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2018 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Just how concerned should we be about Deandre Ayton’s defensive issues?

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I still remember the first time that I realized just how good of a prospect DeAndre Ayton is.

It was at Peach Jam, the finals of Nike’s EYBL circuit, back in 2016, and all of high school basketball’s best big men were at the event. Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Mitchell Robinson, Mo Bamba. And Ayton, going head-to-head with just about all of them, came out the winner, in the box score if not on the scoreboard.

But there was one play that stood out to me. Ayton, running with a full head of steam in transition, caught a pass and, as a defender stepped in front of him to take a charge, he euro-stepped around him, avoiding the charge and finishing at the rim.

Humans that are his size are not supposed to be able to move like that, and if they are, they shouldn’t be allowed to have his shooting touch as well.

And therein lies what makes Ayton such an intriguing player.

He has the size. He has the length. He has the athleticism, explosiveness, fluidity and mobility. He can space the floor and, in theory, both protect the rim and handle his own if forced to guard on the perimeter.

In theory, Ayton is the total package and an ideal five for the modern NBA.

Whether or not he will live up to his considerable potential is a different story.

HEIGHT: 7-foot-0.5
WEIGHT: 261
WINGSPAN: 7-foot-5
2017-18 STATS: 20.1 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 1.9 bpg, 61.2/34.3/73.3
DRAFT RANGE: Top 3

STRENGTHS

Any discussion about what Ayton does well must start with his physical gifts. He’s a shade over 7-feet tall with a wingspan that has been measured at 7-foot-5. He’s 261 pounds and has an NBA-ready body and a frame that can handle the muscle he’s amassed. He’s a ridiculous athlete given his size — his explosiveness his fluidity, his mobility, the way he can move his feet.

Given his tools, he is everything that you would look for if designing a small-ball five for the modern NBA.

And the skill-set is there, too.

Let’s start with the offensive end of the floor, where Ayton can just about do anything. He was one of college basketball’s best post scorers — 1.052 PPP, according to Synergy, a company that logs per-possession statistics. While that isn’t always the best way to measure a big man’s transition to the NBA, the simple fact is that Ayton is going to be bigger and stronger than many of the fives that he’ll see at the NBA level. That adjustment will be easier for him, and the fact that he has a fairly advanced set of moves and impressive footwork on the block certainly helps as well.

His length and athleticism will also make him an effective lob target in the halfcourt, and while his numbers as a roll-man at Arizona weren’t all that impressive, that likely had as much to do with Arizona’s massive spacing issues as anything else. There’s virtually no chance that a player with his tools will be ineffective as a roller, but what makes Ayton so intriguing is that he can shoot it, too. He shot 34.3 percent from three on the season (just 35 attempts) and was somewhere around average as a jump-shooter as a whole, but his 73.3 percent clip from the foul line and a stroke that looks like it isn’t a fluke make it easy to see him being a capable NBA perimeter shooter.

Throw in that he’s a monster on the glass, and the total package is there.

He’s a franchise center in every sense of the word, but the concern with Ayton is that he may not actually want to be a “center”.

WEAKNESSES

Given his physical tools, Ayton has always been a disappointment on the defensive end of the floor, and the question that the organization that drafts him is going to have to answer is ‘why’. Is he a lazy defender? Does he lack defensive instincts because he’s never been coached? Will he only defend when motivated? Does he even want to be a center?

We’ll start with the latter, because that might be the most intriguing part of all of this. Ayton considers himself a power forward. On Arizona’s team roster, Ayton — the tallest member of the team — is listed as a forward while Dusan Ristic is listed as a center and 6-foot-10 Chase Jeter is classified as a forward/center. It’s been this way for Ayton for years, and it’s probably not a coincidence that Ayton spent the entire season playing alongside Ristic (and out of position) despite the fact that it torpedoed Sean Miller’s typically-vaunted defense.

Put another way, while Ayton is so perfect as a positionless five offensively he seems to have no desire to play that role on defense, even if it is his ticket to NBA superstardom.

That may belie the bigger point: Is Ayton just a bad defender?

In theory, he should be an elite rim protector, right? Take a look at the block rates of some recent top ten picks:

That’s concerning, particularly because Ayton’s physical profile is far closer to that of the top three on that list than Kaminsky and Okafor.

The other issue is that, while Ayton can move laterally and is willing to sit in a stance and guard on the perimeter, he simply is not someone that you can ask to spend 36 minutes a night guarding big wings. You want him as your five, guarding on the perimeter when switches make it necessary. We saw that in Arizona’s first round loss to Buffalo in the 2018 NCAA tournament, when the Bulls used a four-guard look and let their “power forward” — a 6-foot-7 scoring guard named Jeremy Harris — give Ayton that work:

Arizona was a flawed basketball team last season. They didn’t have the floor spacing to let Ayton dominate the paint against smaller teams, and they refused to play Ayton at the five, which is what led to dreadful performances against Buffalo in the tournament and against the likes of N.C. State, SMU and Purdue in the Bahamas.

