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What does the future hold for Deandre Ayton under Suns coach Frank Vogel?

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
June 12, 2023

The offseason is here, and for the third summer in a row, the Phoenix Suns’ plans revolve around what they decide to do with Deandre Ayton.

Two years ago, he was coming off a revelatory playoff run that went all the way to the NBA Finals, and many — Ayton included — felt the 22-year-old had earned a max extension on his rookie-scale contract. That never materialized, leaving DA discontent with his sacrificial role. He told the world as much in the first week of training camp the following season, saying outright that he didn’t like his big man duties.

Last year, Ayton’s contract situation again took centerstage when he entered restricted free agency. Kevin Durant rumors swirled around the proceedings until DA’s max offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers forced Phoenix’s hand. The Suns immediately matched it, maintaining they had always wanted to keep Ayton and that their speed in matching proved it. Others viewed it as the only logical move Phoenix could make, lest they lose their starting center for nothing.

For two straight years, the Suns said all the right things about DA while their actions hinted they weren’t crazy about the prospect of having him on a max-level salary. Frank Vogel’s introductory press conference last week followed a familiar first step to that pattern, as the Suns’ new head coach acknowledged his potential.

“I think he can be one of the best centers in the league, and I think he’s shown that at times throughout his career,” Vogel said. “I know he showed it when we played him in the playoffs a couple years back, and he shot about 80 percent from the field and deterred every drive, every cut, every effort to attack the basket. He can be a big-time deterrent. And there’s still areas that he can grow offensively, but I’m intent on really connecting with him and restoring him to an All-Star level player.”

After a season where Ayton regressed in a number of key areas, however, it’s only natural his future is once again in the spotlight. Last month, ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported that Ayton’s teammates had shared coach Monty Williams’ frustration with “what they perceive to be inconsistent effort and aggression from the 7-footer,” that Ayton “would be excited about a fresh start with another franchise,” and that the Suns were expected to “aggressively explore the trade market for him.”

For his part, Ayton denied the rumors about wanting a change of scenery during exit interviews.

“I love Phoenix, man,” he said. “Honestly, I’m gonna continue playing hard for Phoenix and keep repping Phoenix like I always be repping Phoenix, and that’s about it. I don’t listen to the outside noise, either. I’m here, I’m happy, and we didn’t finish off the season the way we wanted to, but there’s always next year.”

In a practical sense, though, the Suns’ potential interest in shopping him tracks. Ayton is set to make $32.5 million next season, $34 million the following season and $35.6 million in 2025-26. The new TV deal might help smooth those figures a bit, but at some point, the implementation of a second luxury tax apron will hinder the Suns’ ability to build a championship-caliber roster between the massive contracts owed to Devin Booker and KD.

At 24 years old, Ayton is still young, and as a former No. 1 pick who was instrumental to a Finals run just two years ago, there are a handful of executives who’d be willing to ignore a season of regression and make an offer for him. Even on an inflated contract, DA is the type of moldable talent some teams will believe they can unlock with a change of scenery. With Booker and Durant being off-limits and only a handful of players under contract for next season, Ayton is easily the Suns’ most attractive trade chip.

The question now is whether Phoenix is ready to move on and turn his contract into additional depth pieces, or whether they truly believe a change in leadership at the head coaching position can harness his flashes of raw potential into something more consistent.

Deandre Ayton took a step backward last year

Before looking ahead, it’s important to understand why DA’s future with the Suns feels so precarious. A look at the most basic stats would suggest Ayton had a great year, as he averaged 18.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game on 58.8 percent shooting.

But a deeper dive reveals his efficiency dipped significantly from the 63 percent shooting he posted over the last two years. In the postseason, his numbers dropped substantially to a playoff career-low 13.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game on 55 percent shooting — 9.0 percentage points worse than last year and 10.8 percent worse than the year before.

For those who like to focus on touches, Ayton’s 11.1 shots per game during the 2023 playoff run were actually more than 10.6 he averaged during his vaunted 2021 Finals run. The bigger problems were that he no longer defended or protected the rim like the versatile stalwart he was two years ago. He got into foul trouble more often, and when he himself actually got fouled, he shot 52.2 percent from the free-throw line.

“Playoff DA” excused months of inconsistency in 2021 and nearly did the same in 2022. But this time around, it was hard to ignore the many areas where Ayton’s game had regressed. Game 3 against the Denver Nuggets stood out, when several of DA’s miscues led to exasperated body language on the court, audible groans from the home crowd and Monty Williams benching his starting center down the stretch.

His coach and teammates publicly supported him, but even Ayton admitted he wasn’t up to snuff in a do-or-die playoff game.

“Mainly just getting my head together, man,” Ayton said. “Game 3, I didn’t have much mental stamina to where I just wasn’t focused, man. I don’t know. I don’t know. I know everybody seen me getting checked out late. I don’t blame coach. We’re trying to win, and that’s the best thing to do right now.”

