NBA Draft

NBA Draft debate: Making case for Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic as No. 1 pick

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Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton (Getty Images)

For the first time in franchise history, the Suns own the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft. The Suns compiled a league worst 21-61 record this season before holding onto the top spot on lottery night. Their impending selection represents a beacon of hope for a team that hasn't made the playoffs in nearly a decade.

Phoenix's front office will face a difficult decision at the top of the draft. This year's class features a number of talented prospects with All-Star futures, and outside of Devin Booker, the Suns don't have any surefire bets to be valuable players on a winning team. Fit likely shouldn't play into Phoenix's decision. The franchise met with Duke's Marvin Bagley III at the draft combine, and its front office will likely conduct due diligence on a few other prospects as well.

Realistically, though, the debate for the Suns figures to come down to two players: Arizona's Deandre Ayton and Real Madrid's Luka Doncic, the lab-built basketball prototype versus the Slovenian wunderkind.

This is an attempt to figure out which prospect Phoenix should select on draft night.

The case for Deandre Ayton

Any argument for Ayton inevitably starts with highlighting his immense physical presence. Although he skipped the combine, prior measurements from high school make it clear he's NBA-ready from a size standpoint.

At the 2016 Adidas Nations camp, he clocked in at 7-0 tall with a 7-5 wingspan. His standing reach checked in at 9-4.5 in 2016 at Basketball Without Borders. That's roughly on par with NBA bigs like Hassan Whiteside and DeMarcus Cousins.

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Ayton's athleticism is elite for his size. He moves fluidly around the court, can leap out of the gym and possesses a quick second jump. Task a team of basketball scientists to come up with a physical prototype, and they would likely create something similar to the Arizona product.

Of course, size and elite athleticism are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for a prospect. Some level of projectable skill is needed.

Ayton was extremely productive as a freshman at Arizona. He averaged 24.0 points and 13.8 rebounds per 40 minutes on a 65.0 true shooting percentage. The 7-footer dominated opposing defenses via post-ups (1.052 points per possession, 90th percentile), off-ball cuts (1.376 PPP, 85th percentile) and offensive rebounds (1.440 PPP, 93rd percentile).

With an increased emphasis on 3-point shooting, the NBA's modern offensive climate isn't necessarily the most conducive to high-volume post play. Still, 11 teams during the regular season featured a big man who finished more than 4.0 possessions per game in the post. Ayton figures to be able to do the same at a fairly efficient clip.

Absent any developments to his ball-handling and play-making - two skills where he is well behind some of the league's best offensive bigs - Ayton's upside likely lies primarily in his ability to become an efficient jump shooter. He featured frequently as a pick-and-pop threat while playing power forward for the Wildcats, for example.

Accuracy remains a challenge for Ayton, however. He shot just 36.2 percent on pick-and-pop jumpers this season while converting 34.3 percent of his 3-point attempts. NBA teams will likely want to discourage Ayton from becoming reliant on his midrange game and move him out to the 3-point line given the math involved.

It's not hard to imagine Ayton bringing positive value on the offensive end as a scorer - whether via an effective post offense, a jump shot or some combination - but it may ultimately be his defense that makes or breaks him as an elite prospect. Watching several of the league's best bigs struggle to keep up with opposing guards in the playoffs only magnifies the importance.

Ayton possesses the necessary physical attributes to defend the perimeter well. He has quick feet and good hips. Still, his college tape remains a mixed bag:

The 19-year-old has faced criticisms for his defensive effort throughout his playing career, and his technique still needs work, but there's a path forward for him as a switchable defensive piece given his athleticism (assuming he's willing to engage defensively):

More concerning is Ayton's lack of rim protection. He averaged just 2.3 blocks per 40 minutes at Arizona while posting a 6.1 percent block rate. For perspective, those numbers are nearly identical to the numbers Justin Patton posted at Creighton before being drafted by the Timberwolves. Not great.

Proponents of Ayton will cite Arizona's conservative defensive scheme and the fact that Ayton spent many of his defensive possessions as a power forward, but it's tough to imagine him averaging significantly more blocks in another system given his history.

During his final season of Nike EYBL play in 2016, Ayton averaged just 2.7 blocks per 40 minutes, per DraftExpress' stats database. Other rim protectors in this class, including Mohamed Bamba (4.0), Wendell Carter Jr. (4.5) and Mitchell Robinson (8.0) averaged more. Even Bagley, a maligned shot blocker in his own right, averaged 3.1 blocks per game against EYBL competition in 2017, per D1 Circuit.

Ayton wouldn't be the first frontcourt prospect to improve as a rim protector in the NBA. DeAndre Jordan averaged just 2.5 blocks per 40 minutes as a freshman at Texas A&M before becoming one of the league's most feared shot blockers, for example. Nonetheless, developing his aptitude as a perimeter defender may be more valuable given the NBA's current trends.

