Even on a team with immense depth and plenty of talent to spare like the Phoenix Suns, Chris Paul’s absence has been felt up and down the roster. When his right thumb avulsion fracture was announced, and the question came up about who would be most impacted over the next 6-8 weeks, everyone’s gaze naturally turned to Deandre Ayton.
It’s not that Ayton is some helpless big man who needs to be spoon-fed in order to produce, but heading into the All-Star break, the Point God had accounted for the assist on 121 of his 266 made baskets. With CP3 accounting for assists on about 45 percent of Ayton’s buckets, taking away the league leader in dimes was bound to have an impact.
It’s just not the impact anyone was expecting.
During this period where the Suns have enough of a cushion atop the league standings to experiment, giving players new roles and responsibilities has been the name of the game. And while Ayton’s duties remain largely the same, he’s putting together the most efficient basketball of his career since losing his floor general.
“Mainly, I take what the defense gives me, but I play our basketball,” Ayton said. “Even though we ain’t got CP, I gotta do more. So just really sealing, getting easy, close shots and jump hooks and stuff like that, O-boarding, just doing anything.”
Sunday night’s dominant win over the Los Angeles Lakers was a prime example. While Anthony Davis’ inane comments about last year’s playoff series and Devin Booker’s priceless response to them dominated the headlines of a 140-111 blowout, DA quietly abused LA’s smaller lineups, which he felt “disrespected” him.
After Friday’s loss to the Toronto Raptors, Ayton sent coach Monty Williams a text, saying, “Coach, I can dominate down there.” It wasn’t from a selfish perspective or about scoring more points; DA simply believed he could do more to help his team, and Williams agreed.
“I text him back, I said, ‘You’re right,'” Williams said. “And I also said, ‘We gotta do this, this and this,’ as a coach. But we have to take advantage of that, because what we learned in the playoffs, when it counts, we can’t be one-dimensional. Getting guys used to scoring or being a threat to score, it gives you so many options.”
Fast-forwarding to Sunday, Ayton finished his night with 23 points and 16 rebounds on 11-of-14 shooting in just 27 minutes. The truth is, it was just another day at the office from him based on the last few weeks.
So how is DA thriving without Paul there to make his — and everyone else’s — life easier? Where exactly is Ayton excelling on offense, and what have we seen lately that might carry over once Paul returns? To sort it all out, here’s the latest Bourguet Breakdown.
In 10 games since the All-Star break, Deandre Ayton is averaging 18.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game on a staggering 69.3 percent shooting. With the exception of the rebounds, those numbers all represent an uptick from the 16.5 points and 10.3 rebounds per game on 63.3 percent shooting he posted in 37 games before the break.
The increased production hasn’t come with some gaudy jump in minutes or field-goal attempts, but rather, hyper-efficiency from nearly every area of the floor.
“I’m just trying to be aggressive as heck right now,” Ayton explained. “The playoffs is right around the corner, I’m just trying to maintain and get in even more shape and get that physicality and that extra possession and that extra effort. A fifth wind, if there’s even one. Just to get in that playoff-like environment to where we don’t take no plays off.”
It wasn’t smooth sailing at first, of course. In Ayton’s first game without Paul on the floor, Point Book dominated, but the Suns’ big man finished with just 6 points on 3-of-5 shooting. Clearly there was going to be a bit of an adjustment process.
But once Ayton got settled in and then Payne returned soon after, the Suns were able to read how defenses were playing DA and adjust accordingly.
“We got guys that, they’re not Chris and Book, but we got guys that stick to the course, where it’s our Suns basketball,” Ayton said. “I would say open spaces, especially when we in pick-and-roll, teams were just cluttering the paint on me a lot. I just took what the defense gave me, and the whole team just fed off of that and we played in 0.5.”
That mentality is paying off so far. This team needs to replace Paul by committee, and although Ayton has done a fair amount of the heavy lifting, his teammates — even wings like Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson — are starting to find him better in pick-and-rolls:
Since his season-high 30-point outing in Milwaukee, DA is averaging 21.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game on a staggering 71.8 percent shooting. Sure, it’s a five-game sample size, but with Payne and Booker back in the lineup, Ayton is flashing more of what he can do.
“He was dominant in the paint, he was knocking down his short roll,” Williams said after the narrow Bucks loss. “That’s how we need him to play, and I don’t want him backing off from that kind of intensity and that kind of paint play. And then he can step out and knock down the 15-footer. He can play on those two levels, and then from time to time, he can step out and knock down the 3.”