And yet, when he was asked about blocking out the outside noise a week later, Ayton reverted back to the frustrating disconnect between saying all the right things and actually doing them on the court.

“That’s easy to ignore,” Ayton said. “I let the peanut gallery keep going, and then I shut ’em up with my performance.”

The most common sentiments in defense of DA are that he wasn’t involved enough on offense to stay locked in, and that the friction with Monty Williams damaged his self-confidence. But in terms of his usage, Ayton actually averaged more post-ups this season than last year — the fifth-most in the NBA, to be exact. Unfortunately, among all players with at least 100 such plays, he slumped from the third-best field goal percentage on post-ups last year (57.1 percent) to the 21st-best percentage this year (51.4 percent).

Pick-and-roll has always been DA’s bread and butter on offense, but even that comfort food left the Suns wanting. After running the fourth-most pick-and-rolls as the roll man last year, Ayton ran the second-most in the entire association this year. Unfortunately, he dropped from the 72nd percentile to the 65th percentile in that category, with his conversion rate on those plays dipping from 65.5 percent to 61.7.

The connection with his two lead guards wasn’t quite as potent either, as Chris Paul and Devin Booker assisted on a significantly lower percentage of DA’s made baskets. Despite the widespread narrative that the Suns didn’t give Ayton enough opportunities to expand his game, he actually averaged more paint touches per game this season compared to last year. He was also assisted on a lower percentage of his made buckets, allowing him more opportunities to try and create offense.

Durant’s arrival obviously changed things for DA and his offensive role, but his decline in converting his looks was hard to ignore. Ayton said all the right things about what his new role called for, but his performances rarely delivered those things.

“Mainly getting guys open even more, making that my priority,” he said. “Getting them open space on the floor, making sure teams are aware of my rolls….My roles are just enhanced. More rebounding, being more of a threat on the offensive boards as well, and just finishing more touch finishes and dump-off finishes, things like that.”

But when it came to converting, Ayton went from ranking fifth in points per paint touch last year to 19th this year (among players with at least 300 paint touches). Last year, Ayton was a force in the paint outside the restricted area, shooting 59.9 percent on those looks — the third-best percentage out of 289 players who attempted at least 40 such shots. This year, Ayton regressed to 51.5 percent on those looks, which ranked 31st.

Some of DA’s waning efficiency came with being asked to create more of his own offense, especially during the one-month stretch where Booker was hurt, KD was still in Brooklyn and Phoenix relied on DA and Mikal Bridges to lead the offense. Growing pains are understandable, but Ayton’s dip in shooting numbers is also a product of his limitations as a self-creator, which have yet to be addressed.

Last year, Ayton overcame some of those issues by being automatic in the paint and in the midrange. He made the hook shot a legitimate weapon in the Suns’ arsenal, shooting an incredible 66 percent in the regular season and 59.3 percent in the playoffs. This year, the scouting report was out on his go-to weapon, and defenses limited DA to 57.5 percent shooting on hooks during the season and 44.4 percent in the playoffs.

The biggest concern was his hesitance when it came to dribbling. Defenses learned to sag off him when he caught the ball in the short roll, forcing him to either put the ball on the floor and force the issue, or pull up for the midrange jumper. More times than not, DA took the path of least resistance.

According to Cleaning The Glass, which filters out garbage time, Ayton took only 41 percent of his shots at the rim, which ranked in the 33rd percentile at his position. While his frequency of rim shots slightly decreased from last year, his midrange looks increased from an already-staggering 55 percent to 57 percent this year.

The problem was, despite attempting a higher percentage of his shots from the midrange than 98 percent of the league’s big men, his accuracy plummeted from 56 percent shooting last year to 48 percent.

Ayton’s 3.0 free-throw attempts per game were somehow a career high, and in 67 games, he had just 27 drives off the dribble — the same number of drives he recorded in nine fewer games last season. He shot just 4-of-15 on those plays.

Ayton remained hyper-efficient on the break, but he did it less often, scoring four fewer points in transition than last season. In short, DA settled for jumpers more often, rarely forcing the issue to get to the basket off the bounce or working his way to the foul line.

Between all of that and the fact that he’s not much of a playmaker, having recorded more turnovers than assists in each of his five NBA seasons, Ayton’s response when asked about where he can improve heading into next year was a bit of a mixed bag.

“Really just taking care of everything down low, man, and just spacing this floor,” he said. “I’ve seen the type of team we got, and just really spacing out that floor and making some more space for these guys to operate. Not only that, make me more of a threat where teams either have to close out or look out for my drives, stuff like that.”

Ayton has talked about letting it fly for years now, but his 3-point shot has never materialized. Most recently, he shot 29.2 percent on 24 total attempts. It’ll be quite some time before he has the volume and the efficiency to become a 3-point threat, let alone the kind who’s blowing by frantic close-outs off the dribble.