Then there were the team issues that the Wildcats had defensively. Playing Ristic and Ayton together was never going to lead to defensive success on a team that has below-average perimeter defenders, and those issues manifested themselves early and often, as I documented here.

Ayton was hardly blameless in that, but he improved throughout the year, particularly in his ball-screens coverages. That leads me to believe that there is a chance that some of his issues on that end can be solved as he continues to be coached up.

That said, his issues as a rim protector and the fact that he went for long stretches where he seemed to have no interest in actually playing the five played as big of a role in those problems as anything.

NBA COMPARISON

It’s tough to find a direct comparison for Ayton. Physically, he profiles more or less the same as Steven Adams, Joel Embiid and Greg Oden. Ayton is much more skilled offensively than Adams. He’s not quite at the level of Embiid offensively, and both players are, defensively, what Ayton should be if it all comes together for him.

OUTLOOK

The truth is that, for Ayton, it all comes down to whether or not he decides he wants to be great.

If he does, I don’t think it’s out of the question to say that he could end up being a Hall of Famer, maybe one of the 15 or 20 greatest to play the game. Imagine Embiid without limits on his minutes or the number of games that he is allowed to play.

But that assumes that Ayton will put in the work to become something that borders on unstoppable offensively. That also assumes that he will, like Embiid, become one of the NBA’s dominant defensive forces, and that is far from a guarantee. Defense for someone with the physical tools that Ayton has is about want-to, and I think it’s pretty clear he didn’t “want-to” be great on that end of the floor as a freshman or as a high schooler.

In the end, that’s been the knock on Ayton his entire career. When he has been challenged — at that 2016 Peach Jam, when he arrived at Arizona — he absolutely dominated. When he did not feel like playing — like the first round blowout loss at the hands of Buffalo — he looked like a shell of himself, and it’s not hard to think about the grind of an 82-game season playing on a team that was bad enough to end up at the top of the lottery and wonder where the motivation to be great on a nightly basis is going to come from.

The good news for whoever ends up taking Ayton is that his floor is high. It will be quite impressive if Ayton somehow doesn’t turn into a guy that spends a decade or more in the NBA, posting something similar to Adams’ 13.9 points, 9.0 boards and 1.0 blocks. The bad news is that, in my mind, there’s a higher-than-you’d-like chance that Ayton ends up being closer to his floor than his ceiling.

Three Things to Know: D’Angelo Russell serves his revenge cold hearted against Lakers

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) D’Angelo Russell serves his revenge cold-hearted against Lakers. Do you remember what Magic Johnson said after the Lakers traded D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets?

“We want to thank him for what he did for us. But what I needed was a leader.”

Russell remembers. And Tuesday night against the Lakers he played with all the swagger Magic and the Lakers thought he lacked (and we haven’t seen all that consistently in Brooklyn). Russell was every bit a leader. And a scorer. And an assist man. Russell had 22 points, 13 dimes and the Nets got the win, 115-110.

There are two takeaways from this game.

First, the Nets are scrappy and have some talent — they have won six in a row for a reason (with wins over the Raptors, Sixers, and Lakers in there). The streak has revived the question “could the Nets make the playoffs?” They are just 1.5 games out of the eight seed out East. The Nets have done that with an elite offense (117.6 points per 100 possessions in the streak, third best in the NBA) covering up for a still bottom 10 defense. More than that, the Nets are a walking life lesson: Grit and effort will beat out unmotivated talent. Brooklyn is beating teams that look better than them on paper because they want it more and execute better — and that speaks to what coach Kenny Atkinson has built. It speaks to the right culture, one that will thrive as the talent increases.

The second takeaway? The Lakers need JaVale McGee. Which is a weird thing to type, especially considering Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo both missed the game as well. But the reality is the Lakers are thin up front — remember the start of the season when JaVale looked like a defensive force and the Lakers fell apart when he had to sit, meaning Kyle Kuzma or LeBron James had to play center? Then Los Angeles picked up Tyson Chandler and suddenly the Laker defense looked top 10 in the league. McGee has missed the last two games, Laker losses to Washington and Brooklyn, with flu-like symptoms. That moved Chandler into the starting lineup, but when he sits the Lakers are thin again. The Lakers may be 18-13 but they are built on thin margins — LeBron needs to play like an MVP and the Laker depth has to be good enough to support him to win. LeBron had 36 in this game, but in the 6:48 he sat in this game the Lakers were -9 and lost. The depth was not there.

Plus, Jarrett Allen did this to LeBron and became the hero of NBA Twitter for a night.

In the end, Russell made sure he got his revenge, sinking the dagger over Kyle Kuzma — the guy taken with the pick the Lakers received when they sent Russell East.

That’s cold. Just the way Russell wanted to serve it up.

2) Larry Nance Jr. tips in the game-winner and Cleveland stops Indiana’s win streak. The Indiana Pacers had won 7 in a row and came into Tuesday night as hot as any team in the NBA. The Cleveland Cavaliers were scuffling without Kevin Love, Jordan Clarkson and Tristan Thompson.

