On Monday, Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, put together an eye-opening performance. Playing against the Sacramento Kings, Ayton posted 24 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots in 30 minutes of action. It was an impressive outing for the elite prospect, who has a surprising amount of critics and skeptics.
Ayton has been criticized in the past for getting lost on defense, not tallying as many blocks or rebounds as he should, not sustaining top effort and fumbling passes and missing easy scoring opportunities as a result. Those issues were a non-factor in Ayton’s performance against the Kings on Monday night.
Ayton was a major presence on defense, starting with his block on De’Aaron Fox, who had stepped back for a three-pointer in isolation. Ayton provided sound defense on the perimeter, in pick-and-roll actions and on the interior as well. Throughout the game, Ayton displayed impressive footwork, body control and disciplined verticality.
After the game, Kings head coach Dave Joerger had nothing but praise for Ayton’s performance.
“It’s hard to take him off the court as an opposing team coach,” Joerger said regarding Ayton. “Because he defends the pick and roll really well I think, so you can’t take advantage of him that way. He’s switchable, he can show. So he’s going to be a handful in areas that not a lot of people are talking about.”
After the game, Ayton was asked what he thought he did best on each end of the court.
“Defense. I thought I talked a lot when I was out there,” Ayton said. “I think I really helped my guards on communication with the pick and rolls. Down on the screens and telling them when to go under the screens, off ball screens as well for the flares. Just being in their ear, letting them know where they are, if they’re by themselves or on an island, just being their backup. And when their man breaks the paint, I’m always there to protect the basket.”
On offense, Ayton set several quality picks for his teammates and effectively rolled to the basket for several easy dunks off of lobs. Ayton will probably have a tougher time scoring off of lobs in the regular season against better defensive teams but it was notable that he was consistently setting solid picks and finding the seams to get to the basket against the Kings’ big men. This is especially the case since the Suns lack shooters, which will allow opposing teams to pack the paint against Ayton. However, Ayton showed off his full range of athleticism and skill set, showing that he will be a handful for opponents.
Ayton and teammate Josh Jackson had an obvious chemistry playing with one another. Jackson has known Ayton for a few years and seems genuinely enthusiastic about having the talented center on the team.
“I know he’s a hard worker, he’s a competitor,” Jackson said about Ayton. “When I’m coming down the lane and I know if he’s on the side rolling to the basket, it’ a pretty easy decision for me. I can just see whether his man is going to take me or take him and, whichever man he takes, the other guy gets the shot.
“He’s so tall and so athletic. I just throw it up there and somehow he just goes and gets it.”
Of course, this is just one preseason game and we can’t draw too many conclusions from one performance. As previously noted, the Suns lack shooting on the roster and are integrating several new players, such as Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Mikal Bridges, De’Anthony Melton and Richaun Holmes, among others. Considering the significant investment the Suns made in players like Ariza and Anderson, it’s clear that the team’s front office is looking to compete this season. While Ayton will get plenty of playing time to learn and get a feel for the NBA’s level of competition, the team will look to him for major contributions, rather than simply being satisfied with flashes of development.
Fortunately for Ayton and his teammates, Phoenix is now coached by Igor Kokoskov, who has a sterling reputation and plenty of experience as an assistant coach. Kokoskov is expected to implement more effective offensive and defensive schemes than the Suns have had over the last few seasons, which should benefit a young player like Ayton. Kokoskov has never been the head coach of an NBA team, so it’s difficult to predict how he will do this season, but there is plenty of reason to be optimistic.
As for Ayton, he will have plenty of off-nights this season. Every rookie goes through the early struggles of adjusting to the NBA, especially rookies as young as Ayton. But Monday was a nice start for the young center, who gave his doubters reason to second guess their previous criticisms.
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