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The Rookie Curve: Deandre Ayton, at a Fork in the Road

The once-and-future Arizona big man has the physical superiority to be any kind of modern center he wants to be, but there are two dominant modes to consider. Which one will he choose?

Deandre Ayton AP Images/Ringer illustration

The summer is a time to dream big with newly drafted rookies. But paths to stardom in the NBA are never linear, and every rookie has a unique set of roadblocks to overcome before they can capitalize on their potential. Over the next few weeks, Jonathan Tjarks will be examining some of the 2018 draft’s top talents and how the reality of their team’s situation will affect their freshman season. Welcome to the Rookie Curve.

There are two paths in front of Deandre Ayton. The no. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft is the rare rookie who will have an edge in size and athleticism over most of the players he matches up with in the NBA. The question for both him and new Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov is how to take advantage of it. One path would make Ayton a better fit with the players around him in Phoenix, but the other would be more beneficial to him as a player. Ayton could be a defensive-minded player who sets punishing screens and rolls hard to the rim, or he could demand the ball, play for his own stats, and worry about defense later. In other words, he can play like Clint Capela or Karl-Anthony Towns.

Ayton was an offensive machine in one season at Arizona, averaging 20.1 points per game on 61.2 percent shooting. At 7-foot-1 and 250 pounds with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, not only was he bigger and stronger than just about every player he faced, but he was faster than them too. Defenses packed the paint to stop him, but he scored so easily that it didn’t matter. The Wildcats did everything they could to feed him the ball. Ayton received 28.9 percent of his offensive possessions on post-ups, according to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports.

That number dropped in four games at Las Vegas summer league, when he got more offense out of the pick-and-roll (22.4 percent) than the post (20.4 percent). The Suns’ perimeter players weren’t comfortable putting the ball in the post, and most were more interested in creating their own shot. Phoenix had two former top-five picks (Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson) next to Ayton up front, and four more draft picks (Mikal Bridges, Elie Okobo, Davon Reed, and George King) on the perimeter. They didn’t need Ayton to dominate the ball.

Phoenix might not need him to during the regular season, either. The Suns just gave Devin Booker, who was fifth in the NBA in usage rate (31.7) last season, a five-year, $158 million contract. He will be flanked on the wing by one of two high-usage players, either Jackson (26.0) or T.J. Warren (24.9). Brandon Knight, who missed last season with a torn ACL, will likely be the starting point guard. Knight has always been a score-first player, with a career usage rate of 24.7 in seven NBA seasons. Trevor Ariza, whom the Suns signed to a one-year, $15 million contract, is their only starter who doesn’t need the ball.

Kokoskov has never been an NBA head coach, so it’s unclear exactly how he will use his players, or whether he can convince them to sacrifice for the good of the team. It will be easier for everyone if he can get Ayton to play like a bigger and more athletic version of Capela. The 24-year-old became a star in Houston last season by not playing like one. He had a usage rate of 19.4 and he was used primarily as a roll man, setting screens for James Harden and Chris Paul, and then drawing defenders on his way to the rim. It’s unglamorous work. Capela averaged only 13.9 points a game on 65.2 percent shooting last season.

Taking a smaller role on offense allowed Capela to concentrate on the other side of the ball, where he was the backbone of an elite defense. Capela was rarely out of position last season. He was tied for third in the league in block percentage and first in the number of shots contested around the rim. He wasn’t just a rim protector, either. Capela had the quickness to switch screens and stay in front of smaller guards past the 3-point line. He was one of the few centers capable of staying on the floor against Golden State’s small-ball lineups.

There aren’t many young big men who can handle Capela’s workload on defense while also being a primary option on offense. The best rim protectors can’t take plays off in the NBA, and they have to always be aware of what the other nine players on the court are doing. Anthony Davis needed years to become an impactful defender. Joel Embiid had two whole seasons to watch and learn from the bench before he ever stepped on the court. Both were also far better defensively in college than Ayton, whose inconsistent effort and poor rim-protection numbers are the biggest concerns when it comes to projecting him to the NBA.

