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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

Deandre Ayton NBA Draft Prospect Profile

Deandre Ayton is the projected No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, and rightfully so. He's a sensational prospect with Hall of Fame upside … and some real, legitimate concerns to whether or not he'll approach said upside. I break it all down in the video below, with an in-depth look on NBC Sports ProBasketballTalk coming tomorrow.

Posted by Rob Dauster on Tuesday, May 22, 2018

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.

Sacramento Kings turning former arena into coronavirus surge hospital

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If you’re old enough, you might remember Arco Arena as the home of the Sacramento Kings when they were a playoff team. Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Peja Stojaković, and company pushed the Shaq/Kobe Lakers to seven games in 2002 and won huge playoff games in the arena. Arco was where Jason Williams was dropping dimes without looking, and arena which later became known as the Sleep Train Arena, Power Balance Pavilion, and eventually the current Natomas Arena.

Now, it’s about to be a coronavirus surge hospital.

The Kings are making the arena available and it will house about 360 beds, the team announced on Friday. The team also is donating $250,000 to support area community organizations providing services to families in need in the area, plus donating 100,000 medical masks to state and local health agencies.

“On behalf of the entire Kings family, our hearts are with all who have been affected by this pandemic,” said Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé in a statement. “California always leads the nation and the world, and we applaud Governor [Gavin] Newsom’s strong and decisive leadership to keep Californians healthy and safe during this crisis…

“Our community has always come first, and that is more important now than ever,” Ranadivé continued. “The Kings are proud to help by providing additional space to accommodate a predicted surge in patients. We are also donating masks to help keep people healthy, and critical resources to area organizations that are addressing food insecurity and other issues as a result of the coronavirus. I have always been in awe of the resilience and ingenuity of the American people and firmly believe that together, we will defeat this invisible enemy.”

The Kings moved to the Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento in 2015 and since then their former home and practice arena has mostly sat vacant. The Kings’ G-League team practices there at times, but like the rest of basketball they find their season suspended.

Hopefully, this arena helps save some lives in the California capital. That would be the most important thing ever to happen in the building.

WNBA postpones season

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Mavericks owner Mark Cuban backed off his belief that the NBA could resume in May.

It’s just already clear, amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’ll be unsafe to hold professional basketball games that soon.

WNBA release:

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert released the following statement:

“As developments continue to emerge around the COVID-19 pandemic, including the extension of the social distancing guidelines in the United States through April 30, the WNBA will postpone the start of its training camps and tip of the regular season originally scheduled for May 15.  While the league continues to use this time to conduct scenario-planning regarding new start dates and innovative formats, our guiding principle will continue to be the health and safety of the players, fans and employees.

Many top female players – including Los Angeles Sparks guard Sydney Wiese, who tested positive for coronavirus – play overseas during the WNBA offseason. That frequency of travel makes it even riskier for WNBA teams to gather any time soon.

The WNBA will still hold its draft April 17, conducting proceedings virtually. That could provide lessons to the NBA as it determines how to handle its draft.

Joel Embiid, 76ers owners pledging $1.3M for fighting coronavirus

76ers owner Josh Harris and Joel Embiid
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Joel Embiid just showed up 76ers owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer by pledging to pay team employees who were set to have their pay cut. Amid widespread backlash, the 76ers backtracked on their salary-reduction plan.

Now – with a portion of Embiid’s coronavirus-related donation unallocated and Harris and Blitzer looking to change the narrative around them – those three are working together.

Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Joel Embiid, Sixers managing partner Josh Harris and co-managing partner David Blitzer are contributing a combined $1.3 million to Penn Medicine, establishing a funding campaign for COVID-19 antibody testing of frontline healthcare workers.

According to a Penn Medicine press release, “The pledge from Embiid, Harris and Blitzer will provide a much-needed boost for efforts to quickly identify health care workers who may have immunity to the new virus.”

This is great.

Some Utah Jazz employees laid off as part of cutback across owner’s businesses

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The Philadephia 76ers came in early, trying to force 20 percent cutbacks in salaries across the franchise’s staff. That lasted less than 24 hours before the backlash hit, the net worth of the team’s primary owner, Joshua Harris, was trending on Twitter, and the decision was reversed.

That stopped other owners from making a similar move or laying employees off for a while, but not long after the top 100 earners at the NBA League office — including Commissioner Adam Silver — were given a 20 percent pay reduction. The worsening economic crisis caused by the coronavirus shutdown of the United States is pushing NBA owners to act.

On Friday, the Utah Jazz — owned by the Larry H. Miller Group, which in total has more 80 different companies under its umbrella — sent this message to Adrian Wojnarowski ESPN:

“Due to the impact on our customer-facing businesses from this unprecedented pandemic, the (Miller Group) …. unfortunately had to make difficult decisions to reduce a small percentage of our workforce. Over the past several weeks, we have worked to manage and reduce costs, including executive compensation, and have reached a point where we have had to say farewell to a limited number of our valued employees.

“We have connected with our associates with outplacement services and aligned them with employers who have immediate hiring needs. We remain focused on helping our communities stay healthy.”

Reports out of Utah say these are layoffs that hit a lot of people and could be permanent.

It’s not fair, but little is fair right now. As noted, this is not just a layoff of some Jazz employees but also people at other businesses across the Larry H. Miller company.

Expect other NBA owners to follow suit soon, too. Not all, but some. Like owners of businesses of all sizes, they have been both hit hard in the short term and see a looming recession beyond the coronavirus. They will be looking to save money.