Expect Ayton to be lauded as a surefire 20-and-10 - meaning 20 points and 10 rebounds per game - guy in the lead up to the draft. It's probably not far off. How valuable that is in the modern NBA remains questionable. More on that later...

The case for Luka Doncic

Where Ayton's preeminent physical stature is unmatched among 2018 prospects, it's Doncic's production and accomplishments that stand alone. At 19 years old, he was named MVP of the EuroLeague, the world's second-most difficult basketball competition outside of the NBA, led his team to its title and earned the MVP of its Final Four in the process.

Between the EuroLeague and Spain's Liga ACB, Doncic is averaging 20.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.6 assists per 36 minutes this season on a 60.0 true shooting percentage. If he ever translated those numbers to the NBA, he would be just one of seven players ever to do so.

Doncic's combination of youth and production is so unique that his projection is the best that ESPN's Kevin Pelton's stats-based draft model has produced since 2003. Yet, the Slovenian teenager is not a consensus No. 1 prospect.

Despite succeeding in a league littered with former NBA draft picks, there are questions about how Doncic's athleticism will translates against NBA opponents. He struggled, for example, in the EuroLeague playoffs this season to consistently generate separation against Panathinaikos' more athletic wing defenders.

Although those concerns are certainly valid in one-on-one isolation situations, Doncic has the potential to develop into an initiator who can force favorable matchups on the defensive end through switches. In those situations, the 19-year-old has shown he can feast on more questionable defenders:

So, perhaps the right question to ask about Doncic's projection isn't whether he can succeed against the NBA's best defenders, but rather whether he can force NBA teams into positions where he's not guarded by the opposition's best defender.

Essential to that project will be more accurate outside shooting, particularly off the dribble. Doncic converted a meager 30.9 percent of his triples this season, and over 544 career 3-point attempts, he's made just 33.3 percent of them.

His NBA projections paint a slightly rosier picture. Doncic is trusted to hoist a significant number of 3-point attempts, suggesting his coaching staff believes in his ability to make them, and his 80.1 percent rate from the foul line indicates he has the touch to develop into a more consistent shooter. If Doncic is able to knock down pull-ups coming off a screen consistently, NBA teams will be forced out of their under and over and drop-ball screen coverages.

Even if Doncic only becomes an average 3-point shooter, his ability to keep defenders on his hip coming out of ball screens and knock down floaters over big men should make him dangerous enough out of the pick-and-roll. Plus, his elite court vision and size make him a threat to find teammates all over the court:

Similar to Ayton, Doncic faces defensive question marks. It's something we wrote about back in November and continue to be concerned by, but his ceiling outcome as a primary initiator should overwhelm the defensive lapses in terms of contributions on the court, and his team defense, particularly his ability to generate steals, should still be valuable.

A framework for making the selection

Differences of opinion centered around top NBA prospects can often be traced back to draft philosophy and the way in which analysts and teams choose to value players. Value is ultimately subjective, as it can be measured in any number of ways, including more traditional counting stats, potential All-Star games or contributions to winning basketball. Success in one of those areas does not necessarily lead to success in all of them.

As such, when debating which prospect should go No. 1 overall, it's important to lay out the framework for the decision. The parameters provided herein may not be the same ones used by the Suns' front office on draft night. So it goes. Unfortunately, we aren't in their war room.

Ultimately, the goal in the NBA is to win, so how a prospect contributes to winning is our primary concern. ESPN's Real Plus-Minus, a statistic designed to measure how much an NBA player contributes to winning basketball, can function as a reasonable measuring stick for this purpose. Of note, an individual simply averaging 20.0 points per game does not necessarily translate to his team winning. There are almost always additional factors involved.

For perspective, here are the top 10 players in the league by RPM over the last three seasons:

(Source: ESPN)

The above chart tilts this evaluation heavily in favor of Doncic, the oversized potential initiator. Of the 30 most valuable seasons in the league over the past three seasons, 70.0 percent of them have come from perimeter players. Only one frontcourt player, Draymond Green, has cracked the top five.

The nine seasons from frontcourt players highlight some significant trends. Other than Rudy Gobert, every big man on the list is a threat to knock down an outside shot. That bodes well for Ayton, who projects to be able to do the same.

Four of the seasons from big men feature subpar defenders, a worry for Ayton. Three of those belong to Denver's Nikola Jokic, who basically operates as a primary initiator from the center spot. It's unlikely Ayton ever does the same.

The other is Kevin Love, one of the most diverse shooting and best passing bigs in the league - two outcomes that are tough to imagine for Ayton. In order for the 7-footer to massively impact winning basketball, he'll likely need to be an above average defender. That's a tougher sell.

The path for Doncic to contribute to winning basketball, meanwhile, is much clearer. If he shoots well enough to open up the remainder of his offense, he'll have a path forward as a primary initiator. Those are the current NBA's most valuable players because of their ability to bring value through both passing and scoring, and that's why Phoenix should select him at No. 1.

All statistics sourced from Sports-Reference and Synergy unless otherwise noted. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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