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Afraid of Rejections: Deandre Ayton Is a Physical Marvel, but It Isn’t Showing on Defense

The potential no. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft is lighting it up on offense for Arizona, but there are some serious concerns on the other end of the floor

USA Today/Ringer illustration

There’s one question hanging over Deandre Ayton. Just on talent alone, the Arizona freshman should be the front-runner to be the no. 1 overall pick in the draft. At 7-foot-1 and 250 pounds with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and a reported 43.5-inch vertical leap, Ayton is as big as Steven Adams, and he can jump as high as Andrew Wiggins. Factor in his actual basketball skills and he checks off every box for a modern big man. He’s averaging 19.6 points and 11.2 rebounds a game on 60 percent shooting, and he’s shooting 67 percent from 2-point range. Bill Walton called him the best college talent at the center spot since Shaq, which is an impressive bit of hyperbole, even for Walton.

“I have a lot of guys I compare myself to,” Ayton said in a wide-ranging conversation with the media at last year’s McDonald’s All American Game. “I got Kevin Garnett, David Robinson on the low block, Hakeem. I have KG’s attitude and competitiveness when I’m on the court.”

Here’s the problem. A guy with Ayton’s incredible physical tools should block a lot of shots, and he just doesn’t. He’s much bigger and longer than the vast majority of the players he faces in college. If he just stands in front of the rim and waves his arms around, he should block shots by osmosis alone. It’s concerning, because centers who don’t block shots in college have not fared well in the NBA. Ayton is blocking shots at a historically low rate for a future lottery pick. There have been 17 NCAA centers drafted in the top 10 since 2010, and Ayton’s freshman year block rate is tied with Cody Zeller’s for second-lowest among the players in that group. Ayton is averaging only 1.7 blocks per game, with a block rate of 4.3 percent, a full standard deviation under the group average of 8.1 percent. Greg Monroe is the only player who blocked fewer shots as a freshman. Ayton is even behind Jahlil Okafor, who had a block rate of 4.5 percent. Monroe and Okafor are not the company an athletic young center should be keeping.

Freshman Block Rates From Big Men Drafted in the Top 10, Since 2010

Player Year Drafted Freshman Year Block Rate
Player Year Drafted Freshman Year Block Rate
Anthony Davis 2012 13.7
Nerlens Noel 2013 13.2
Joel Embiid 2014 11.7
Karl-Anthony Towns 2015 11.5
Andre Drummond 2012 9.9
Zach Collins 2017 9.8
Jakob Poeltl 2016 8.6
Willie Cauley-Stein 2015 8.4
Alex Len 2013 8
Derrick Favors 2010 7.9
DeMarcus Cousins 2010 7.5
Ekpe Udoh 2010 7.2
Tristan Thompson 2011 7.2
Frank Kaminsky 2015 5
Jahlil Okafor 2015 4.5
Cody Zeller 2013 4.3
DeAndre Ayton 2017 4.3
Greg Monroe 2010 3.8

Shot-blocking is one of the most consistent statistics from college to the NBA. There aren’t many guys who discover the ability to do it at the next level. The NBA career block rates of his historical peer group dropped an average of 57 percent from their freshman seasons of college. Ayton would have a block rate of 1.9 percent in the NBA if his numbers had a similar decline, which would put him in the bottom 15 percent of frontcourt players in the league.

Of course, there’s only so much that shot-blocking numbers can tell us. The more important job for a center is having a defensive presence in the lane, and block rates are an imperfect way to capture that information. A player who chases blocks at the expense of properly positioning themselves and staying within the overall defensive system can end up hurting their team. No one will be accusing Ayton of that. He’s not even trying to block shots most of the time. There have been too many instances this season where he simply watches the ball go past him without even attempting to rotate over or even challenge the shot.

“I need to work on my rim protection. Sometimes I’m like, ‘That dude can jump, I don’t know if I can jump with him.’ I’ll second-guess it,” Ayton told me with a smile last year. “I have to be like Mo Bamba. He swats everything.” (For reference, Bamba’s block rate is 16.2 through seven games at Texas.)

Ayton doesn’t play with much energy on defense. He rarely makes two efforts at contesting a shot, and he’s not particularly diligent about getting himself involved in a play when it doesn’t involve his man. I talked to one NBA scout who thinks the problem is that Ayton has a high school mentality when it comes to defense, and that he is more concerned with winning his individual matchup statistically than filling his role in the Arizona system. You can draw a direct line from Ayton’s lack of effort to the Wildcats’ defensive struggles this season. They have the no. 213-rated defense in the country, a shockingly low number for a team coached by a defensive-minded coach like Sean Miller.

The frustrating part about the way Ayton plays is that it’s not due to any lack of ability. His defensive potential is off the charts. When he’s locked in on that side of the ball, he can be dominant. He made a few huge defensive plays in Arizona’s 67-64 win over Texas A&M on Tuesday, a game in which he significantly outplayed Robert Williams, another big man projected to go in next year’s lottery. Watch him do his best LeBron James impression in this sequence, running down the A&M guard on the break and sending his shot out of bounds:

The play that will really excite scouts happened with seven seconds left in that game and Arizona clinging to a two-point lead. Ayton rotates over to cut off the penetration from the A&M guard, who dishes the ball to the big man he had originally been guarding. In a split-second, Ayton turns around, rotates back over to his man, gets his hands up to contest the shot and forces him to travel, securing the win. There’s nothing particularly difficult about what Ayton did—he paid attention to the other nine players on the floor and his size did most of the work for him. He just needs to do it more often. Ayton’s poor shot-blocking numbers are a symptom of a bigger problem. Learning how to play good interior defense at the next level is hard enough. NBA coaches don’t want to coach effort.

