Luka Doncic has received all the media attention this year, deservedly so, but Deandre Ayton has become the best non-European rookie. In the last Rookie Power Rankings, Ayton landed the number 2 spot. Despite being the number one overall pick, the media has been silent on Ayton’s great play. So far this season he has averaged 16.7 PPG on 60.7% from the field and 10.8 RPG. Although he has defensive deficiencies, those are incredible numbers. Currently, Ayton’s shooting 73.8% around the rim. For reference, the two best centers in the league, Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid, are shooting 74.5% and 74.1%, respectively.
Ayton has the most-polished post game of any rookie and arguably the best post game in the NBA besides Embiid. He has a variety of hook shots, one dribble spin moves, and the ability to out-muscle his defender down low. In addition to this, Ayton is a great shooter from midrange. He’s shooting 41% between 16 feet and the three-point line this season. His form looks good enough that I would expect him to become a 3-point threat sooner rather than later. Ayton could easily develop into a player similar to Embiid. Both are dominant post-players that have the ability to stretch the floor. Ayton already grabs more offensive rebounds at 3.3 per game than Embiid’s 2.3 per game. Embiid is still a better player and way better defender, but Ayton still has time to catch up.
The biggest discrepancy between the two has been defense. Ayton has been far from great on defense but has shown signs of improvement. On the season he is averaging 0.9 blocks and 0.8 steals which is pretty good, but stats don’t tell the whole story. Phoenix, the 3rd worst defense in the NBA, has a worse defensive rating with Ayton on the court. He has struggled to guard the pick and roll at times and is out of position too often. He has shown flashes of being able to stay in front of players on the wing but not consistently. Still, he has time to improve this part of his game and has the physical profile to dominate on both ends.
Offensively, Ayton has continued to improve. In December, he averaged 17.6 PPG and 11.8 RPG. Furthermore, in the last 10 games, Ayton has averaged 20.0 PPG on 67% shooting and 12.7 RPG, including 5.5 offensive rebounds per game. His offensive rebounding was second only to Clint Capela over that stretch. Additionally, he had his best game of the season during this stretch. Against the Nuggets he scored 33 points on 16 – 20 shooting and grabbed 10 offensive rebounds. The most important change for Ayton was deciding to take more shots. In that 10 game stretch, he took 13.3 shots per game compared to his previous average of 11.7 shots per game. As long as the Suns keep giving him more post touches, Ayton should continue to be a productive scorer.
Ayton is a very talented player, especially on offense, but now the question is if he can contribute to the win column. I believe he can. In lineups with Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and either TJ Warren or Devin Booker, the Suns have played their opponent evenly. These 3-man lineups have over 440 minutes each and both are under -0.8 points per 100 possessions. The 4-man lineup of Ayton, Warren, Bridges, Booker is +2.1 in 125 minutes together. Also, Ayton, Bridges, Booker, and Trevor Ariza are just -1.1 in 356 minutes together. Given that the Suns are -8.8 points per 100 possessions as a team, this is rather impressive. It shows if Ayton is paired with competent help that he can compete with other teams.
More specifically, his chemistry with Booker has been impressive. On the court, Booker and Ayton have been deadly in the pick and roll. Off the court, Booker and Ayton seem to have a good relationship. Booker has praised Ayton many times. Whether it’s his intelligence or defensive improvements, Ayton has clearly impressed Booker. The two young stars are only 20 and 22 years old and the cornerstones of the Suns’ franchise, so their ability to work together is critical to future success. If the Suns stay committed to building around Ayton and Booker, this team should be back in the playoffs very soon.