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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.

Ben Simmons on feud with Jared Dudley: ‘I don’t really have energy for it. It’s done’

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Jared Dudley called Ben Simmons great in transition and average in the halfcourt.

Simmons responded: “It’s coming from Jared Dudley. C’mon.”

In the 76ers’ Game 3 win over the Nets last night, Simmons did what he frequently does – create high-efficiency transition and semi-transition opportunities for himself and teammates. He was also good in the halfcourt, though one game doesn’t establish Simmons in that facet.

Simmons, via Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“I don’t really have energy for it,” Simmons said. “It’s done. People are going to say what they want to say. Just gotta play.”

As I wrote earlier, this beef will be only as big as Simmons makes it. Dudley’s scouting report was largely accurate. He didn’t really say anything inflammatory, except to people in Philadelphia looking for a slight.

Apparently, after one dismissive comment and one excellent game, that’s no longer Simmons.

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Ben Simmons drives right into Nets, earns 76ers win

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The NBA playoffs are underway and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Ben Simmons drives right to basket, into the heart of Brooklyn, leads Sixers to a road win. Jared Dudley has become enemy No. 1 in Philadelphia for saying out loud what has been in every scouting report on the 76ers all season:

Ben Simmons answered that with his best game of the playoffs Thursday night, driving to get to his right hand at the rim all night long, and the Nets could do nothing to stop him. Simmons was 9-of-10 from inside eight feet of the rim, took just one shot outside the paint all night (an 11-foot hook shot he banked in), scored 31 points and led Philadelphia to a 131-115 win in a game Joel Embiid sat out to rest his knee.

Simmons made his statement and won the argument with Dudley…

or did he?

Whatever it took to get this aggressive Simmons, this is the guy Philadelphia needed. He did have help — Tobias Harris was 6-of-6 from three and had 29 points, while J.J. Redick added 26 — but with Embiid out Simmons has to be the catalyst.

D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert each had 26 to lead Brooklyn.

With the win the Sixers are now up 2-1 and in control of the series, making Saturday’s Game 4 basically must-win for the Nets.

Brooklyn could use to be a little more efficient on offense — 8-of-39 from three, as they did Thursday, is not good enough — but the more significant issue is defensive. Brooklyn has to find a way to slow the Sixers, and that starts with keeping Simmons from getting the shots he wants going to his right hand. If Simmons is still attacking and getting his shots, this series will be over soon.

2) Kevin Durant reminds everyone exactly who he is, scores 38 in Warriors blowout win. Doc Rivers was prophetic before his Clippers took on the Warriors in Game 3 Thursday night. Just not in a way he wanted.

“If we get down 31 again, it’s not going to turn out well,” Rivers said.

They did and it didn’t.

Golden State went up by 31 with 7:10 in the third quarter Thursday night. That score and game time was very similar to when the Clippers came back from that record deficit to even the series on Tuesday. However, this time the Warriors did not lose focus, they did not take their foot off the gas and let the Clippers back in the game. Golden State held on to win 132-105, and it wasn’t that close.

The Warriors now lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 on Easter in Los Angeles.

Through 12 quarters of play, the Warriors have completely dominated 10 of them so far. They have been much the better side in this series.

Thursday was Kevin Durant’s turn to dominate as he finished with 38 points. The Warriors made some adjustments on how they attacked the Clippers’ “top lock” defense, leading to a lot of shots at the rim. Durant got more touches where he could isolate and shoot over the smaller Patrick Beverley, although though when Clippers switched up to a taller defender Durant torched them, too. It was just his night.

The Clippers also need to find some offensive outlets. The Warriors did a good job making life hard for Lou Williams (4-of-11 shooting) and Los Angeles struggled to get consistent buckets, shooting 37.2 percent as a team for the game, including going 7-of-32 from three.

The Warriors are in control of this series, they have been all along when they didn’t get bored. These Clippers do not quit, they will be feisty again on Sunday, but that alone will not be enough. Los Angeles needs to find some offense and a way to slow down Kevin Durant. Good luck with that.

3) Derrick White puts Spurs in control of series with Nuggets. Derrick White is a vintage Spurs story. What received zero Division I scholarship offers out of high school, so he played three years of Division II ball, but impressed enough that he transferred to Colorado for his senior season. After impressing there, the Spurs picked him 27th in the 2017 NBA draft in one of those “that could be a good fit,” picks San Antonio always seems to make.

Two years later, White “came out of nowhere” to score 36 points, be +30, outplay Kentucky product Jamal Murray, and lead the Spurs to a Game 3 win. Even Denver coach Mike Malone was impressed.

