EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Questions for Suns’ 2nd half of season, Pt. 2: Can youth find consistency?

Mar 11, 2021, 9:34 AM
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns high fives Mikal Bridges #25 after scoring against the Denver...
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns high fives Mikal Bridges #25 after scoring against the Denver Nuggets during the first half of the NBA game at Phoenix Suns Arena on January 23, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

After taking a glance at what the 24-11 Phoenix Suns have to figure out with the end of their rotation, it’s time for a peek at the pair of third-year players who could make a tremendous difference in what ultimately comes of this year’s second half.

Can Deandre Ayton find some level of consistency?

Center Deandre Ayton has not met expectations this season and has underwhelmed. There’s no getting past that no matter how you look at it.

Heading into this season, you couldn’t get 45 seconds into a discussion about Chris Paul on the Suns before arriving at how he was going to bring the best out of 2018’s No. 1 overall pick.

That hasn’t quite come to fruition, to say the least.

Paul obviously is doing everything he can to motivate Ayton and unlock the beast we’ve seen flash over what is now a 144-game career.

Ayton is trying his best to take it all in his stride, saying all the right things when it comes to working with Paul while having voices in his ear like he never has before.

However you want to break down the process, the byproduct of it thus far has been an Ayton that’s become impossible to figure out at times. And that comes with the caveat of already accepting some of his flaws.

Instead of a leap forward in his third season, Ayton’s negatives on the court have become magnified, and the Suns’ performance this year has been much better when their All-Stars aren’t alongside him.

Paul’s net rating bumps from 5.7 to 16.6 in the 198 minutes he’s played without Ayton. Devin Booker’s difference is even more substantial, a 3.0 net rating to 21.1 in 264 minutes while Ayton sits.

That equates to Booker being a staggering plus-104 in those 264 minutes. And this was not the case last year, with Booker’s net rating dropping from 7.4 to 0.4 when playing without Ayton.

This is coming from a place of being fully aware of how impactful Ayton already is right now when he’s playing well and how much better he can still become. There’s likelihood of growth over the next 2-3 years. It’s not meant to gloss over the stretches that he has been great or the benefits of him as a player.

But here’s where we’re at right now: His defense has not progressed in Year 3.

Ayton was a positive defender overall last season, something not said lightly about a second-year big, bringing on the encouragement that he could be a difference-maker for the rest of his career. Given where he started as a rookie, that amount of development had his improvement trajectory on the way toward multiple All-Defense teams.

But you know when you fail to see a speed bump coming, hit that sucker going about 30 miles per hour, and you get lifted out of the seat of your car when it comes? That’s what that trajectory for Ayton has felt like this season.

For some possessions, he feels physically disconnected from the defense and there’s visible indecisiveness in the way he moves. That has had a notable effect on his overall impact. He has still been good in quite a few games, but to reiterate the main point here, it’s coming out more like his rookie year and has been problematic.

Watch Ayton on this possession when he, at first, covers Mikal Bridges’ while Bridges is fronting LeBron James before leaving like the job was done:

Observe again later how Devin Booker has to guard James in the post and Ayton is there to help, until he isn’t:

Occasionally, it doesn’t look like he’s defending with confidence, and that’s dangerous.

At times, you can draw the impression that he’s zoning out calls from his teammates. Here’s Jae Crowder and Bridges trying to get him in the right spot for a zone look:

Crowder’s looking for some type of explanation after and he’s not going to get it.

On offense, bounce passes have become a treacherous endeavor when delivered to Ayton. His hands, which I cannot emphasize enough looked tremendous pre-draft and most of the time have been pretty great, are in a rough spot right now.

That obviously takes a toll on what he can contribute offensively, especially when he’s getting the ball less than he was last year and his hesitancy to be aggressive has continued.

Ayton’s turnover percentage is slightly up this year from 13.0% to 14.6%, per Cleaning the Glass, and that’s with some of his mistakes not being attributed to him. Smaller guys will jostle him out of a seal to get their hand on entry passes.

Losing the ball from swipes or just not being able to hold onto it is an issue more than ever before.

When these factors in Ayton’s game come together, which they have more consistently this year than last season, it can cause his mistakes to snowball.

To go back to those defensive clips, Ayton keeps looking like a player who is still finding himself and adjusting to the speed of the NBA. That, of course, is troubling in his third season, especially after he looked well-acclimated last season.