And yet, for all of these areas where Ayton took a slight step backward, the Suns don’t need him to average 20 points a game. Even if they did, that feels unlikely to develop overnight. Vogel is a defensive-minded coach, and unless assistant Kevin Young’s influence was really stifled by Williams, he and David Fizdale may not have many new wrinkles to harness DA’s current skill-set that the old regime wasn’t already trying.

The restoration of Deandre Ayton starts and ends with Deandre Ayton himself, but where external expectations really need to shift is to the defensive end, and what kind of mindset Vogel can instill in him.

Can Frank Vogel restore Deandre Ayton’s defense?

Ayton’s biggest area for growth on offense is simply adding a reliable dribble to close the distance in the short roll and get to the basket. It’s a perfectly manageable thing that somehow hasn’t improved over the last few seasons.

But getting back to being a rim protector is even more manageable, and those hoping Ayton will thrive under Vogel should set their sights on the defensive end. During his introductory presser, the new coach even acknowledged that his system is predicated on having an elite rim protector.

“I think it starts with the big fella,” Vogel said. “I’ve always had elite rim protectors, and you can get the job done without that, but boy, when you got a guy like that in front of the basket deterring everything that comes to the rim, you just get stronger in everything, because the perimeter can push up more and be aggressive. I have a scheme that I believe is the best in the league at tailoring those strengths into the group.”

After working with the likes of Roy Hibbert, Myles Turner, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, Vogel has his work cut out for him with Ayton. There’s no question DA has the physical tools to be a real rim deterrent. We’ve seen it pretty recently too, like his first season under Williams where he averaged a career-high 1.5 blocks per game, or the memorable 2020-21 campaign where he averaged 1.2 per game.

Since then, Ayton has dipped under the one block per game mark, and his numbers as a rim deterrent have left something to be desired. This season, opponents only shot 2.7 percent worse at the rim when defended by DA. For reference, Jock Landale held opponents to 7.6 percent worse shooting at the rim, and Bismack Biyombo limited them to 14.3 percent worse shooting.

Ayton stepped it up slightly in the playoffs, holding the Nuggets and LA Clippers to 8.6 percent worse shooting at the rim. But that was still a far cry from his marks in the 2022 playoffs (18.9 percent) and 2021 Finals run (11.8 percent). Too often, he’d get a hand up to “contest” looks around the basket without ever truly challenging or bothering the shot.

Ayton has the length, athleticism and mobility to be a far better rim deterrent than he’s showed. The question is whether the Suns’ new coach, who has a defensive-minded approach, can coax it out of him and keep him properly motivated.

Williams was initially great about keeping Ayton locked in and continually stimulated with a new task, but at a certain point, patience wore thin. As their relationship began to fracture, it was clear their partnership had reached its conclusion. Vogel hopes to take a more personal approach with his personnel, calling it a necessary “time investment” to connect with all his players.

“If I’m not touching those guys, each player on my team every day, then I’m not doing my job,” Vogel said. “It’s very, very important to me to understand what the pulse of our team is. I always tell my assistant coaches, my trainers, like, I want to know what guys are feeling when they’re coming in. And if somebody’s not feeling great about their role or what’s happening, I want to know about it so we can address it and help those guys.”

This is the greatest source of optimism for those still hoping DA will figure things out in Phoenix. His teammates — especially Landale — have publicly defended Ayton from widespread criticism of his heart, his motor and his demeanor in the locker room.

“DA’s got an incredible motor,” Landale said. “I haven’t seen an athlete like that in a long time. Sometimes the way the game flows, he gets a little bit frustrated, and all power to him. Like, he’s allowed to let that affect him sometimes. But we try and keep on him about proving why he’s got that max contract and why he’s the No. 1 draft pick, and he has all the talent in the world to really go out there and do whatever he wants to do.”

Now, the Suns need him to actually go out there and prove those things if he’s meant to have a long-term future in Phoenix. Vogel’s hiring and encouraging words don’t preclude Phoenix from trading Ayton if the right move presents itself, and to this point, only the 2021 playoffs version of DA has looked like a max-caliber player (and even that was a point of contention).

There’s hope Vogel can restore that defensive-minded, doing-the-little-things version of Ayton, but paying $30-plus million to both DA and Chris Paul would severely hinder Phoenix’s roster construction this summer. Paul feels like the more expendable piece given his battle with Father Time and injury woes in the playoffs, but Ayton is the more covetable trade piece.

Should the Suns move him, it will definitively prove they believe their system can manage with a center who can do 80 percent of what Ayton does at half the price. Should they keep him, Vogel is as well-suited as anyone to tap back into the qualities that birthed the “Playoff DA” moniker in the first place.

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