Short roll dominance
We’ve written a lot about Ayton in the short roll, including another Bourguet Breakdown on his growth attacking in the pick-and-roll. But DA has somehow taken his prowess in the short midrange to new peaks during this recent tear he’s been on.
Before the break, Ayton shot 58.8 percent from 5-9 feet away from the basket, per NBA.com. Since All-Star Weekend, on nearly identical volume, he’s converted a staggering 80 percent of those same looks. He also went from making 57.6 percent of his non-restricted area shots in the paint to an eye-popping 83.3 percent of them, and he’s leading the league by a healthy margin for the entire season.
“His touch is just phenomenal,” Booker marveled. “It’s something that I’m inspired by, and he does it so quick. He catches it in that pocket and he gets it on the rim. He’s just progressing in that aspect of his game so well, especially when there’s like a low man there and he catches it.”
The hook shot has been a big part of Ayton’s elite interior touch. He’s shooting a staggering 68.8 percent on those hooks this season, improving from 64.4 percent before the break to an unstoppable 86.4 percent in 10 games since, once again on similar per-game volume:
One key that seems to be helping Ayton’s growth in this regard is something Monty Williams learned from Tim Duncan during his time with the San Antonio Spurs: catch high, keep high.
“He used to bring the ball down a lot and guards would be able to get their hands on it, but he’s done a good job of catch-high, keep-high,” Booker said. “I told him he has one of the best touches in the league. Just put it on the rim, if you miss, you’ll get it back. So he’s been doing an incredible job with that.”
That type of thing represents growth from last year, or even earlier in the season.
“I think last year, I used to get my hand jacked up by dudes just swiping down on me every time because I’d keep bringing it down,” Ayton recalled. “But learning from that, you create the flow game, more jump hooks, and that’s how you adjust.”
It’s not just helpful with the jump hooks, but also on the floaters that have become an automatic bucket in Ayton’s repertoire:
According to NBA.com, Ayton has made 10 of his 13 floaters since the break, and 26-of-41 overall this year. Per Cleaning the Glass, his shooting in the “short mid” (4-14 feet away from the basket) is up from 56 percent before the break to an unbelievable 76 percent since then.
Ayton said that with as fast as Cam Payne drives, sometimes he simply tries not to clog the lane, moving to the open spot instead of diving hard to the paint.
“It became very important playing in the short roll, being able to shoot that floater and hit that middy,” Ayton said. “But also, if somebody steps up, I also have enough space to find the shooters on the weak side. So that short roll is really working for me right now.”
Deandre Ayton’s middy
Ayton’s work in the short roll has been impressive, but it’s his infallibility from the midrange that’s really stood out over the last few weeks. Without Paul to orchestrate in the pick-and-roll, defenses have collapsed on Ayton, betting that the Suns — especially for their brief spell without Booker and/or Payne — couldn’t thread the needle to feed their big man.
They were right, but during those desperate times, Ayton decided to put his midrange touch to good use and change the equation.
“I’m realizing teams have adjusted and locked down the paint — I won’t say completely, but when it comes to rolling and trying to look for that dump down, I won’t say it’s not there, but teams are making it difficult,” Ayton explained. “So I’m just playing in the short roll now, taking what they give me.”
Part of that short roll has often been pulling up for quick midrange looks. Williams said it’s a shot he can make, but lately, it’s been one he’s had to take out of necessity.
“What’s happening is teams are blitzing Book, and they’re bringing the low man and they leave a guy on the backside to guard two,” Williams explained. “So DA’s in the pocket, he’s getting that shot. It’s a shot that he can make, we don’t mind that shot.”
According to Cleaning the Glass, Ayton’s percentage of shot attempts from the long midrange nearly quadrupled from just 6 percent before the break to 22 percent afterward. Fortunately, his efficiency has still improved from 43 percent to 46 percent on those looks.
Overall, Ayton is taking a staggering 61 percent of his non-garbage time shot attempts from the midrange since the break…and he’s making a whopping 66 percent of them. You can’t put a price on that kind of bailout option when the offense stalls without its lead facilitator.
“That’s a big-time release valve,” Cam Payne called it. “It kinda is like a [phew], like a breath-taker every time he knock it down. It’s like, man, we got a big-time shot there! ‘Cause them big buckets. Between him and C? Man, that middy, them big-time shots. I know a lot of people don’t like the midrange jumper, but when you can knock it down, it definitely helps your team.”
