DeAndre Ayton’s Most Underrated Skill

(Image credit: Tomek Kordylewski)

By Matt Esposito

A driveby scouting report on behemoth DeAndre Ayton suggests that he is an emerging board-snatcher, lob-catcher, and paint patroller. Don’t let his monstrous physical profile fool you, however. The former top overall pick has untapped potential as a facilitator.

This claim falls short of revelatory for those who closely watched Ayton during his college days in Arizona. In fact, in 10 of DA’s 35 college games he put up three or more assists; an impressive number. Smarter analysts such as the popular NBEinstein were quick to note that Ayton’s vision, decision making and instincts were strong suits for the big man.

Sun’s aficionado Zona Sports of SB Nation is another one of those who spends hours watching Ayton play. He argued that passing is Ayton’s “most underrated skill,” emphasizing his ability to create “hockey assists” and toss accurate outlet passes. He went on to say that DeAndre is a “big part of why Phoenix led the NBA in assists.”

Now, in the spirit of patyourselfonthebackery, I’ll also note that my own examination of Ayton reported that he had a “higher IQ than he gets credit for” and uses that to pass out of double teams. How has this translated to the professional game, however? How does Ayton shine as a creator for others and, are the Suns using that skill set properly?

Enough questions, time for answers. Ayton’s 1.8 assist per game numbers don’t suggest he’s the next Nikola Jokic but the eye test reveals more. His instincts as a passer may be better than what was once the common consensus. He often takes advantage of his natural gravity to find open men abandoned by their defender.

In the play above, a lob to Ayton attracts three defenders. His decision not to force a shot proves prudent. More impressively, however, is his wherewithal to dribble away from the hoop and drag Rudy Gobert with him. This allows a lane to open; one which he uses to perfectly time a dish to a cutting Cam Johnson. A similar play happens next, with Tyler Johnson being the beneficiary.

Once more, DeAndre elects to move slightly away from the bucket. He knows his defender will go with him. Quick motions like this display Ayton’s understanding of on-court geography and hint at his playmaking savviness.

DA is gradually becoming more potent when operating from the short roll area. Adding a true point guard (Ricky Rubio) who can run the pick and roll helped Ayton develop this part of his game. During this slo-mo video, monitor Ayton’s head and eyes. He knows where Devin Booker should be before the play happens.

DeAndre is capable of staying one play ahead, an indication that he has good feel for the game. A better play to demonstrate this came against the Houston Rockets. It is subtle but, check out Ayton’s fake pass to the perimeter before dishing to the corner. This sends the other helper in the wrong direction, freeing the corner shooter. Operating from the short roll once again, DA was quick to recognize the double team and make them pay.

Again, from the same area, Ayton knows where the ball is headed before he gets it.

When not in the short roll, Ayton can beat you from the dunker spot. Below, he waits in that area before darting towards the free throw line. As the defender follows him he finds the open man for a pretty dump off pass after the clutched shot fake.

Watching Ayton locate open players off of offensive boards is also indicative of his feel for the game. This is especially useful, considering he’s in the 92nd percentile for offensive rebounding, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Ayton can sense where his teammates are or should be the instant he brings down that board. As Phoenix continues to develop or sign shooters, this could prove deadly. Watch him rifle a one-handed fastball to Booker on the wing after ripping down the rebound.

During this next board and assist combo, Ayton spots the space before the sees the player. In other words, he knows where former teammate Josh Jackson should be cutting due to the defenders he pulled away during the offensive rebound. This leads to an easy two.

To be clear, there are areas on the court where Ayton struggles as a passer. Perplexingly, he thrives on the chaos of offensive boards but can panic when in the post; an assessment where Zona Sports and I disagree, respectfully.

This results in some missed assist opportunities. Chalk it up to inexperience or a bevy of hands reaching in, but Ayton can be turnover prone when being tasked to create from there. Below, he’s late to read a corner pass to Rubio and then falls into trouble after picking up his dribble.

This next clip reveals his tunnel vision when working from the post. Even though he has decent position, Ayton opts for a contested two over 7-footer Mitchell Robinson. He never noticed a wide open Cam Johnson slashing to the rim.

Sure, Ayton needs to work on his comfortability on the block. His decision making there can be negatively impacted from the extra defenders he draws in. Plus, his hands can come and go.

Ironically, DeAndre seems to excel when the offensive scheme tasks him with making fast decisions. The short roll begs for this to happen. He knows where all four players are going to go and can fire away speedy, accurate passes. Additionally, Ayton shows some skill using fake passes to free up teammates. Short roll sets give Ayton limited options for playmaking which in turns helps him capitalize on what the defense gives him.

What’s more, DA has solid instincts. Phoenix would do well to continue to work Ayton from the short roll and dribble handoff. These schemes often come with a handful of built-in playmaking options that can be drilled into a big man. Once Ayton gets them down pat, his creativity and feel will allow him to give the Suns an added scoring element.

Zona Sports also summed up Ayton’s future development, saying that he “showed some impressive flashes of 3-4 dribble combo moves, so using him out of the short roll or DHOs to create for himself and others. Him & Rubio started to develop some really nice chemistry out of the P&R late in the year too.” Stay tuned to see how Phoenix’s rising star can round out his game.

Published by Matt Esposito

Founder/Writer for and contributor to Red’s Army Twitter: @Mattesposito_

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