Denver’s defensive strategy the first couple of games this series was, basically, to not cover White — he was the guy they helped off of, and they dared him to shoot from the outside. On Thursday the Spurs and White attacked that strategy having him cut to the basket or, when the ball swung to him, drive into that space and get buckets. The Spurs also used White as a pick-and-roll ball handler to get the switch because Nikola Jokic isn’t quick enough to stop White in space. It all worked brilliantly.

Now the adjustments fall to Malone and the Denver staff, who already have to scheme for LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan and their midrange games. What it also means is Murray is going to have to step up his game and start winning the battles with White. Denver’s starters need to do better, they cannot get outplayed like they did in Game 3.

If they do, or if White goes off again, the Nuggets will be in too big a hole to climb out of it. A first round exit for the No. 2 seed would be a disappointment.

Mavericks guard Hardaway has surgery for stress fracture

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DALLAS (AP) Dallas Mavericks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. has undergone surgery for a stress fracture in his lower left leg and is expected to resume basketball activities before the start of training camp in September.

The procedure announced Thursday came after Hardaway missed the last 11 games of the regular season. The sixth-year player averaged 15.5 points in 19 games after the Mavericks acquired in him a blockbuster seven-player deal with the New York Knicks headlined by Dallas getting Kristaps Porzingis.

The 27-year-old Hardaway could start alongside 20-year-old star Luka Doncic in the backcourt next season depending on what happens in free agency, and possibly the draft. Hardaway has career averages of 15.1 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists.

The Mavericks missed the playoffs for the third straight season, finishing 33-49 for the second time in those three years.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Kevin Durant reminds everyone who he is, leads Warriors to blowout Game 3 win

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LOS ANGELES — “I’m Kevin Durant. You know who I am. Y’all know who I am.”

“He’s right. But I already knew who Kevin Durant was,” Doc Rivers joked before Game 3 Thursday night.

Durant reminded Rivers — and everyone else — anyway.

Bouncing back from an off game a couple of nights before, Durant had 38 points on 23 shots, added 7 assists, played good defense, and none of that does credit to how much he dominated early and never let up as the Warriors cruised to a 132-105 win at Staples Center. Golden State is up 2-1 in its first-round series against the Clippers, with a chance Sunday to take complete control of the matchup.

“He said it yesterday, he’s Kevin Durant. He showed everybody who Kevin Durant is,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. Was this was Kerr expected out of his star following a rough outing in Game 2? “Ya. He’s a two-time Finals MVP coming off a poor performance, this is what happens.”

It is what happens, and we have seen this movie a lot over the past five years. Some team comes out and challenges the Warriors, knicking them off for a game with a comeback or maybe just a straight punch to the gut kind of win. Then the Warriors respond with a monster game.

Durant stared in this film, but he wasn’t the only one. Stephen Curry was 3-of-3 from beyond the arc in the first quarter, scoring 13 points. Curry and Durant outscored the Clippers 25-24 in the first quarter, and when the other Warriors jumped in, the Warriors scored 41 in the first quarter, 72 for the first half, and 132 on the night.

“[Durant] came out super aggressive, in kill mode,” Draymond Green said of Durant. “That was all the difference for us. We took control of the game right there in the first quarter and never lost control of it.”

A lot of that control stemmed from the fact the Warriors were more dialed in on defense, holding the Clippers to 33.3 percent shooting and 24 points in the first quarter. Los Angeles shot just 35 percent for the game.

That control meant Golden State went up by 31 with 7:10 in the third quarter, a score and time very reminiscent of Game 2, when the Clippers came back from that record deficit to even the series. This time the Warriors did not lose focus, they never let up on defense.

It wasn’t all focus, Kerr and company made smart adjustments, too. For the first two games, the Clippers had success with a “top lock” defense (meaning the defender isn’t between his man and the basket, instead he stands between his man and the three-point line to cut off his popping out and getting the Warriors’ favorite shot). In Game 3, Golden State started cutting back door more, taking advantage of a weakness of top lock defense. The Warriors got the ball to their cutters in creative ways, at times throwing passes from near halfcourt before the defender was really prepared. Or, the Warriors posted up Andrew Bogut or Durant, then had the top locked guys cut to the rim with their defenders trailing by so much the buckets came easily.

Now it’s on Doc Rivers and the Clippers to adjust. But if Durant is going to make another statement, it will not matter.

Even in KD didn’t see it as a statement.

“I’ve been here for 12 years. I’m 30,” Durant said after the win. “I don’t need to show nobody nothing.”