ball in different ways is simply an unpredictable element that could be good or bad for the successful offense.
What if Baynes turns out to be more impactful?
This is far more of a compliment to how Baynes has played as opposed to what Ayton could provide.
As The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks covered here, it’s at least a discussion.
Baynes, when healthy, has been one of the Suns’ three best players. I’d argue he’s definitively been the second-best to Booker.
On top of what we covered already, it will be impossible for Ayton to be the screen setter Baynes has been.
When Booker was asked about what he credited his efficiency to on Nov. 12, screens set by Baynes was one of his first three answers, and you can see why.
To steal a point from Williams on guards in Rubio’s place needing to not try to play like and “be Rubio,” the Suns can’t replicate what Baynes provides with Ayton, even though Ayton is capable from a skill and talent perspective.
Ayton being Ayton on this team is, both in good and bad ways, entirely different. He’s an integral part of what they do on both ends, and while Baynes is the same, he excels at doing so as a supporting cast member.
That’s not what Ayton is, nor should he be. But in his rookie year, we saw him disappear in games consistently, having that “empty stats” performance once every three to four nights.
That was viewed as unacceptable heading into this season before the Suns and Baynes’ success, and now it will be seen as even less tolerable due to that.
Baynes doesn’t have those types of nights. He’s always impacting the game, whether it’s rim protection, screens or shooting. And we haven’t even gotten to playmaking, where Baynes has quietly been one of the best playmaking bigs in the NBA.
It’s difficult to speculate as to what Williams does if the trend through a couple of weeks is Baynes performing better than Ayton. Does Baynes close games? Does he start and close them?
Who knows. There are delicate elements of this with a young valuable player to consider too.
What it ultimately comes down to that will make this a non-issue is…
Does he make a second-year leap like Luka Doncic and Trae Young?
Players of Ayton’s talent level, and guys who go No. 1 overall in general, often make a huge jump in either Year 2 or 3.
Even after the Rookie of the Year start for Doncic in Dallas, we’ve seen him now emerge as an MVP candidate for his second season. Ditto for Young in Atlanta as a surefire All-Star on 28.8 points and 8.4 assists per game with far better efficiency.
And before you start typing, this is not to bring up the “what if?” of the Suns drafting either of those guys over Ayton, but instead on what we should expect for guys as talented as Ayton. He’s just as, if not more talented than those two young players.
Expectations are sky-high for his return, and they should be. If he considerably improved over the summer like he should have, Phoenix is a lock for the playoffs. If he didn’t make a sizable jump, then we’ll see. That’s how much he matters to this team and its future.