(photo cred SB Nation)
Let’s catch up with DeAndre Ayton, shall we?
At ProCity Hoops, we had DeAndre Ayton ranked as our number 2 overall prospect, right behind that Luka guy who is already the best player on the Dallas Mavericks. When scouting Ayton, we dug deep and tried to find out what his strengths were beyond simply being a behemoth of a man.
Sure, Ayton is a physical freak who moves in ways 7-footers should not move. Oh, and he has decent touch and mobility. His passing was something, however, that was always underrated. Ayton possesses the vision to pass out of double teams, something he saw often in college.
Yet, the Phoenix Suns are using him in a different way. They are giving him the ball around the perimeter, then having him face the basket and make reads (see Horford, Al.) Instead, the Suns seem to be running an extraordinary amount of dribble handoffs (DHO) through Ayton. It has paid off; look at Ayton’s stats and assist numbers so far throughout the year. Below is his assist percentage.
Compare that assist percentage to other skilled big men who operate often from the DHO, such as Horford (20.5 percent), Joel Embiid (19.5 percent) and Anthony Davis (19.5 percent.
We listed Ayton as being a soft screener with poor technique in our scouting report. But, the dude is so freakin’ big that he can still be wildly effective. His IQ for the game and ability to make the right read gives Phoenix the confidence to have Ayton run DHOs. In fact, many times Ayton does not even dribble, turning this DHO into a simple HO. Regardless, let’s go through the various options Phoenix can score from using Ayton as the handoff-screener.
Having Devin Booker on your team must be nice.
Especially when you have a monster setting screens for you after a nice handoff. This is exactly what Ayton does for Booker on plenty of occasions and the two seem to have solid chemistry already.
On this play, Ayton pops between the elbow and the perimeter, catches a pass and then immediately looks to handoff to Booker. Here is the crazy part: Ayton never really sets a screen. The mere threat of him impeding the path of Dennis Smith Jr is enough for DSJ to slow up and let Booker get half a step on him.
Oh, and when Booker gets half a step on you…..
Watch these two go at it again, this time versus the defensively astute Golden State Warriors. Ayton hands off to Booker, then Ayton rolls to the rim, which is something he did not do in the previous clip.
When Ayton rolls, his combination of athleticism, wingspan and size demands that defenders must stick with him. We call this roll gravity. Despite 7-footer Damien Jones and 6’9″ forward-turned-center Kevon Looney being next to Ayton, Andre Iguodala feels the needs to stick with Ayton.
Iggy realized his mistake, but it was too late. Booker got just enough separation and popped for a beautiful 15 foot jumper. Swish. Watch below.
The Drive/The Cut
Eventually, teams will catch on to this set. They will recognize that a DHO/HO with Ayton and Booker will likely result in Booker looking for his pull-up. Considering Booker is a lethal shooter this makes sense.
Yet, this play can be used to free up driving space for the receivers of the handoff. In this next clip, also against Golden State, Ayton runs a rarely seen corner handoff with Isaiah Canaan.
Watch as Ayton sets the softest of screens against Curry. I’m not sure you can even call it a screen, but Ayton still disrupts the path of Curry, who is trying to stick with Canaan. Curry gets beat, and Draymond Green has to help.
Canaan could have (and should have) flipped a lob pass for Ayton, who was rolling to hoop unguarded. Uncharacteristically, Draymond underates Canaan’s scoring ability and lets him score a layup. All of this was made possible by Ayton’s massive frame and rollability.
Memphis looked like another team that may have wised up to this play. Here, the Grizzlies try and prevent Josh Jackson from taking a handoff from Ayton. Smartly, Jackson does a quick V-Cut and strides towards the hoop. Ayton slings a gorgeous one-handed pass to Jackson, which finds its way between two defenders. Jackson then scores a layup.
When teams try and prevent guards or wings from taking this handoffs, Ayton can beat them by making great reads like the one seen above. His passing ability and vision is both underrated and underappreciated, although not for long.
In this next video, the Toronto Raptors recognize that this play is to be a DHO from Ayton to one of Phoenix’s guards. So, the Raptors prevent both Booker and Canaan from receiving this handoff. In fact, Danny Green and Kyle Lowry, two plus defenders, do an excellent job at preventing this.
Yet, the shifty Devin Booker fakes out Lowry, cuts to the hoop and gets a nice read from Ayton for a layup. Ayton’s ability to hit a 17-foot jumper keeps Jonas Valanciunas far enough from the hoop that the rim is unprotected and Booker can take advantage of it. Expect more of this going forward.
What is Next to Come
Ayton has shown the skill to roll to the rim and throw down lobs. He wants to do this when coming out of these DHO and screens. At Arizona, Ayton did not always have the space to do this, however. This may be why this particular skill was not written about indepthly during all of the 2018 scouting reports. See for yourself below.
Ayton runs a DHO for current New York Knick Allonzo Trier. He rolls to the rim for a lob pass, but there is not enough spacing. UConn can keep a defender in the paint to prevent this passing from ever happening, and recover quickly enough if the ball is swung to the perimeter.
The pass comes to Ayton, but it was not the one he wanted. He has to dribble around two defenders and take a hook shot. It goes in, but the most efficient play would have been the lob pass.
Against the Warriors, we again see Ayton call for this roll pass. There is no one between him and the rim. Ryan Anderson gets the handoff, uses the screen and opts to take a contested long range two, arguably the worst shot in basketball. This pass must go to Ayton! I mean, look at this screenshot!
Watch the play for yourself. The Suns were lucky it worked out, but this shot should usually result in a miss. The right read needs to be done here.
Going forward, the Suns needs more of the play shown below. Booker and Ayton execute the DHO perfectly. Ayton rolls to the rim and takes a bounce pass between two defenders. He doesn’t field it cleanly, but Ayton recovers to simply shoot over the smaller help defender.
The (slight) Adjustment
The Suns need to find a way to consistently put three or four floor spacers on the court. Why? This will stretch the defense and give Ayton more room to roll during these DHOs. Think about (homer alert) the Boston Celtics and when they run Horford and a ballhander through screens/DHOs.
Take a peak at what the Cs do here. With Horford (screener), Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum, they have four shooters on the court. In this set, Marcus Smart, the non-spacer, takes the handoff from Horford. All three of Irving, Rozier and Tatum flash to the perimeter, which draws their defenders out of the paint.
Smart drives hard to the hoop, beating his man. Ekpe Udoh is forced to abandon Horford and prevent Smart from getting an easy layup. Horford receives a lob from Smart which results in a slam.
This was an impressive set against a good Jazz defense. Do the Suns have enough shooters to mimic this lineup? Probably not. Anderson, Trevor Ariza and Booker are traditionally plus shooters, and T.J. Warren has added that to his game this year. Yet, Anderson has proved that his defensive miscues are not always worth the offensive spacing he provides.
The Suns should run out Booker, Jackson, Mikal Bridges, Warren and Ayton in small ball lineups. The trio of Booker, Warren and Bridges should draw defenders to the perimeter. The Suns seem hesitant to run Booker as their nominal point guard, despite him having the ability to do so.
Regardless, Phoenix cannot afford to stunt the growth of DeAndre Ayton or their other stars. Give the young guys some run, while also mixing veteran spacers into lineups with Ayton. This will give him the experience of running DHOs as either passer, lob-finisher, or popper.