Take a look at the career paths of some of the centers drafted in the top 10 in recent years. Karl-Anthony Towns was a dominant defensive presence in college, and he’s still learning the nuances of protecting the rim in his third season in the NBA. Nerlens Noel is in his fifth season, and he can’t even get minutes on one of the worst teams in the NBA because he doesn’t understand what he’s supposed to be doing in its defensive system. Andre Drummond is just starting to figure it out, and he’s in his sixth. All these guys were ahead of where Ayton is defensively at the same age. When you draft a teenage big man in the lottery, you are signing up for a long and difficult maturation process even in the best of circumstances. If he’s either unable or unwilling to put in the effort on both ends of the floor, that process could stretch on indefinitely.

The other option for the team that drafts Ayton is playing him at power forward next to a more defensive-minded big man at center. He has the outlines of a perimeter game on both sides of the ball, so he could potentially share the floor with a rim protector. Ayton moves his feet incredibly well for a 7-foot-1 guy, and he might be further along defensively at the 3-point line than at the rim. There have been several instances this season where he’s been able to stay in front of high-caliber NCAA guards on the perimeter. Even athletic perimeter defenders like Allerik Freeman (NC State), Ben Emelogu II, Jarrey Foster, and Shake Milton (SMU) haven’t been able to turn the corner on him.

Ayton’s perimeter game on offense is even more intriguing. He’s a developing shooter who is 5-of-19 from 3 (26.3 percent) and 39-of-54 from the free throw line this season (72.2 percent). He has an effortless-looking shot when he has time to set his feet. Arizona even runs pick-and-pop plays for him.

Ayton still has a long way to go, though, before he could play on the perimeter in the NBA. He has yet to show much of an ability to put the ball on the floor or make plays on the move. He can face up and shoot over smaller players, but he’s not really comfortable shooting off the dribble. He’s more of a catch-and-shoot player at this stage of his career, and NBA teams expect a more diverse offensive skill set from their power forwards these days. The things Ayton can do are still fairly unusual for a 5, but they have become commonplace at the 4. Moving him outside takes away what makes him special.

The biggest strength of his game is his ability to score in the paint. Ayton has a great feel for scoring with his back to the basket, he can shoot over the top of almost any defender, and he has a soft touch around the rim. He’s so powerful and skilled that there’s nothing smaller defenders can do to stop him if he gets position down low. He was able to score easily against two potential first-round picks in his past two games, against UNLV and A&M: his former AAU teammate Brandon McCoy (7-foot and 250 pounds) and Robert Williams (6-foot-10 and 241 pounds).

“Lauri Markkanen [his predecessor at Arizona] was on the perimeter a lot. I see myself as more in the post. I think he programmed himself to be outside too much,” said Ayton. “I like to start playing inside, see how the defense shifts, and pass out of double-teams. Once they start sleeping on me, I’ll step outside and hit a 3.”

Ayton has the potential to be a new-age big man, but at this stage of his career, he’s a dominant post scorer who can’t protect the rim. As Okafor, Monroe, and Enes Kanter have shown, guys with that skill set have a big downside in the NBA. Ayton is much more athletic than any of them, but that doesn’t mean anything if he can’t constantly translate his tools to impacting the game on defense. He has an incredibly wide range of outcomes. Ayton could become a so-called unicorn, a 7-footer who protects the rim and shoots 3s, or he could end up as a guy who needs to play with one to be successful.

The good news is that Ayton is in the right place to learn how to play defense. Miller’s teams haven’t finished outside the Top 70 in defense nationally in six seasons, even though he loses waves of players to the NBA every year. Miller is a college version of Tom Thibodeau, a hard-charging coach who sweats through his dress shirts and loses his voice barking orders on the sidelines. It’s hard to see him accepting a lack of effort from Ayton all season. There could also be changes coming to the Arizona rotation. Ayton currently starts next to Dusan Ristic, another 7-footer who doesn’t protect the rim, and the supersized frontcourt has been getting killed this season. According to the tracking numbers at hooplens.com, the Wildcats are allowing 1.11 points per possession when the two centers play together and 0.98 points per possession when they don’t. A smaller and more athletic lineup around Ayton would ask more of him on defense, and that could be a good thing.

Like most elite scorers his age, Ayton has never had to exert much energy on defense. He could play at half-speed and still demolish the competition in high school and AAU ball. Playing at Arizona is the first adversity he has faced in his career. The book on him is still unwritten. He’s a 19-year-old who has played only nine games of college basketball. There are a lot of areas for improvement in his game, but they are all things he can control. He has all the ability in the world. The only thing preventing DeAndre Ayton from becoming a superstar is himself.