→ 7’1, 260 pounds
NBA comparison: David Robinson
A select few timeless proverbs have guided generations of human beings throughout the course of history. These words of wisdom are tried and tested and following their advice has guaranteed the long-term success of empires, corporations and NBA franchise alike. “The pen is mightier than the sword”, “the early bird catches the worm”, “when choosing between two top prospects at the top of the NBA draft, take the sturdy 7-foot centre over the guard”. The last of these seemed to have resonated particularly strongly with the Phoenix Suns who selected Ayton with the 1st pick of the 2018 NBA draft. The highly touted 20-year-old put up monster stat lines at Arizona, leading the Wildcats to their second consecutive Pac-12 tournament championship, however some insiders around the league and fellow blog boys still had doubts over the Suns’ selection. The questions surrounding Phoenix’s decision broadly fell into one of two categories: should Phoenix have drafted Ayton over 6’8 Slovenian sensation Luka Doncic, or even Marvin Bagley III (relax, I’m kidding) and secondly, will Ayton really end up being the best player of the 2018 draft class?
When watching Ayton play for the first time, his natural gifts and offensive strengths are clear to see. Standing at 7’1 with a build reminiscent of a combination of a young David Robinson and Hercules, Ayton towered over his peers at the collegiate level. He is a dominant scorer in the paint; his freakish verticality (reported 43.5 inch vertical) allows him to be a constant lob threat in both fast breaks and half-court sets. His incredible co-ordination allows him to run the floor as smoothly as a wing, making him ideally suited to the modern game. He would be a matchup nightmare for the average big man let alone the last remaining slow-footed dinosaurs occasionally spotted lurking on the bench, scavenging for minutes. Could you imagine Jahlil Okafor trying to keep up with Ayton in the open court? Yeah, me neither.
Although Ayton has shown flashes of ability to be able to score in the post, Joel Embiid was right to brush off comparisons between himself and the young centre. Ayton has yet to develop a full arsenal of dependable moves to allow him to consistently score on the low block, however the signs are there that he posses the tools to improve. At Arizona, he demonstrated a combination of elegant spinning left-handed layups that Markelle Fultz would have been proud of, as well as an array of industrial, bulldozing drop steps where he wasn’t afraid of digging his shoulder into the defender’s chest. He may not be as graceful as a young Hakeem or even Embiid, however his footwork is swift and neat and he doesn’t avoid contact when going up with the ball. One thing for certain is that Phoenix’s lack of front court talent will allow Ayton the opportunity to get the in-game touches he needs to work on his moves (I’m not sure that Marqeusse Chriss has ever hit a hook shot in his life).
Perhaps the most instantly translatable of all of Ayton’s broad offensive skillset is his rebounding ability. Although he doesn’t exactly display the best fundamentals, regularly failing to box-out opposing centres, Ayton’s rare combination of size, strength and hops make him a devastating rebounder. On top of the aforementioned physical tools, Ayton possesses great rebounding instincts that allow him to be a constant tip-in threat and pest on the offensive boards (3.4 offensive boards a game, lead the Pac-12). There is no doubt that Ayton will not share the fate of other top college prospects whose stellar athleticism, whilst overwhelming college defences, didn’t translate to the NBA game due to the drastic increase in physicality, strength and speed of the average player – yes, I’m looking at you Michael Beasley.
The icing on the cake with regards to Ayton’s offensive game is his potential to be a viable three-point shooter at the next level. All indications point to this being the case; he shot a respectable 73% from the foul line and 34% from deep at Arizona (albeit from only one 3-point attempt per game). On top of this, he has a fairly conventional release with a smooth rotation and sound mechanics. Even though Ayton will most likely not enter the league comfortable from shooting 3s from NBA range, he has the tools to develop into a more than competent threat from deep in the coming years – a terrifying prospect for coaches and opposing centres across the league.
At this point, it is nothing new to say that the major doubts surrounding Ayton’s game focus on his puzzlingly mediocre defence. It is difficult to understand why somebody who is so physical and aggressive when scoring the ball can seem so tame when guarding inferior players (both in terms of physical profile and skill) in the post. Ayton frequently fails to assert himself in this area, allowing the offensive player to establish inside position and score on him far too easily.
In fact, his overall rim protection was a concern for some scouts. He regularly allowed guards to drift into the paint and lay the ball in, either reacting far too late or not at all. He seemed lost on the court far too often, failing to react quickly enough when a swift rotation or hedge was needed. His relatively low foul rate (2.3 per game) may be interpreted by some as being an indicator that he possesses a good temperament and isn’t simply a block-happy athlete who is constantly going for the highlight play, a-la Karl Anthony-Towns at Kentucky, however in truth it is probably a bigger reflection on his lack of willingness to attempt swatting the ball away in the first place.
That being said, a lot of the criticism regarding Ayton’s defence has been overblown. There are numerous examples in recent draft history where rookies have come into the league playing defence at a level we had not seen from them before. Just last year we saw Ben Simmons and Jayson Tatum have solid years defensively, with both prospects having question marks with how impactful they could be on that side of the floor during their time in college. Critics of that line of argument may be quick to point out that those players, unlike Ayton, are forwards and that a centre’s [lack of] defensive prowess is far more likely to show in the pros, to which I would eloquently respond to by saying “eh, maybe”. The fact is that Ayton possesses the necessary physical tools to be an effective defender at the next level – this alone should be enough to give him the benefit of the doubt with regards to his defensive ceiling. On top of this, his IQ and defensive awareness will no doubt benefit from the high level NBA coaching – or whatever it is they do down there in Phoenix – he is set to receive in the next few years.
All this being said, do I think that Deandre Ayton will end up being the best player in this draft class in ten years’ time? Possibly, assuming he reaches his potential with regards to his 3-point shooting and rim protection. However, for now I would still have to side with Doncic for this prestigious, hypothetical accolade. This doesn’t mean that I think that the Suns shouldn’t have drafted Ayton first overall though. A dominant centre next to Booker made more sense from a ‘fit’ point of view than another ball handling shot creator with questionable athleticism/defence. This isn’t to say that Doncic would have been bad on the Suns, or that they are even close to being a good enough team to draft for ‘fit’ over talent or anything. It speaks more to the fact that Ayton is probably a safer pick, both in terms of the translatability of his athleticism to the NBA game, and the fact that fans are (for whatever reason) far more forgiving of their team drafting a college stud who ends up being a bust over some blonde white guy from across the Atlantic with a hard-to-pronounce surname. Ayton alongside Booker and the Suns’ assortment of lengthy, defensively versatile wings (Jackson, Bridges, Ariza) should make the Suns’ a fun league-pass team next season. If everything goes to plan in the next ten years maybe those Shaq and Kobe 2.0 comparisons won’t have looked so crazy after all.