In the two-man game with Paul, the chemistry in terms of getting to the right spots and building timing has gotten better, but sometimes Ayton doesn’t even see the ball coming.

If you’re noticing a certain level of repetition in analyzing Ayton with qualifiers like “sometimes” and “occasionally,” that’s because this isn’t how Ayton has played all year. Unfortunately, though, it has been a common enough occurrence to become a trend throughout the season.

Ayton had a four-game blip in mid-January where the “Dominayton” we’ve heard about finally emerged. Even after that sighting, it is still not realistic to expect that to come out in the second half of the year.

Last season in 38 games, Ayton scored at least 20 points in 16 of them. This year, it’s six in 35 games. That includes seven games in single digits after only three last year.

Ayton’s offensive role has decreased this year, as he’s taking four fewer shots than last season. He also doesn’t need that role to still be productive as a scorer while running a two-man game with the Point God.

And that’s not necessarily what the Suns need. What they need is more consistency.

Ayton doesn’t dunk a lot when he should. He’s not going to get to the free-throw line enough. At a certain point, Ayton is what he is, and that’s fine.

Some of those defensive errors came in a game against the Lakers where Ayton was, outside of those gaffes, solid. He provided 17 points and six rebounds with serviceable defense.

The game prior, however, was the archetype. Ayton scored 22 points on 11 shots, grabbing 10 rebounds as well in a win against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Most importantly, there were no Butterfinger instances with his hands, nor head-scratching moments defensively.

After getting some key buckets finishing around the rim and hitting jumpers from the post, he started feeling himself and picked up the two biggest baskets to ice the game.

In the fourth quarter, Ayton went directly at Karl-Anthony Towns and held his follow-through after hitting the and-one turnaround jumper. Two minutes later, he marauded down the floor for an easy dunk.

On that first bucket, do you see how the bench shot up and Bridges came over to dap Ayton?

They know that’s the guy. They want that guy.

Phoenix needs him. Ayton certainly has the talent and pedigree in past performances to be the Suns’ third-best player most nights. That was not the case at the All-Star break, and it’s going to need to change if the Suns want to have any real grand aspirations in the postseason.

What about Mikal Bridges?

With Bridges, this is obviously a different type of discussion. He has already found consistency in this league and it has been a breakout year of sorts when it comes to his 3-and-D potential fully coming together.

Bridges is shooting 42% from three-point range on 4.5 attempts per game this season after a shaky two-year start. While mechanical issues still rear their head from time to time, he clearly took a mental approach this year that he’s always ready to let that thing fly.

Take one more look at that one and watch Bridges’ posture as Paul receives the kickout from Ayton. Bridges is squatting with those hands in position, certified sniper movements.

He is well in position to get some All-Defense love this year.

The Suns are too relevant for those watching to avoid the handful of possessions per game Bridges strings together like this one that make the observer step back and say, “Man, I really like that Bridges kid.”

That’s five plays in five seconds: getting through the screen, cutting off the pass, swiping at the ball-handler, then at the entry pass as he gets position before knocking it out of Towns’ grip. Dude is a menace.

Offensively outside of the jumper, Bridges does enough in transition and off cuts to be a contributor on that end.

Can be more than that right now?

Bridges showed what that can look like in a Jan. 9 win against the Indiana Pacers in which he scored a career-high 34 points.

A heavy percentage of his points were from those aforementioned categories already, but Bridges being that one-to-two dribble threat as a scorer would really open things up for the offense as a whole come playoff time. That’s where opposing defensive gameplans over the course of a series will whittle down what an offense can do.

Bridges has logged at least 20 points in six games this year, besting his previous career total of five. He’s averaging a career-best 13.7 points per game, and getting that number around 16-18 for the second half would be huge.

With that in mind, it’s hard for Bridges to find that consistency when he has little to nothing run around him in the offense, and honestly, with good reason. Everything should orbit around Paul, Booker and the gravity Ayton brings as a dive man.

But getting beyond that, Monty Williams running a bit more for Bridges over the remaining 30-plus games to get him going might be something worth considering. When Bridges registers under 13 points, the Suns are 8-8. When he hits that mark of 13, they’re 16-3.

In the same way the search will be on for Ayton’s confidence and consistency, the same can be said for Bridges’ as an option offensively. Establishing enough of it for both guys before the most meaningful Suns basketball in over a decade would pay off big time.

All statistics via NBA.com/stats

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