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Deandre Ayton Is Stuck in the Middle

The former no. 1 pick has shown promise, but he’s still a ways away from All-Star consideration—in large part because of his avoidance of both the 3-point line and the free throw line

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sportswriters like outliers. It’s easier to craft a narrative (or a spicy, scorching take) around a player at the bottom or top of a leaderboard than in the middle of the pack; the slim ends offer more room for exploration than the wide middle of the bell curve.

When the same player is an outlier year after year, our pencils perk up. And when that same player is also a recent no. 1 draft pick, playing for a legitimate contender that hasn’t made the playoffs in more than a decade, we’re professionally compelled to dig deeper.

Here’s a graph of the 2018-19, 2019-20, and 2020-21 (so far) seasons, with one dot for each player who averaged 10-plus points per game in 500-plus total minutes. Notice the repeated outlier in the bottom left.

If you’re not a visual learner, here is the pertinent result in text form. For players who didn’t shoot many 3s (fewer than 10 percent of their total shot attempts), these are the seasons with the lowest free throw rates:

  1. Deandre Ayton, 2019-20
  2. Deandre Ayton, 2018-19
  3. Deandre Ayton, 2020-21
  4. JaVale McGee, 2018-19
  5. Enes Kanter, 2020-21

At least Ayton is consistent.

Phoenix is a fundamentally solid team, now at 17-9 with a six-game win streak and in fourth place in the West. Chris Paul and Devin Booker have started to jell in the backcourt, Mikal Bridges is making a leap, and Monty Williams is the Coach of the Year favorite.

Ayton himself is a productive player and an important part of the Suns’ early success. He’s fourth in the league with 12.3 rebounds per game and nabs plenty of easy buckets by running the floor well in transition. In the half court, he offers a big, solid target for Paul and Booker, and he’s always used soft hands to catch contested passes in traffic. Paul’s 51 assists to Ayton are the fifth most for any duo this season. (Draymond Green to Steph Curry, as delightful a pairing as ever, tops that leaderboard with 67 assists.)

But then there’s the curious case of a center who’s averaged 2.7, 2.3, and 2.3 free throw attempts per game in each season of his career. Here, Ayton is an oddity. And as the Suns rotation player with the worst on/off rating differential this season, free throws are a worthy entry point into analyzing his game.

Suns On/Off Differential

Player On Court Off Court Difference
Player On Court Off Court Difference
Dario Saric +19.7 +1.2 +18.5
Cameron Johnson +9.0 -2.6 +11.6
Cameron Payne +10.7 +1.7 +9.0
Chris Paul +4.3 +2.1 +2.2
Devin Booker +4.2 +3.0 +1.2
Mikal Bridges +4.2 +3.2 +1.0
Frank Kaminsky +3.8 +3.5 +0.3
Jae Crowder +1.8 +5.0 -3.2
Deandre Ayton +0.9 +9.4 -8.5

Look at that top graph again, showing players’ 3-point and free throw rates, and you’ll spot an inverse relationship between the two stats. This makes sense: Prolific shooters like Bucks-era Brook Lopez and Ayton’s main backup, Dario Saric, don’t get fouled often, while bigs who do all their work inside the arc, like Zion Williamson and Rudy Gobert, post sky-high free throw rates. Overall, 2-point shot attempts yield fouls about 10 times as often as 3s, per PBP Stats.

Thus, Ayton’s low figures in both of these efficient scoring routes are so strange. He rarely ventures beyond the arc; after taking 35 3s in 35 games in college, he’s attempted just 32 3s (and made just six, or 19 percent) in 135 NBA games. One would suspect a career 74 percent free throw shooter would have the ability to expand his range, but Ayton’s shooting stroke from deep is disjointed and far too rickety.

Yet Ayton also doesn’t draw fouls like other paint-bound bigs, as he veers more toward finesse than power despite his prodigious physical gifts. Ayton often settles for turnaround jumpers rather than forcing contact at the rim.

Ayton is a prolific post-up presence; this season, he’s generating 27 percent of his offense from the post, fifth among all players, according to NBA Advanced Stats. But he’s not a particularly efficient scorer in that play type—in large part because he doesn’t draw fouls down low. This chart shows every player who’s used at least 400 post-up possessions since Ayton’s rookie season, along with the rate at which they draw shooting fouls on post-ups. Nikola Vucevic is the only other player in single digits.

