It’s not often an NBA team goes from perennial lottery-dwellers to serious title contenders in one season. The Phoenix Suns have done just that, largely due to the addition of Chris Paul and the continued development of Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges. However, no Sun may be as crucial to their title hopes as DeAndre Ayton.
The Suns sit in second place in the Western Conference standings and have formed an identity around their All-Star backcourt. They are one of the slowest teams in terms of pace (23rd), but it never feels slow. They are methodical and deliberate, seeking out the weak point in a defense; exploiting it with their two All-NBA level guards who are surrounded by shooters always ready to fire away from deep.
Their defense is stingy. They don’t force a ton of turnovers, but they make the opposing offense earn it. At times, all five defenders seem like they are playing on a string with their always on-time rotations. The Suns know what they can expect to get from all their key guys come playoff time. Everyone except DeAndre Ayton.
Ayton is the Suns’ biggest wildcard. In fact, he may be the biggest wildcard in the entire NBA in terms of swinging the NBA title race. He’s shown flashes of being capable of taking the next step in being an elite big man. There also times where his effort level fluctuates and his play becomes erratic, particularly defensively.
Ayton has the physical tools and talent to elevate the Suns. Standing at 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, he has the physical capability to stamp his presence on any game. Despite these physical tools, Ayton is more of a finesse big rather than an imposing paint presence which has provoked the ire of many of his detractors.
The former number one overall pick is averaging a career-low in scoring, just 14.9 per game, but doing so with a career-high in efficiency with a true-shooting percentage at 64.3 percent. His shots are down which plays a role in both those numbers, but Ayton’s offensive role has shifted this season. He’s become more of a play-finisher, rolling to the basket for pocket passes and lobs, crashing the offensive glass, and the occasional face-up in the post.
For Ayton to truly elevate his game and the Suns’ come playoff time, he has to wreak havoc on teams who try to play small-ball lineups when he’s on the court. Ayton has been a reluctant back to the basket big; he is much more comfortable facing up and shooting 15-foot jumpers. This has allowed teams to play smaller guys on him in the past as teams aren’t concerned that he will exploit the perceived mismatch.
Come playoff time, teams will look to exploit weaknesses in the Suns’ defense. In a lineup that includes Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, teams are going to take their chances with putting Ayton in pick-and-roll actions.
James Harden comes off the screen and faces no resistance here from Ayton. He gives up the free lane easily in what’s a close fourth-quarter game.
Here is where he flashes the potential to be a force on the defensive end. He shuts down the Paul George drive at the basket.
The Suns usually play Ayton in a “drop” type defense where he sits low under the basket, similar to Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, albeit not as drastic or effective. Ayton has the physical capability to play up higher and even be a reasonable if not good switchable big, but the results have been a mixed bag at best. Ayton often gets beat and it has led to him being targeted at times.
Jeff Green, who isn’t a 1-on-1 scorer, is able to blow past Ayton with no resistance.
But there are flashes where he stifles guards on a switch. Here he stays with Coby White and comes up with the block.
The switch on DeAndre Ayton’s effort levels can be frustrating. He clearly has the capacity to be a game-changing player, but as is the case with young players, consistency is his biggest issue. As the center, he plays the most important defensive position so there is an added pressure for him to be effective there. A fully engaged Ayton would make the Suns an even scarier team come playoff time.
If the Suns are to truly make a playoff run, Ayton will have to elevate his game. He is their ceiling-raiser and the Suns seem to know it. Chris Paul in particular is always in his ear, trying to get the most out of him. Paul has a history of getting the most out of the bigs around him with David West, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Clint Capela all serving as testimonials.
The Suns will need Ayton to match up against the likes of Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert. The Suns don’t have other options to guard those guys. Their backup big is small-ball center Dario Saric, who has been excellent coming off the bench but won’t be able to defend that caliber of big man.
The Suns are one of the Western Conference has a handful of teams who legitimately feel this is their year. Their title hopes could land on the broad shoulders of DeAndre Ayton.
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