Ayton has gotten so comfortable from that area of the floor that he’s unleashing the wicked jab step he’s shown from time to time. Only now, he’s doing it with unabashed confidence, knowing he can rise up at any time with the space those fake-outs create.
The key for DA is finding the right mix between abusing opponents in the midrange and not settling for jumpers.
“I don’t think it’s settling, I think he gets too much criticism for taking jump shots,” Williams clarified. “He can make those shots. I think there’s a balance, though, of taking those shots and also going down in the paint and getting to his jump hook and offensive rebounding and that kind of thing. But I don’t look at it as settling, ’cause he makes a lot of those shots.”
In the first couple of games after the break, it was clear Ayton was still trying to figure out the right blend. Even in more recent games, there have been a few instances where the jumpers he’s taken have felt like bailing the defense out. On quite a few of the attempts below, the shot goes up early in the shot clock, or Ayton fails to attack a spaced-out defense where only one defender obstructs his path to the basket:
This is where adding a few reliable moves off the dribble to his face-up game would pay huge dividends, and that should be his top priority in expanding his game over the next offseason.
For now, though, Ayton’s ability to knock down midrange jumpers as a release valve — or even throw in a jab step to clear out space for himself when that look would otherwise be a contested jumper — is serving the Suns well. His improved efficiency during this 10-game stretch spreads across the board:
- Pre-All-Star: 46.8% from 10-14 feet, 41.7% from 15-19 feet, 48.1% on jump shots
- Post-All-Star: 58.6% from 10-14 feet, 55.6% from 15-19 feet, 59.7% on jump shots
“Obviously there’s gonna be times where I have to just put my head down and post up or try to draw a foul, but right now, that’s what’s going for me,” he said. “That’s where I can work my game, and that’s all college again, to be honest: pump-faking, jabbing, all that stuff.”
At the rim
Make no mistake about it, though: Ayton is still at his best around the basket. Being able to make opponents pay from the midrange is great, but he still creates very little of his own offense. Before the break, Ayton was assisted on 82.3 percent of his field goals. Even without Chris Paul, DA is still being assisted in 81.8 percent of his baskets.
The problem is, those high-percentage looks at the rim have been a bit more scarce without CP3 setting the table. Ayton’s number of shot attempts from less than 5 feet are down by nearly two per game without Paul, as are his attempts from less than 8 feet. He’s taking about one fewer shot in the restricted area on a nightly basis, and according to Cleaning the Glass, his percentage of attempts at the rim has dropped from 48 percent before the break to just 34 percent over these last 10 games.
Fortunately, with Ayton getting fewer attempts from right in front of the rim, he’s making the absolute most of them with unprecedented efficiency:
- Pre-All-Star: 73% from less than 5 feet, 69.1% from less than 8 feet, 75.4% in restricted area
- Post-All-Star: 77.3% from less than 5 feet, 78.1% from less than 8 feet, 78% in restricted area
“That’s the thing I do best is putting a lot of pressure and drawing a lot of attention to free our guys up,” Ayton said. “I’m not going to stop doing that, but when it’s time for bucket, that’s the main thing I know how to do.”
Ayton is making 76 percent of his shots at the rim this season, so when he does the early work to seal his man, the Suns don’t mind as much if he quickly transitions into a turnaround jumper. Just the threat of him in the paint is going to open up a shot that’s become a go-to weapon in his arsenal. Look at how much space his defenders concede having to choose the lesser of two evils!
Since the All-Star break, the Suns have been a team-high +9.4 with Deandre Ayton on the floor. He’s become indispensable, and although he’s been far from perfect on the boards, that slight dip in rebounding and defense has to be expected for a guy who’s been doing so much more on the offensive end.
Ayton views this time as an opportunity to step up, log heavier minutes and work himself into peak shape for the playoffs, when the Suns will need him to be the two-way dynamo he became in last year’s Finals run. Like everything else during this time without Paul, DA’s growth could be a major factor down the road.
“There will be times where I’m gonna have to play 40,” Ayton said. “That’s nothing new, I did that last year. But at the same time, what am I doing in those 40 minutes? I’m not just gonna be running up and down. Like I say, I wanna be way more of a threat. I think I’m doing a good job of that, but even more of an aggressor on both ends of the floor and on these boards.”
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