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Often compared to Hall of Famer David Robinson, DeAndre Ayton is considered the favorite to be the first player selected in the 2018 NBA Draft, and with good reason. He had a terrific freshman season at Arizona, culminating with a host of honors, including Pac-12 Player of the Year, first-team All-American, and the Karl Malone Award. He became the first player in Pac-12 history to win Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, and Tournament Most Outstanding Player in the same season. He averaged 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game, while shooting 61.2 percent from the field, and he was only one of four players in the nation to average 20 or more points and 10 or more rebounds per game. He finished the year ranked among the top 10 in the NCAA (DI) for rebounds per game, defensive rebounds per game (8.2), putbacks (49), PER (30.6), and win shares (7.8), and he led the nation in double-doubles (24) and total floor impact (FIC of 660.9).
While the comparisons to Robinson might be a bit of stretch, Ayton does have a very rare combination of size, power, agility, and shooting touch. He is a very muscular and broad-shouldered 19-year-old. He has eye-catching mobility and skill for a man his size. He is very effective from the low post, and has range out to the 3-point line. His soft hands, quick feet, length and strength make him nearly impossible to stop on lobs, cuts, and drives to the basket – around the basket this season (not including post-ups), he averaged 1.48 points per possession and ranked in the 96th percentile, and overall at the rim, he made an outstanding 82 percent of his shots.
Twenty-nine percent of Ayton’s possessions this season came in the post, where he averaged an excellent 1.05 points per possession (90th percentile). He is not so much of a craftsman in the post, relying more on quickness, power, and shooting touch. He can score from either block, capable of turning in either direction or facing up and shooting. A lot of his success comes on quick dribble moves toward the basket, and he was especially effective with drop steps over the right shoulder this season, making 70% of his shots and averaging 1.42 points per possession. He will occasionally throw in a right-hand hook shot, but he is much more likely to shoot a jumper, most of which come off face-up moves, though some are turnaround fadeaways. Overall this past season, he made a solid 50% of his hook shots and 42% of his post jumpers. Due to his combination of size, strength, and mobility, Ayton is nearly impossible to defend by fronting, and he is excellent when flashing to the middle of the paint for various types of shots. When flashing to the middle of the post this past season, he averaged 1.61 points per possession (97th percentile). Doubling him in the post can also be futile because of his passing skills. Thirty-six of his 57 assists this season came from the post, and they produced 1.47 points per possession (89th percentile).
A good portion of the rest of Ayton’s touches this season came as a cutter (22%) or from offensive rebounds (14%), and he was highly efficient in both areas. On cuts, he averaged 1.38 points per possession (85th percentile), and he was especially deadly when using baseline screens to free himself for alley-oops. As an offensive rebounder, he finished fourth in the nation with 49 putbacks, averaging 1.44 points per possession (93rd percentile).
Even though Ayton was usually dominant down low this season, he took nearly as many jumpers outside the post (104) as he did shots in the post (117) or as a cutter (109). The high number of outside shots was partially due to him often playing alongside Dusan Ristic, a seven-foot center, who is also a very effective post scorer. However, Ayton is rather insistent on being a stretch four, so the high number of jumpers was also partially due to questionable shot selection. Inside the three-point line, Ayton made 39% of his jumpers. From beyond the arc, he made 35% of his shots (on 34 attempts). Overall, he made 38% of jumpers, averaging .87 points per possession and ranking at the 39th percentile. As you can see by the numbers, he is not a bad outside shooter, but his shot is a bit flat, and his mechanics could use some work. His defenders have to be thinking that they are getting a break when he settles for a jumper, and shooting from the outside naturally reduces Ayton’s chances to go to the free-throw line. As it was, he made it to the charity stripe 5.5 times per game, and converted on 73% of his attempts.
