The Portland Trail Blazers have a brand new starting center for the first time in six and a half years. Deandre Ayton is an intriguing talent who, for whatever reason, exhausted his race with the Phoenix Suns five years after being taken with first overall pick. Ayton’s reported frustration and issues in Phoenix were never really revealed. Regardless of whether it was former coach Monty Williams or former teammate Chris Paul, Ayton was ready for a new setting.
Said baggage isn’t the only thing Ayton brings with him to Oregon. The $102 million owed to him over the next three years is no small sum for the 25-year-old. He’s earning roughly twice as much as his predecessor Jusuf Nurkic.
While the initial reaction to the size of the deal might be off-putting, it’s less of an issue in Portland, given the young men Ayton is set to share the court with. Shaedon Sharpe (20) and Scoot Henderson (19) remain on rookie deals for three and four years respectively while the futures of Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons are uncertain in the Pacific Northwest.
The Blazers may also be hoping Ayton’s new scenery relieves the pressure associated with the big man’s draft class. There’s no doubt being taken by the Suns with the first pick in 2018 would have been an unforgettable honor on draft night.
However, once the 2018-19 season started and the world saw what number three pick Luka Doncic could do with the Dallas Mavericks, Ayton may have felt a little extra tension.
I’m not certain but the Bahamian’s Arizona departure may lessen the comparison with the Slovenian, freeing him up in an environment where winning isn’t immediately a priority.
Strengths and Weaknesses
On the court, Ayton is a 7’0 foot behemoth who might be one of the most athletic bigs in the league. He’s quick, owns great footwork and has cultivated a nice shooting stroke.
By most measures, Ayton had a comparatively down year in 2022-23, despite averaging 18.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 0.8 blocks. Perhaps it was due to the unrest within the Suns franchise or the big man’s own head getting in the way.
It was definitely a far cry from the 2021 Playoffs where he competently handled Nikola Jokic in the Conference Semifinals and served as a defensive anchor against the Milwaukee Bucks in a competitive 4-2 series Finals loss.
Ayton has been one of the NBA’s most efficient big man scorers within the three point line, making him both a pick and roll and pick and pop threat. He’s also an elite rebounder, rarely dipping below the 80 percentile on both the offensive and defensive boards.
His athleticism makes him a decent defender able to guard to the perimeter. While he’s not the rim protector his peers are, Ayton is not averse to swatting shots.
As mentioned, 2022-23 wasn’t Ayton’s best year.
He ranked 69th in effective field goal percentage, 21st in defensive boards, 100th in blocks, 85th from the line, 16th at the rim, 70th in the midrange and 147th from three.
As last season was most likely an anomaly, I’ve also included his rankings from the previous two seasons.
In 2021-22, Ayton ranked 25th in effective field goal percentage, 32nd in defensive boards, 124th in blocks, 94th from the line, 20th at the rim, 11th in the midrange and 82nd from three.
In 2020-21, he ranked 26th in effective field goal percentage, 33rd in defensive boards, 59th in blocks, 73rd from the line, 23rd at the rim, 33rd in the midrange and 159th from three.
Compare this with Nurkic, whose 2022-23 was fairly indicative of his form after breaking his leg back in 2019.
The Bosnian ranked 99th in effective field goal percentage, 11th in defensive boards, 81st in blocks, 132nd from the line, 130th at the rim, 93rd from the mid range and 107th from three.
The above numbers show Ayton as the superior scorer at the rim, free throw line and in the midrange. While Nurkic is the superior three point shooter, he only really started attempting the long range shots three years ago — at the age of 26.
I’ll posit that given the nature and competitiveness of the Suns in recent years, Ayton wasn’t given much leeway hopping back to the three point line. His job was to stay under the rim, hence the 0.4 three point attempts per game.
Given the efficiency of Ayton’s midrange game, you’d have to imagine he can adapt that to three-point land if given the opportunity or encouraged to do so. Think LaMarcus Aldridge who only started attempting three pointers in his last season with the San Antonio Spurs.
Just to be clear, I’m not comparing Aldridge and Ayton as players, but their ability to hit midrange shots at an efficient rate may be translatable to the three point line.
Ayton is definitely an upgrade over Nurkic in one area. The former Sun can run the floor with the likes of Henderson, Simons and Sharp in a way the Bosnian can never do. Get ready for fastbreaks, lobs and dunks.
There’ll also be more opportunities to do it with Ayton able to play more than 30 minutes a night — he’s averaged more than 30 in every season bar one.
Nurkic on the other hand has averaged more than 30 minutes a night just once: the eight games he played in the Orlando Bubble in 2019-20.
Ayton is a younger, more efficient and more athletic center than Nurkic. He’s a former number one pick, who for whatever reason, found himself in a bad situation in need of new surroundings.
Nurkic is a decent pick and roll option, but with Ayton’s ability to shoot from midrange, he offers more offensive threats, posing more headaches for opposing defenses.
As a Blazer, I suspect Ayton will be relieved of the pressure of being a former number one pick, hooping in the shadow of Luka Doncic.
His rich-ish salary is by no ways team-friendly but with the the core of this team’s future locked into rookie scale deals for the immediate future, the money’s got to go somewhere.
Ayton is still brimming with talent and is young enough to be able to re-realize it. He’s obviously no sure thing, but with his talent and playoff experience, Ayton is as calculated a gamble as you’ll find.