The NBA is a volatile business in every aspect of its existence. “Job stability” is always more of a concept than it is a reality. Coaches can be kicked to the curb less than two calendar years after delivering their employer the ultimate prize. One bad signing and your reputation as a decision-maker is in doubt. Heck, post an unpopular take online and forever have your intelligence questioned.
For Deandre Ayton, a poor Game 7 seems to have eroded a fair portion of goodwill built up across the past two seasons. This isn’t to say Ayton is undeserving of criticism, rather, the winning skill-set he can provide a team appears to have become lost amidst the warts of his game.
In what feels like almost daily chatter of Ayton to Detroit possibilities, now felt like the perfect time to; pause, take a breath and dive into the film as a means to flesh out the true ability of Ayton. I teamed up with DDB’s own; Motor City Hoops - Bryce Simon, in an attempt to answer three crucial questions relating to the 7-foot-1 big’s value with Detroit.
Is Ayton capable of providing secondary option production?
Four years into his NBA career and there’s no question that Deandre Ayton is a top big in the league. Taken with the first overall selection in the 2018 Draft, the 23-year-old has improved significantly since entering the league. While his most notable enhancements have come on the defensive end, Ayton has incrementally increased his scoring efficiency across his past three campaigns, moulding himself into the quintessential two-way rim-running big.
When most hear the phrase “rim running big,” they could be forgiven for thinking that a player with this tag is on the less skillfull end of the spectrum. However, Ayton’s mastery as a pick-and-roll man portrays the importance of having an intelligent dive man. It’s important the screener is capable of knowing where to screen, the angle required and the precise time to initiate contact with the ball handler's defender. Ayton’s 7-foot-1 frame, combined with the aforementioned ball screen intelligence, has led to him being a premier pick and roll partner in the league.
Ayton’s soft touch from between the basket and 14 feet additionally makes him that much more damaging when he’s on the the move. Per Synergy Sports, he scored 551 of his 997 points as a cutter or pick and roll man, equating to well over half (55.3%) of his scoring output for the year. On top of this, when you add in an efficient righty hook shot and excellent floater game, it only makes sense the Sun’s big-man averaged 17.1 points on 63.4% field goal percentage.
For Troy Weaver, though, the question isn’t whether or not Ayton can provide efficient scoring from the five position. The Pistons’ general manager will be viewing Ayton’s current and future skillset through the lens of a max-contract player. With the Arizona native eligible to receive an estimated offer of $131.15 million over four seasons, The Pistons brass will need to ensure Ayton is capable of full-filling a larger offensive role. With an increased usage rate, Ayton will undoubtedly put up gaudy counting stats, but, as shown in Motor City Hoops - Bryce Simon’s breakdown below, the 23-year-old has plenty of room for growth within his offensive arsenal:
As pointed out in the above breakdown, Ayton’s primary deficiency on offense is his lack of self-creation chops. In the instances where he attempts to create for himself, Ayton often looks predetermined with his moves, solely focused on the basket and missing teammates for open looks. His processing ability was more often than not a split-second late, hindering his ability to make plays out of the short roll.
The self-creation element of Ayton’s game is definitely bothersome. If Detroit offers him the rumored max contract, they will need to do so with faith that the former top selection can considerably improve in this area.
Is Ayton’s defensive impact worthy of a max contract?
As previously mentioned, Ayton has improved drastically as a defender in the NBA. Entering the league, the former Wildcat’s defensive awareness was a major concern. After 236 NBA games, It’s hard to imagine there was a time where the Arizona native was consistently late on rotations and often aloof defending in the pick and roll.
Listed at 7-foot-1, with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, Ayton’s physical profile dovetails nicely with a drop coverage style of defense. In a year where the Suns boasted a top-three defensive rating, Ayton displayed impeccable intelligence when charged with guarding opponents in ball screen actions. He does an excellent job of simultaneously containing the ball handler and roll man, rarely over-committing to either opponent, disrupting the pick and roll action.