Fouls Drawn on Post-Ups, 2019 Through 2021

Player Possessions Shooting Foul Rate
Player Possessions Shooting Foul Rate
Joel Embiid 1,134 21.8%
Julius Randle 571 18.0%
Blake Griffin 623 16.7%
Giannis Antetokounmpo 491 15.7%
Anthony Davis 666 14.9%
Jonas Valanciunas 465 14.7%
Montrezl Harrell 512 14.1%
LaMarcus Aldridge 1,041 13.7%
Steven Adams 447 13.4%
Karl-Anthony Towns 714 13.3%
Andre Drummond 587 12.9%
Nikola Jokic 916 11.6%
Ben Simmons 408 11.3%
Domantas Sabonis 461 11.1%
Enes Kanter 419 10.0%
Deandre Ayton 555 7.9%
Nikola Vucevic 819 5.5%

Vucevic offers a useful point of comparison. Half a decade ago, he was also in Ayton’s neighborhood as a low-3, low-free-throw center. But Vucevic—who is also much more of a playmaker and offensive hub, with about double Ayton’s assist rate—evolved along with the league and is now an accomplished marksman, hitting 43 percent of his 6.2 3-point attempts per game. The Orlando big man leads the league in open 3-point makes and attempts.

Perhaps Ayton, with that awkwardly jutted elbow in his shooting form, won’t ever develop Vucevic’s comfort from distance. But then he must improve his foul-drawing ability, both to embrace one avenue of scoring efficiency and to stop sticking out like an unfortunate outlier in the modern NBA. Among fellow bigs, he’s always ranked among the leaders in the percentage of his shots that come from midrange.

For NBA players, there’s more to drawing fouls than giving folks a reason to complain about James Harden’s style. Crucially, free throws offer hidden benefits beyond mere points: They force opponents into foul trouble, of course, and also generate free points once a team has reached the bonus. (That’s especially true for the Suns; Chris Paul is the master of drawing non-shooting fouls.)

Free throws also help a team’s defense on the ensuing possession. Teams typically score about five more points per 100 possessions after a missed 2- or 3-pointer than after a make because misses spark transition opportunities. But that advantage disappears with free throws, which guarantee a set defense no matter what.

Perhaps the most damning note about Ayton’s free-throw avoidance is that among qualifying players this season, according to Basketball-Reference, he ranks 10th in basic field goal percentage, meaning he’s quite accurate in the shots he does take from the floor. But he falls all the way to 56th in true shooting percentage, a better measure of all-around scoring efficiency. He’s still above average but, compared to other centers, nothing particularly special.

Ayton displays more promise in his development on the other end of the court. As a rookie, Ayton—like most young big men—was lost defensively: too stiff corralling guards on screens, too permissive at the rim. Out of 83 big men who were the closest defender for at least two shots per game within 6 feet of the basket, Ayton ranked 79th in field goal percentage allowed, according to NBA Advanced Stats.

These early struggles lent credence to the concerns about Ayton when he was coming out of college, when Ayton’s stats and game tape both suggested a lack of defensive potential. Ironically, Ayton profiled as an offensive force with defensive questions as a draft pick—but now, he’s improved immensely on the defensive end while exhibiting stunted growth on offense.

Deandre Ayton Defense Within 6 Feet of the Basket

Season FG% Allowed Rank Among Centers
Season FG% Allowed Rank Among Centers
2018-19 62.9% 79 (out of 83)
2019-20 52.0% 27 (out of 88)
2020-21 49.7% 14 (out of 70)

Some of Ayton’s on/off struggles stem from mere bad luck, with opponents hitting a much higher percentage of their midrange jumpers with him on the court. That’s probably not his fault, and he’s doing a stellar job of blockading the rim. The Suns will need that level of play if they’re to advance in the postseason, with big men like Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, and Rudy Gobert potentially waiting in the Western playoffs. Phoenix’s main alternatives at the 5—Saric and Frank Kaminsky—are much less imposing physical presences.

Yet Phoenix has undeniably played better with those backups taking Ayton’s place; Saric has the best net rating of any rotation player in the league. That won’t last—the leaders in the past five seasons are Stephen Curry twice, Draymond Green, Chris Paul, and Giannis Antetokounmpo—but it’s a reminder that Ayton, for all his talents, hasn’t yet developed into a true two-way force. Saric’s more flexible game might make him a better option in important minutes.

Player development isn’t linear. The Warriors’ handling of James Wiseman (pre-injury) demonstrates the tricky balance between the present and future, and the same notion also applies to Ayton, who is now in his third season. Ayton is still just 22 years old, the youngest player in the Phoenix rotation, with years to go before he reaches his prime—but the Suns are ready right now, with 35-year-old Paul leading the way.

Ayton is a good player, and his drop in points and usage rate this season makes some sense given the infusion of talent elsewhere on the roster. But he’s something of a tweener, lacking both the range of a stretch big and the power of a dominant interior scorer, and he’s still searching for his best NBA role. Given his pedigree and production to this point, he’ll probably get there someday. But Phoenix might struggle to balance that growth with the chance at a competitive breakthrough this season.

Stats through Sunday’s games.