So what happens? The Pacers seemed to be looking ahead to a showdown with the Raptors Wednesday and came out lifeless. The ball movement and offensive spark that was at the heart of the win streak came to a screeching halt — Indiana shot 39.8 overall and a dreadful 18.2 percent from three. Victor Oladipo, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, and Tyreke Evans combined to shoot 9-of-36 on the night.

That let the Cavaliers hang around, and then this happened — Larry Nance tipping in the game winner.

Cleveland hasn’t had a lot to celebrate this season, so they did.

If you’re one of the Pacers fans complaining that in wrestling for position to get off the game-winning tip that Nance fouled Oladipo… come on. First, you’re never going to get that call in that situation, the refs are going to let them play. Also, THAT’S NOT WHY THE PACERS LOST. Go rewatch the first 47 minutes of the game. Or, just go re-read the second paragraph of No. 2 of our three things to know. That’s why the Pacers lost.

At least they shouldn’t be tired against Toronto on Wednesday.

3) Denver has won four in a row, leads the West, and Nikola Jokic is getting MVP mentions. What a world. In a West where the Warriors have gotten healthy, it is Denver that is still sitting atop the West and riding a four-game win streak — over Memphis, Oklahoma City, Toronto, and now Dallas — despite a rash of injuries robbing them of their depth.

After Tuesday night’s win over Dallas, Denver has won four in a row and is 21-9 on the season. How? At the heart of the matter is the big man playing at an All-NBA level who is getting some fringe MVP buzz — Nikola Jokic. He had 32.

Denver is legit people. In a West where we have no idea which team will come out of the pack and take on the Warriors next May in the conference finals, Denver has a real shot at it. They have the star player in Jokic, a good supporting cast, the fourth best defense and the seventh best offense in the league. It will come down to health and matchups in the West in the end, but Denver has as good a shot as anyone to dance with the Warriors in May.

Report: Bucks will do everything they can to keep Khris Middleton

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Milwaukee Bucks star Khris Middleton has been the subject of much discussion around the NBA, both as a potential trade target and as a free agent signing in the summer of 2019. Middleton is a crucial part of a Milwaukee lineup that needs his presence on the wing, and externally there appears to be some pressure on the Bucks to win this season with some uncertainty surrounding Middleton return next year.

Middleton has a player option for next season, and Eric Bledsoe is also in need of a new deal. However, thanks to the contracts of Giannis Antetokounmpo, George Hill, and Tony Snell, it’s going to take some fancy to financial footwork for Milwaukee to keep both of their star guards.

Still, the smart thing for the Bucks to do would be to re-sign Middleton if they can and keep this core together. Milwaukee should want to avoid a backslide into the years prior, where mediocre talent surrounded a rising Antetokounmpo.

According to a new report from Yahoo Sports, at least one Bucks official says they are going to try to do everything they can to keep Middleton in Wisconsin.

Via Yahoo:

The Bucks feel Middleton can fill that role and should he opt out to hit free agency, a Bucks official told Yahoo Sports: “We’re gonna do everything we can to keep him.”

That quote doesn’t necessarily mean that Milwaukee is going to stretch past a financial limit they set for themselves to sign Middleton. “Everything they can” might be going up to a certain limit and trying to convince Middleton to take the deal in order to build something in Milwaukee.

Middleton will have plenty of suitors, and many expect teams like the Los Angeles Lakers will come calling with big offers this summer. For now the Bucks remain one of the best teams in the NBA and have the second best record in the Eastern Conference, and Middleton is a crucial reason why.

Larry Nance has buzzer-beating tip-in to beat Pacers (VIDEO)

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are not a good basketball team. Heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James’ former squad had just seven wins.

Enter Larry Nance.

Where’s the Cavaliers down by one point with nine seconds to go in the fourth quarter, Rodney Hood took it upon himself to take what he thought would be the last shot for Cleveland. Hood danced around the defense before finally taking a jumper from the free-throw line, which bounced softly off the rim.

Nance, battling down low for the rebound, worked his way free for a tip-in as time expired.

Via Twitter:

There’s not much to cheer for in Cleveland this season but that’s a fun way to win a basketball game.

LeBron James on Anthony Davis joining Lakers: ‘That would be incredible’

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What counts as collusion these days in the NBA? What counts as tampering? It’s hard to say, but the league office takes a look at each and every comment like the one LeBron James made on Tuesday about New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis.

Speaking to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, James said it would be incredible if Davis were somehow able to make his way onto the Los Angeles Lakers. This slots into the rumor around the NBA that LA is stockpiling its young core to be able to trade for a player like Davis.

Here’s the quote from LeBron, via ESPN:

“That would be amazing,” James told ESPN on Tuesday before the Lakers’ 115-110 loss to the Brooklyn Nets. “That would be amazing, like, duh. That would be incredible.”

There’s nothing much here that LeBron said that isn’t factual. Davis is a 5-time All-Star and one of the best players in the NBA, a unicorn not unlike LeBron himself.

The NBA is certainly hoping that the Lakers can get their act together and put a powerhouse around James at Staples Center. How he does it is up for debate, although making comments about current players probably isn’t the best idea. James has been able to keep his mouth shut for the most part, but perhaps talk of Davis is just too tempting.