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Deandre Ayton Throwback Scouting Report
The top pick in 2018, Ayton went ahead of Luka Doncic and Trae Young. Was he really that good of a prospect?
When we go through our throwback scouting report series, the vast majority of the time it’s to figure out where we went wrong. Hindsight has proven that we missed on someone, either overrating their upside and future role pre-draft or not anticipating a star-like turn that would come to fruition in the NBA.
This post will be, well, somewhat different. In 2018, Deandre Ayton was heralded by many as the top overall prospect. A 7’1” big man with fluid athleticism, chiseled strength and a burgeoning comfort with his jumper, Ayton checked a lot of boxes for a lot of draft scouts. He was efficient in nearly every area, posted dominant numbers in the Pac-12, and was seen as a great kid with a respectable work ethic.
It’s not that we didn’t see those areas in Ayton. In fact, Ayton remains one of the better prospects we’ve ever scouted. He showed that he could be a legendary defensive player thanks to his size, shot blocking instincts, mobility in the moments he switched, and defensive rebounding to finish possessions.
On our board back in 2018, however, there were several prospects we liked ahead of Ayton. Mo Bamba was one of them, and we wrote about our mistakes in envisioning Bamba as a stretch-shooting Gobert earlier this month. Just behind Bamba at #2 on our board was Doncic, a prolific scorer who should have gone down as the #1 — and perhaps the best pre-draft player ever.
We were also quite high on Trae Young as an offensive engine and elite scorer, and Michael Porter Jr. who was an elite scorer penalized due to injuries at the wrong time. Ayton came in fifth on our 2018 big board, still high enough to sniff being one of the best prospects we’ve scouted, but nowhere near (in our view) a top-pick contender.
Ayton has gone on to have a really strong career for the Phoenix Suns, albeit with some ups and downs. Ayton is almost exclusively a roll man now, cutting out the diet of mid-range jumpers and pick-and-pop 3-pointers that he relied on so heavily. That in itself is a huge win; Ayton possessed the elite roll man skills with his athleticism, catch radius and finishing touch to be a dominant finisher if paired with a great point guard. That pairing came to fruition when Chris Paul was acquired by the Suns; since that point, Ayton has averaged 15.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and shot 62.4% from the field.
The rebounding that we were so high on from Ayton has clearly translated. However, the defense hasn’t been as dominant or impactful as even we predicted. He has not turned into a vicious shot-blocker, and looking back at his college tape might reveal why. Ayton played at the 4 a decent amount, especially defensively, in Arizona’s two big scheme. In order to make that work, Ayton would guard the more mobile frontcourt player, thus spending his time closing out to the 3-point line and dealing with opponents believing they could mismatch drive against him.
Ayton was sturdy in those circumstances, defending in a positive way on most of his possessions. However, the thought process behind ranking him as high as many scouts did was that, when placed at the 5 and used more as a rim protector, his shot blocking numbers would rise. Actually, the inverse has happened. Many of his college blocks came from sliding his feet on the perimeter and shutting down guys who wanted to go right at him. The warning signs were there that he wouldn’t block a ton of shots as a weak-side rim protector.
As far as lessons go from Ayton on the defensive end, it’s to believe what your eyes are showing you now and not project too much about what they will show you in a different situation. It’s hard to know if Ayton was played at the 4 because he’s able to sacrifice for his team in ways his teammates cannot, or if he truly wasn’t a better rim protector. While he’s turned into an above-average one regardless of the lower shot blocking numbers, it’s definitely fair to say that he won’t be elite in that category at this stage in his career.
Offensively, shot selection was a huge issue for us with Ayton. On post-ups, he liked to turn-and-face and fire mid-range jumpers. He would catch on the short roll and default to a jumper despite having a lane to take one bounce and get to the rim. He picked-and-popped a ton at Arizona and his form was pretty poor. Ayton needed a lot more mechanical work on his jumper before we’d buy into him being a true shooter at the next level.
More than anything, shooting that many jumpers took away from what we saw as his biggest strength: his finishing. Pairing him with a great pick-and-roll guard like Paul would remove the excuses of popping into a vacant area and require him to get his ass to the rim. We’re really glad that has come to fruition and his shot selection hasn’t been an issue at the next level.
Just after the draft, we had this to say about Ayton and the improvement areas ahead of his time in Phoenix:
One thing Ayton isn’t going to be is the modern stretch-big who is an alert playmaker from the elbows and the top of the key. Despite his high usage at Arizona, Ayton only logged 1.6 assists per game to his name for the Wildcats and that’s with a high-caliber of players surrounding him. Those Wildcats never figured things out on either end of the floor, balancing multiple guys that needed touches with two seven-footers. It’s hard to know just how much of his lack of playmaking should be attributed to his situation and how much is his lack of ability.
Signs may point more towards the latter, with his shot selection being the main culprit. Ayton fell in love with contested mid-range jumpers, working through some dastardly shots and missing easy passing opportunities.
The context of evaluating Ayton in a two-big system did provide some challenges. I feel that many scouts gave him the benefit of the doubt across the board. That was not warranted, in our opinion. He’s a poor passer out of the short roll or atop the key; he’s been used as a sole finisher with the Suns for a reason. He’s not a jump shooter, and the post-up isn’t a frequent part of his arsenal — at least in comparison to the elite low post scorers.
We felt like we really nailed Ayton in a lot of areas and were pretty comfortable in our evaluation of him at the time. That doesn’t mean we have not learned anything from looking back on Ayton’s college film.
Two-big schemes don’t automatically mean “he’ll do better” when he’s placed in a more NBA-based scheme. The traits of rim protection and short roll playmaking were demonstrated to not be elite, and should have been evaluated as such.
Shot selection can change in the pros as development does or doesn’t happen. Ayton has been much for disciplined in the NBA, an indicator that perceived weaknesses can turn into neutral areas simply by being smarter.
Bet on bigs with elite movement patterns. More times than not they’ll turn into something passable on an NBA court. Even without major skill gains, Ayton hasn’t been a large disappointment because he is so gifted as a big athlete.
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