While the top 5 of this prospective 2018 draft class is being hailed as one of the best in recent memory, it’s also reintroducing a concept that feels like we haven’t seen in a while: two top 5 centers. Yeah, that last time that happened one was Jahlil Okafor, but DeAndre Ayton and Mohamed Bamba aren’t Jahlil Okafor. Today, we’re looking at the 7’1″, 260 lbs center from Arizona.
The one thing that is absolutely clear about Ayton just by looking at him is how physically ready he is for the NBA. He’s an elite athlete for someone of his size, and he uses all of his weight to his advantage. Watch him just abuse Bamba in the low post:
The guy he’s going up against will probably be a top 5 pick and Ayton went through him like he was nothing. He also utilizes his power when matched up against smaller defenders, either when they switch onto him or opponents are going small. Ayton is also a terrific lob threat in the half-court, with the body to shield out other jumpers and the athleticism to go up and finish over the top. While power moves and lobs are his go-to inside moves, he has shown some touch down on the low block, with the ability to hit jump hooks like this:
However, what could get him into trouble when he moves up to the NBA level is his over-reliance on the power game in the post. Other centers will be more than willing to bang bodies with him, so he’ll have to develop more of a refined post game if he wants to be effective down on the low block.
I’m combining both mid-range and three-point scoring into this category for Ayton, as they both present the same strengths and weaknesses. For a guy his size, his jumper is actually very smooth. The shot is out in front of his head, his base is strong and he gets good elevation, the wrist snaps down quickly, and he holds the follow-through.
He’s very comfortable with his jump shot, taking both open jumpers and contested shots at various points in a game. As the NBA needs bigs to be able to space the floor more and more, the fact that Ayton has some perimeter touch will help him stay on the floor longer. However, his comfort level can be problematic at times. He is often too perimeter happy, roaming around the three-point line and waiting to launch, as well as releasing even as defenders are right in his face.
Being confident in the jumper is a good thing; it will help his free throw shooting, which will be the ultimate determining factor if he can stay on the court. However, Ayton does need to realize that the strength of his offensive game lies down in the post. That way, he can utilize his athleticism and size for easy finishes and crashing the offensive glass.
Ayton has shown some ability as a playmaker out of the post. While he didn’t showcase the passing much in high school (bigs that talented at that age rarely do), the preseason game against ENMU highlighted the damage Ayton can potentially do as a passer.
That being said, Ayton has a serious case of tunnel vision. Because of his size and talent, teams will often double him in the post. He thinks he can score over the top, and sometimes he can, but the smarter play is to pass out for the open jumper and he doesn’t read that all the time.
Arizona does a terrible job of spacing on the first play, so I understand that Ayton might not be able to pass to an open man as the play unfolds. But, the first instinct to turn baseline and try to take on a trap that eventually becomes 5 on 1 is the example of that black hole mentality. The second play is the perfect example. If you pause at 6 seconds, Ayton has Brandon Randolph (5) open at the top of the key and a wide open Emmanuel Akot (24) for the cross-court swing. Pause at 8 seconds and Alex Barcello (23) opens up too. While he scores on this possession, it’s not the right read. The third play has no one wide open for a jumper, but it shows Ayton’s “I’m going to score the ball” mentality that can hurt the flow of an offense.
Ayton should thrive as a rebounder on every level he plays at. While he has all the physical tools to be an amazing rebounder, he also the desire to go up and get boards, particularly on the offensive glass. Watch the clip below. Ayton starts the play out at the 3pt line, reads the ball perfectly off the rim, and gets himself in perfect position to rise up and rescue a possession for his team.
While sometimes he can forget to box out on the defensive end, Ayton should be one of college basketball’s best rebounders this season.
There isn’t a reason why Ayton shouldn’t be a good defender down low. He’s got the right size to be a terror as a rotating big or a physical presence against other bigs. This play against Bamba is particularly impressive.
The biggest problem with Ayton’s defense is a problem that you seem to find everywhere: a lack of effort. There’s a lot of times when someone’s man will beat them off the dribble and lead them right to where Ayton is, only he doesn’t rotate correctly or at all. This results in some uncontested or late-contested shots at the rim.
While the second play in this video is not a lack of help defense effort, it is still illustrative of a lack of effort. The game from those clips is against Bamba, and that’s a serious lack of intensity for a game where Ayton could show how superior of a prospect he is.
There isn’t much film on Ayton’s perimeter defense, but the stuff that I’ve seen looks really good. He seems to diagnose the game really well, giving him chances at off-ball steals, and he can slide his feet well enough to switch on to some smaller players.
Just like for his defensive play on the interior, his perimeter defense will live or die on the effort he gives.
One of the strangest things I noticed about Ayton’s game was his reluctance (inability?) to set quality screens. He’s too big to not screen well, and becoming a good screener would unlock so much for his offensive game. Yet, he never seems to get a full body on a screen or just slips the screen altogether, which does nothing to help his ball-handler shake a defender.
Make no mistake, DeAndre Ayton is the best pure center in this draft class and a very clear top 5 pick. He reminds me of Amar’e Stoudemire, only if Amar’e was seven feet tall and expanded his range out to the 3pt line. While he’s not one of the big three prospects in this draft, he has a very unique package of skills that will make him an amazing pick for anyone outside of that 1-2 range.
(Feature Image from Arizona Daily Star)