How Deandre Ayton Went From Disappointment to Domination

On draft night in 2018, the Phoenix Suns picked Deandre Ayton with first overall, making the former Arizona Wildcats center their new franchise cornerstone in addition to Devin Booker. However, just two picks later, the Dallas Mavericks picked Luka Doncic 3rd overall. Doncic went on to win Rookie of the Year in 2019. The very next season, Doncic made his first All-Star game, his first All-NBA team, and his first playoff appearance. Meanwhile, Deandre Ayton and the Suns failed to make the playoffs in both 2019 and 2020, even though they ended the 2020 bubble with an impressive run. Because Ayton was drafted two picks before one of the best players in the NBA, he was often made out to be a disappointment for not living up to expectations.

Then, the playoffs began and the Suns started their unexpected run. The Suns beat the defending champion Lakers in the first game, and Ayton’s play got attention. He shot almost 80% from the field and averaged a double-double. In the next series, Ayton held his own against MVP center Nikola Jokic as the Suns swept the Nuggets. After that, Deandre Ayton was critical in beating the Clippers, converting the game-winning dunk in Game 2 and averaging 17.8 points along with 13.7 rebounds. He was one of the primary reasons that the Clippers were unable to utilize their small ball lineup (which was how they beat the Jazz) as often against the Suns. Now, after the Suns’ playoff success, the public opinion of Deandre Ayton has shifted. However, he has been on the rise ever since the beginning of the season. In fact, Ayton may have been one of the most improved players this season on offense, even if he was not a candidate for the Most Improved Player award.

The Skill Ayton Improved

The skill of Deandre Ayton which enhanced the most substantially was his shooting, primarily on 2-point shots. Ayton’s 2-point field goal percentage rose from 55.3% in 2020 to 63.9% in 2021. While his average points per game actually decreased from last season, it was not as a result of worse shooting. Instead, fewer minutes per game and fewer field goal attempts were the reasons that Ayton’s average points fell from 18.2 to 14.4.

Deandre Ayton’s 2-point efficiency growth was the best in the entire NBA this season. When conducting a two sample hypothesis test for the increase in 2-point field goal percentage, the p-value that resulted was 0.0007. This essentially means that the probability of Ayton raising his efficiency by as much as he did by random chance alone was less than 0.1%. Ayton’s p-value of 0.0007 when comparing his 2-point performance between this season and last season ranked as the most significant result out of players with at least 25 minutes per game and 100 2-point attempts in both seasons.

By improving his 2-point field goal percentage, Ayton boosted the Suns’ offensive productivity. He was a major reason for the Suns’ second ranked 2-point offense in the NBA, as the team converted on 56.3% of their 2-point shots. Ayton’s rise in 2-point percentage boosted the Suns’ offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) by approximately 2.62 points while he was on the floor. That may not sound like much, but based on a simplistic approach accounting for how frequently he played and the Suns’ net rating, it contributed to about 3.46 additional wins1. In fact, this value is probably an underestimate since the calculations taken to find the additional wins did not take into account that a decrease in missed shots leads to a decrease in transition opportunities (which are high efficiency possessions) for the opposition, which would lower the opponent’s offensive rating as well.

How Ayton Increased His Efficiency

While part of Ayton’s ascent was simply due to getting better at shooting in general, a considerable portion of his rise was caused by changes in his usage and shot selection. First, we can look at how Ayton’s capability changed in a variety of play types.

Deandre Ayton’s productivity developed in almost every play type that the Suns’ primarily utilized him for. His most frequent play for the Suns was posting up, which accounted for 27.5% of the possessions that ended with a play by Ayton2. In these situations, his points per possession ballooned from 0.78 to 0.94, per NBA.com. He experienced similarly high climbs in efficiency with his cuts, pick and rolls, and put backs. The only major play in which Ayton did not better his performance was in transition possessions. A primary part of Ayton’s advancement in cuts and pick and roll situations may have been as a result of the addition of point guard Chris Paul. Almost 41% of passes that Ayton received came from Chris Paul, and 32% of Ayton’s made field goals were assisted by Paul. The pick and roll was a strength for the Suns as a team, whether the possession ended with the ball handler or the roll man. Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Cameron Payne each ranked in the 79th percentile or higher in pick and roll ball handler efficiency on an extensive sample of possessions, while Ayton ranked in the 92nd percentile in efficiency as the roll man.

Deandre Ayton also experienced a boost in effectiveness across all three major 2-point zones: the restricted area, the paint, and mid-range. His restricted area field goal percentage rose from 69.1% to 74.8% and his paint field goal percentage increased from 44.5% to 52.4%. Since his percentage from close to the basket advanced a noteworthy amount, we can tell that Ayton upgraded his finishing skill greatly this season. This ability allowed the Suns to have more efficient shots when Ayton received the ball close to the basket.

While Ayton’s climb in productivity in all areas within the three-point arc allowed him to become a far more contributing player, his change in shot selection also assisted in this process. Deandre Ayton moved his focus towards taking better shots, opting for more shots in the restricted area as opposed to mid-range. His tendency towards mid-range shots decreased by a substantial amount, falling from 25.0% of his 2-point attempts to just 15.0%. Again, some of this change was likely due to the addition of Chris Paul. With another lead player on the team, Ayton was not pressured to take as difficult shots for the Suns. Instead, he could allow Paul and Devin Booker to initiate the offense, then take a shot only if it was a high efficiency attempt. When comparing the percentage of 2-point attempts that were taken from mid-range in 2020 and 2021, the p-value for a difference in proportion was 0.00001, indicating a highly significant change in mid-range tendencies.

Conclusion

The Suns’ stunning season and run to the NBA Finals has changed the career of Deandre Ayton. Once thought of as a disappointment and potential bust after being selected two picks before Luka Doncic in the 2018 draft, Deandre Ayton is now a core piece of the Suns’ team that may just win the NBA Finals and cement themselves in NBA history. Ayton’s increase in two-point percentage was the most statistically significant of all qualified NBA players this season. His elevation was caused by better shot selection, greatly reducing his mid-range shots and taking more shots in the restricted area instead. Ayton not only grew in one area of his shooting, but rather boosted his skill in several, including his post up game, pick and rolls, and cuts. Much of his success can be traced to the addition of Chris Paul, which has revitalized Ayton’s career by allowing him to take easier shots and making him the 3rd option instead of the 2nd. The Suns have a chance at an NBA title, and it is in large part to Deandre Ayton’s stunning improvement.

Footnotes:

  • 1. Here’s the math: Ayton played for 2115 out of 3496 possible minutes for the Suns during the regular season, which is 60.5%. For purposes of simplicity, we can assume that the Suns’ offensive rating would remain unchanged while Ayton was off the floor and their defensive rating would remain constant. Since Ayton’s efficiency increase contributed to an estimated +2.6 point change in offensive rating, the Suns’ offensive rating (and net rating) would have risen by 0.605(2.6) = 1.6 points. Based on a linear regression, the win percentage increases by about 0.030 percentage points with a 1 point rise in net rating. Therefore, the Suns’ win percentage would be projected to be 0.048 points better. This equals 3.46 wins over the course of a 72 game season.
  • 2. A play ended by a player means a possession ending with shot attempt, turnover, or free throw attempt by him.

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