Suns’ Deandre Ayton gets 3rd go at MVP candidate Joel Embiid

Feb 12, 2021, 11:37 AM | Updated: 1:43 pm
PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 19: Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns controls the ball against Joe...
PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 19: Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns controls the ball against Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center on November 19, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton and Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid had a fun connection before Ayton even played in the NBA via some fun social media banter nearly three years ago.

Since then, Ayton has made it clear he respected Embiid’s game, as did Embiid after their first meeting in November 2018.

“A lot of people misunderstand me; I talk a lot of trash,” Embiid said, per the Associated Press. “He’s talented and has a lot of potential. I loved playing against him tonight. I can’t wait for the multiple battles we’ll have in the future. I’m a big fan.”

It’s an exciting matchup because both guys share a unique blend of power, speed and skill for guys their size. From strictly a look at their collective skill sets and attributes, and not the level of them, they compare to each other the best of any other big men in the league.

That makes it disappointing that we’ve only seen them face off twice. And both of those were in Ayton’s rookie year, so, yeah, they were ugly.

Embiid had 33 points and 17 rebounds in the initial showdown compared to Ayton’s 17 points and nine rebounds. Two months later, Embiid dominated again with 42 points, 18 rebounds, two assists, three steals and two blocks. Ayton did well for a first-year player again, posting 18 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and two steals.

Because of Ayton’s suspension last season and Embiid sitting in the bubble before the start of the playoffs, they have not met since.

Saturday marks their first matchup in two years, and both players have progressed considerably.

The advancements Suns fans want to see in Ayton’s game is the type of process 76ers fans are seeing unfold for Embiid, albeit at a much higher level. Embiid has been criticized for his aggressiveness at times and tendency to drift toward the perimeter, not operating like the tank that he is as much as he should be.

You’ll often hear talk about how engaged Embiid is. Sound familiar?

This year, that switch has flipped for Embiid more than ever before and his reward for it might be the league’s most prestigious individual hardware.

Suns head coach Monty Williams spent time as an assistant in Philly with Embiid in the 2018-19 season and said the big man has always been dominant. When asked what he’s seen Embiid improve on this season, Williams said he’s not sure if it’s anything specific, but that it’s even higher peaks in his play.

“I just see more force. It seems like he’s in great shape, which allows for him to play with force for longer periods,” he said. “Maybe I’ve seen more dominant quarters from him. I watched one, I think he had like 28, 29 points in a half the other day. Then I watched another game where he had 17 points in a quarter.”

Now that Embiid is armed with that extra bit of decisive play, he’s even better at drawing fouls, and that makes him the most unguardable player in the league.

Think about it like this as a defender: How do you not initiate contact with Embiid to avoid him overpowering you, while also avoiding some of the shenanigans he can pull to get to the free-throw line?

It’s pretty hard!

Check out how helpless he makes Anthony freaking Davis look:

And he will power through your feeble swipe attempts for a double team:

As has been long discussed with Ayton, guys of Embiid’s size earn a whistle unlike any other players in the league. Refs don’t really know how to call them and often give the bigger guys a benefit of the doubt. Embiid has known this for years and he’s taking advantage this season even more.

In over half his games, Embiid has attempted double-digit free throws. He’s averaging a league-leading 11.4 per game, a mark that would make him just the fifth player in the last 25 years to reach at least 11, per Basketball-Reference. On top of that, he’s shooting a career-best 84.9% at the charity stripe.

And if you can believe it, the scariest development isn’t even that.

Embiid is taking a career-high 53% of his total shots from the midrange area — aided by all those free throws canceling out shots around the rim — and he’s converting on an absurd 54% of them, according to Cleaning the Glass. His efficiency in that area is 13% better than any other season he’s had, a remarkable increase.

That includes an absurd 47-for-80 (59%) record on long midrange jumpers.

That’s got Embiid’s field goal percentage up to 54.5%, much more around where it should be compared to his career 48.6% number. On the year, he’s providing 29.4 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. Take that combined with the usual All-Defense-level play on the other end we’re used to seeing from him and you’ve got an MVP candidate.

Here’s what Williams said about the Suns defending Embiid.

“You really have to trust the help when you’re guarding Jo, because 1-on-1 he’s just a tough cover,” he said. “Doesn’t’ always mean you have to double-team him, but at the same time, when you’re guarding Jo, it’s hard. Because if you try to be physical with him, he’s about as strong as anybody in the league, he and Steven Adams.

“So I think you have to mix up your coverages like you do with all great players but our team defense has to be at such a high level when you’re playing against a guy like Jo.”

Ayton, four years younger, is still finding consistency at reaching his potential on both ends of the floor. He’s gone from spurts of highly influencing games near the level of Embiid at his age to doing it over the course of four quarters. Those outings, however, come and go.

The 22-year-old had a four-game run in mid-January of posting 22.0 points, 14.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 blocks per night, and the play was even better than the numbers. Embiid has always shown that true power in his game, albeit inconsistently, but this was Ayton’s first true showing with it fully armed and operational.

But instead of that being the potential breakout stretch of Ayton’s career, he regressed significantly to five-point and 12-point duds against Oklahoma City and Golden State, respectively, in his next two games.

To his credit, Ayton has found a constant since that first highly encouraging performance against Memphis on Jan. 18: offensive rebounding.

Ayton in his last 13 games is averaging 4.7 offensive rebounds per game, third-most in the NBA, and a number that has his overall rebounding over that time at a second-highest 13.7 overall rebounds a night.

It has been instilled into Ayton, likely through Chris Paul, that running the floor and going for every Suns miss helps the offense immensely. He’s been doing that, and it does indeed open lots of things up.

Coincidentally, this is where Ayton can, by default, score points in his own individual matchup with Embiid on Saturday. Where Embiid is much stronger, Ayton is the quicker guy. He can beat him up and down, which the Suns in turn will hope wears Embiid out over the course of the game.

Ayton, of course, is going to need to avoid foul trouble to stay on the floor and accomplish that task. That is far easier said than done against Embiid.

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