Though the Suns almost always deployed Ayton in drop coverage, there were specific matchups where Monty Williams elected to have Ayton switch onto the ball handler. The results were mixed. Because Ayton has a tendency to plant his feet, he’s susceptible to fast-twitch players blowing by him on the switch. Hence, the 23-year-old was much more adept at containing slower-paced guards. A late November contest against the Golden State Warriors painted a perfect picture of the types of player Ayton can and can’t hold his own against on the perimeter. During this game, the 7-footer had great success containing the cerebral Steph Curry but struggled to stay in front of the speedy Jordan Poole.
The other two areas worth discussion on the defensive end are Ayton’s rim protection and rebounding ability. In season 2021-22, the homegrown product denied career-low shots per game, ranking 91st in the league for nightly swats. If you were to make assumptions based on the counting stats, Ayton’s rim protection numbers would raise a cause for concern. However, this is where additional research is required. When protecting the paint, Ayton exhibited veteran-like discipline, prioritising verticality over denials. The beauty of this approach is that the 23-year-old often avoided foul trouble (something that plagued him in the 2021 NBA Finals) while also still holding opponents to an adequate 5.8 percentage points less at the rim.
On the glass, the former Arizona freshman rebounded the ball at the rate you’d expect a 7-foot-one human to do so. Though he inhaled 7.7 opponents missed shots a night, there is plenty of room for improvement in this area. He rarely boxed out his opponent, almost always relying on his physical stature to reel in the defensive board. Per Cleaning the Glass, with Ayton on the court, Phoenix ranked in the lowly 20th percentile for opponent offensive rebounding percentage. While crashing your own glass isn’t as much of a factor in the regular season, we’ve seen the likes of Tristan Thompson and, more recently, Kevon Looney provide their teams with huge lifts in the playoffs, with their ability to provide invaluable second-chance opportunities.
Ayton’s defensive abilities will most likely never land him an All-Defense selection. However, his improvement into a prominent drop-coverage disruptor and his offensive repertoire provide extreme value in today’s NBA. The major question that lingers over his defensive play is how much having Mikal Bridges defend the ball handler in pick and roll makes Ayton look better than he is. Bridges is yet to miss an NBA game in all four seasons he has played with Ayton, so there is simply not enough footage to make a solid determination. I guess this is where we leave it to Troy Weaver and the professionals.
How does Ayton fit with Cade?
Aside from his mercurial skill and leadership acumen, the beauty of Cade Cunningham is the lineup versatility he affords a team. There is no archetype of player the franchise centrepiece can’t thrive alongside. As it pertains to a Cunningham and Ayton pairing, the arrival of Marvin Bagley III at last year's trade deadline is a case study worth exploring to visualize the effectiveness of Cunningham alongside a rim-running finisher.
The vertical spacing Bagley provided allowed for more room to operate on the interior. With this, Cunningham was able to extort opposing defenses with his change of pace, cunningly drawing the defender's attention towards him, before tossing a lob to Bagley at the cup. The duo of Bagley and Cunningham resulted in +4.5 points per 100 possessions in the half-court, compared to line-ups featuring only Cunningham. In addition to the lob and dunkers spot release valve Ayton provides, the 23-year-old’s gravity as a roll-man would provide additional space for Cunningham to get to his deadly pull-up midrange jumper.
Most importantly, though, whether fans want to believe it or not, Detroit is on the clock with Cunningham and his team. In an era where the players have never had more control, it’s important the franchise shows a commitment to prioritizing winning with their roster construction. While Ayton may not be worth the price tag he will inevitably receive, with only four seasons under his belt, the 7-foot big man has played in a host of high-pressure playoff games and performed on the biggest stage on multiple occurrences.
While it would be foolish for Detroit to trade the farm for Ayton, if Weaver and staff are able to attain the Arizona-native this offseason, a core of Cunningham, Bey, Stewart and the No. 5 selection in this year’s draft, is as exciting a group of players Detroit fans have seen since 2008.
Thanks to Motor City Hoops, Bryce Simon for the in-depth film breakdown, be sure to subscribe to his YouTube channel HERE.