Another area where Ayton did not excel this season was in the pick and roll, averaging .91 points per possession and ranking at the 36th percentile. Again, some of this was due to his teammates, and some was due to Ayton. This season, Arizona received sub-par play from the point guard position, and there were plenty of times when Wildcat guards failed to deliver the ball to Ayton in a timely fashion, if they delivered it at all. On the other hand, I believe that Ayton could have done a better job of moving without the ball in pick-and-roll situations. On rolls and slips, he averaged less than a point per possession, which was well below average. In pick-and-pop situations, he fared better making 37% of his shots and ranking at the 49th percentile.
Despite all of the hype, Ayton is not unlike many other big men in certain areas. He is not adept at putting the ball on the floor and making plays from the perimeter. He attempted only one perimeter jumper off the bounce at Arizona. Also, he is not the fastest player up the floor, and less than six percent of his possessions came in transition, accounting for just 19 field goals.
Ayton’s effectiveness as a defender is where he can improve the most. He lacks great defensive awareness and instincts. He is indecisive and/or makes poor decisions when switching and rotating, and he tends to get hung up on screens. He is a habitual ball watcher, and at times, he finds himself too far away to recover. He is also not an overly energetic or aggressive defender. He doesn’t come up with a lot of steals (.6 per game), and perhaps most importantly, he is not a dominant shot blocker. On the other hand, he generally does a good job of defending in space, one on one, even against guards. He is also capable of covering a vast amount of territory with his combination of length, vertical, and quickness. The statistics say that Ayton was a solid overall defender, limiting opponents to 36% shooting and .84 points per possession (60th percentile). However, the numbers also show that he performed below average when defending the pick and roll, shooters coming off screens, and in the post. At the same time, he did well when defending in spot-up and isolation situations.
If you followed Arizona this season, you know that the biggest gripe concerning Ayton was his mediocrity as a shot blocker. With a 7-5 wingspan and a 44-inch vertical, averaging less than two blocks per game was unacceptable to many, especially on a team that struggled mightily to defend in the post. There is no doubt that he is not overly aggressive going after blocks, and even if he was aggressive, I am not certain that he has the instincts and timing to be a great shot blocker. Of course, we have to take into consideration how he was used at Arizona. With Ristic starting at center, Ayton spent a good portion of the season guarding the opponents’ “power forwards,” and as a result, he wasn’t used exclusively in the middle of the defense as a rim protector. One could certainly argue that he was misused on the defensive end, and one could also argue that his shot blocking numbers would have been higher had he played in the middle more often. However, when comparing Ayton to some of the other top big men in this draft, including some who played mostly at the four spot, he was not only challenged the most, but he also ranked below average in total blocks per shots attempted against him, standard block percentage, and blocks per 40 minutes (see table at bottom).
In sum, Ayton has an NBA-ready body and a ton of potential. He is an outstanding rebounder and a willing passer. He is a very effective scorer around the basket, and shows promise as a midrange and 3-point shooter. In order to be special at the next level, he will need to refine his post game and be more consistent from the outside. If he is unable to do the latter, he will have to acknowledge that and focus on what he does best. Defensively, it is clear that most of his weaknesses are more mental than physical. These weaknesses mainly involve effort, awareness, instinct, and decision making, and some could be overcome by a dedicated player who is willing to be coached. With work, he certainly should make strides as a team defender. It is doubtful that he will play at the four spot as he did at Arizona; in this day and age, NBA teams are unlikely to put two 7-footers on the court at the same time, mainly for defensive reasons. And while Ayton generally held his own defending on the perimeter in college, I have doubts that he will be able to consistently do the same in the NBA. I also have doubts that he will ever be the rim protector that everyone expects, and if he can’t protect the rim and can’t defend on the perimeter, he will be a defensive liability. Of course, there are a number of bigs in the NBA who are not great defenders but are very successful mainly due to their scoring and rebounding (Kevin Love, Nikola Jokic, and so on), and at worst, Ayton will follow a similar path.
Shot Blocking Stats
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Sources, Credits, and Acknowledgements: Stats used in our scouting reports mainly come from Synergy Sports and RealGM, and occasionally from Hoop-Math.com and Sports Reference. The photos were courtesy of the University of Arizona Athletic Department.