If Ayton embraces a Capela-like role, the other pieces on the Suns’ roster will fall into place. He would be a devastating pick-and-roll partner for Booker, Knight, and Jackson, who could get into the lane and then find guys like Ariza, Bridges, and Bender at the 3-point line. Ariza spent a significant amount of time in his past three seasons in Houston playing as a small-ball power forward, which opened up driving lanes for creators like Harden and Paul, but also put more defensive pressure on big men like Capela. If the Suns pair Ayton with a more traditional big man like Tyson Chandler, their offense won’t have nearly as much room to operate in the half court.

They signed Chandler in the summer of 2015 to be their defensive anchor, but he was already starting to decline. He’s now a 36-year-old entering his 18th season in the league and can no longer move like he did in his prime. Chandler’s primary value next season will likely be as a veteran mentor who reinforces positive habits. Ayton showed flashes of his defensive potential at Arizona, but there were also many games, including the team’s first-round loss in the NCAA tournament, when he was checked out. Having Chandler to close out games would give Kokoskov the ability to bench Ayton if he’s not giving his best effort.

Ayton may not want to play like Capela, a late-first-round pick who had to fight his way into the rotation in Houston. Ayton was in only the 36th percentile of scorers nationwide as a roll man last season in college. Part of the issue was the personnel around him, as Arizona didn’t have much shooting or playmaking on the perimeter. However, he also struggled to create solid contact on screens, and he preferred to pop out to the 3-point line rather than roll hard. Ayton didn’t need to be a decoy. He was talented enough to force the offense to run through him.

Ayton said in a pre-draft interview that he defines success in the NBA as getting a second contract. The route to a max extension on his rookie deal isn’t playing like Capela, who just agreed to a five-year, $90 million contract with the Rockets after a protracted negotiation that went until the end of July. If Ayton wants to make money, Towns, who will almost certainly agree to a max extension with the Wolves later this summer, is the better role model. Playing through the post would be a huge adjustment for younger perimeter players like Booker and Jackson, and it will mean a bigger role for Knight, who will have to control tempo and give Ayton more time to establish position inside.

Towns was known for defense in his one season at Kentucky, where he averaged 10.3 points a game, but he has focused on offense in the NBA. Like Ayton, Towns is a multidimensional 7-footer who can score from all over the floor. The Timberwolves star averaged 25.1 points on 54.2 percent shooting in his second season in the NBA. His per-game numbers dipped last season after the additions of Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague, contributing to the generational clash in Minnesota between the older players favored by coach and team president Tom Thibodeau and the younger players he inherited.

Butler has reportedly questioned Towns’s commitment to winning. The young center doesn’t play much defense, an issue for an elite two-way player like Butler. Towns was one of the worst defensive players in the NBA at the start of last season, and he was targeted in the pick-and-roll by Houston in the playoffs. Minnesota’s defensive rating dropped from 120.5 in his 170 minutes in the first-round loss to 95.8 in the 70 minutes he sat. Towns has the physical tools to be an impact defender, but he’s still years away from living up to his potential.

None of Towns’s defensive issues will prevent him from getting maxed out this summer, just as they didn’t prevent Nikola Jokic from getting a five-year, $148 million contract with the Nuggets, or Andrew Wiggins from getting a max extension last summer. Jabari Parker was right when he said that players aren’t paid to play defense. Two teams thought Zach LaVine, a terrible defender, was worth a four-year, $80 million contract. Conversely, Marcus Smart, an elite defender and inconsistent offensive player, settled for a four-year, $52 million extension with the Celtics after getting no offers in restricted free agency.

While the Suns may need Ayton to accept a smaller role in the offense, it might not be in his best interest. No one expects the no. 1 overall pick to be a role player, and putting up big offensive numbers is the quickest path to NBA stardom. Ayton wouldn’t be the first young big man to focus on getting buckets early in his career. How he goes about getting them will determine the kind of team the Suns could become. Phoenix will have to be patient with him, which will be hard for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010. Deandre Ayton has all the skills to get the Suns back there. It could just take him a while to figure out how to use them.