When the Phoenix Suns selected Deandre Ayton with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, this is the player they likely had in mind.
Following a solid regular season that saw him average 14.4 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, Ayton has taken his game to another level in his first-ever postseason. Not only has he boosted his numbers to 16.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game - an impressive feat in itself considering the players and teams he's gone up against - he's shooting 70.6 percent from the field.
For context, only three players in Stathead's database have ever posted those numbers (at least 15.0 points and 9.0 rebounds on 70.0 percent shooting) in a playoff run. Buck Williams was the first to do it back in 1985-86, followed by Joakim Noah in 2011-12 and DeAndre Jordan in 2016-17.
The difference between them and Ayton? Williams, Noah and Jordan played in a combined 13 games when they did it. Ayton has already appeared in 16 games en route to the finals.
What's interesting about Ayton is that he's remade himself in the playoffs. It's not like he's become an entirely new player - he's still a double-double machine who lives in the paint and is in charge of anchoring Phoenix's impenetrable defence - but the way he's generating his offence in the playoffs is quite different from what we've seen from him in the past.
That much becomes clear when you compare Ayton's play type data from the regular season to the playoffs.
What stands out the most is Ayton's post-ups are way, way, way down.
According to NBA.com, Ayton has gone from averaging 3.4 post-up possessions per game during the regular season to only 1.7 in the playoffs. It's not that he isn't a capable scorer with his back to the basket - only four players scored more points out of post-ups than him this season, believe it or not - but he's even better at the things he's doing more of in the playoffs.
Put it this way: Ayton is scoring 4.8 points per game off of cuts in the playoffs, the most in the league. He is scoring at a rate of 1.46 points per possession on cuts, which ranks him in the 72nd percentile. Additionally, Ayton is scoring 5.9 points per game as the roll man in pick-and-rolls, putting him behind only Jusuf Nurkic (6.2) and Nikola Jokic (6.1) for most in the playoffs. He's once again been incredibly efficient, ranking in the ... 100th percentile with 1.59 points per possession.
In simpler terms, Ayton is scoring almost half of his points in the playoffs on cuts and rolls, and he's doing it at basically league-best levels of efficiency.
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Of course, Ayton being a big-time scorer on those plays means he's reliant on his teammates to set him up - only 17.5 percent of his buckets in the playoffs have been unassisted, an incredibly low number that has him rubbing shoulders with specialists like P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington and Royce O'Neale - but he's found his groove playing next to two of the league's best guards in Devin Booker and Chris Paul, both of whom draw a fair share of attention.
When I asked Booker about Ayton a couple of years ago, he had this to say about the big fella: "He's a big who can catch the ball. So on these rolls, he can catch it on a pocket pass, he can catch the lob and he finishes it. He's a big, strong body, and I think he's coming into his own and progressing every game."
Ayton makes a lot of what he does look easy, but there aren't many bigs who share his same qualities.
First and foremost, Ayton is massive, standing at 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. That size makes him an easy target for Booker, Paul and everyone else on the Suns when his defender dares help off of him.
Second, Ayton's got great hands and a soft touch. He doesn't have to be spoon fed the ball.
Third, Ayton knows where to position himself. It's not something that necessarily jumps off the page, but knowing how to play off of others and create passing lanes is an incredibly underrated skill, especially for a big man.
Last but not least, Ayton has bought in.
Only three years removed from being the No. 1 pick in the draft, it wouldn't be a surprise if Ayton was trying to do more offensively, but he's embraced all of the little things this team needs on both ends to reach their full potential. The results speak for themselves, both for Ayton and the Suns, who are now only four wins away from their first championship.
"He's starting to understand having a role doesn't limit you," Suns head coach Monty Williams said of Ayton. "Sometimes when you tell a guy this is your role, they tend to think I can't do anything else. But he just has a big role."
The scary part? Ayton is still scratching the surface of his potential. He's already proving himself to be one of the league's better two-way bigs in these playoffs, and he's only going to continue to grow.
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