Three days after Arizona’s loss to Buffalo in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Deandre Ayton announced his intention to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft and sign with an agent, forgoing the remainder of his college eligibility.
Other than the 1,172 minutes of college basketball experience he accumulated at Arizona, the seven-foot-one center also has 103 minutes with the Bahamas National Team in the 2016 Centrobasket, 121 minutes in the 2016 adidas Nations and an appearance in the 2016 Nike Hoop Summit after his junior year of high school .
This was a good season for Ayton overall. The 19-year-old  once again stood out as a remarkable physical specimen within his age group, put together a very impressive statistical profile, and showcased a level of skill he was not previously known. As a result, ESPN currently ranks him as the best prospect in this draft class.
But things weren’t perfect, of course. Arizona underachieved and while Ayton isn’t considered to be one of the main reasons why, doubts over to which extent he is able to elevate his team have emerged, mostly on defense.
Ayton played the entire season out of position, not just to accommodate senior Dusan Ristic, but also due to Sean Miller’s strong preference for two-big lineups at all times. Logging most of his minutes alongside a less mobile and less athletic seven-foot center, Ayton was asked to matchup with types of players who didn’t always provide him a chance to defend closer to the basket.
While his shot blocking numbers improved as the season progressed, Ayton’s general intensity trying to make himself a more active presence near the basket remains the most scrutinized part of his game. His role within the defense is often pointed to as a potential reason why he was a fairly disappointing rim protector in college but many people have also brought up the fact that a similar situation didn’t prevent Jaren Jackson, Jr. from standing out in this area.
As is, questions over his ability to anchor an elite level defense remain.
It’s evident he has the physical talent and the athleticism to develop into a difference maker. Ayton has even made quite a few plays that suggest he understands what the smart thing to do is, in terms of preventive rotations and shadowing isolations when he can see his teammate is about to get beat. Maybe he’ll be more locked in as a pro, like Ben Simmons. He did have the best defensive rating on the team among rotation players .
But there are also plays where Ayton fails to translate his athletic prowess into making a real impact; not always leaving his feet to challenge shots near the basket despite being in position, hurting his chances of contesting shots more effectively by trying to avoid contact and leaving something to be desired on plays that require multiple efforts. Maybe he’ll be a guy who looks good but doesn’t help his team be good, like Andrew Wiggins. Despite the fact he averaged 33.5 minutes per game, Arizona only ranked 83rd in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Ayton’s most impressive trait is his physical talent. He has a remarkable combination of coordination and quickness for someone his size, aside from above average strength for someone his age. He is also an explosive leaper off two feet.
Arizona didn’t offer him good enough space for him to roll hard to the basket out of the pick-and-roll often but Ayton has proven himself able to play above the rim as a target for lobs filling the lanes in transition, on baseline out-of-bounds sets, wheeling around the defense on screen-for-the-screener plays and hovering near the baseline in the dunker spot.
Aside from power finishes, he has also shown the balance, ball skills and touch on non-dunk finishes when he’s needed to catch, take a dribble to gather himself and go up strong off two feet or score around a man between him and the basket – converting 82.1% of his 218 shots at the rim .
His leaping ability also made him a very effective offensive rebounder at the collegiate level. Ayton has a knack for pursuing the ball off the rim, a seven-foot-five wingspan to rebound outside his area and a quick second jump to fight for tip-ins and 50-50 balls. He collected 13.4% of Arizona’s misses when he was on the floor this season and converted 85.7% of his 49 putback attempts.
On the other end, his advantage in instincts and athleticism made up for the fact Ayton isn’t attentive to his boxout responsibilities very often, aside from the fact that playing alongside Ristic offered him a chance of matching up against a lesser challenger on the boards on most nights. His 287 defensive rebounds ranked third in the NCAA, as he collected 28.2% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor.
As mentioned earlier, Ayton’s defense wasn’t up to what was expected from someone who looks like he should be a dominant presence. Besides the well publicized iffy rim protection instincts, there is lot of times Ayton doesn’t look like the most engaged defender. He’ll come in and bump the roll man from time-to-time but doesn’t stay in a stance off the ball, is prone to getting face cut, never puts much effort into preventing his man from getting a clean catch in the post and had just 20 steals in 35 appearances – an appalling mark for someone with his length.
But the team that wants to overlook these things, or at least put a lower value on them, and fully buy into his potential instead has plenty of reasons do it. When he is engaged, Ayton can be a very impactful defender in the hidden parts of the game.
He can bend his knees to get down in a stance defending on the ball and has proven himself able to pick up smaller players on switches, stay attached to them stride-for-stride out in space and intimidate shots at the basket.
Though he struggled in the second Oregon game against MiKyle McIntosh and Paul White, Ayton has generally shown the quickness to run stretch big men off their shots in the pick-and-pop and maintain his balance to stay in front, doing a particularly good job against the notorious Thomas Welsh in the first UCLA game.
He did show some ability to contain ball handlers from turning the corner on pick-and-rolls as well, though those were few and far between because of Miller’s preferred strategy of having his big men hedge on ball-screens, despite their ineffectiveness influencing opposing ball handlers.
And there were times Ayton stepped up to protect the basket as the last line of defense just fine, leveraging his quick leaping ability and his nine-foot-three wingspan into averaging 2.3 blocks per 40 minutes.
Or maybe some team will accept the risk of him never quite figuring out on defense in order to do business with his offense, which projects to be quite special.
Ayton has been a very famous basketball prospect for a long time due to his athletic prowess but showed in his one year at Arizona that he’s taking steps towards developing into a very skilled player as well.
Though he had a strength advantage just about every night this season and knocked most opponents backwards when he lowered his shoulder, Ayton was often more interested in relying on skill to score out of the post.
His preferred move was turning, facing his man, sizing him up and launching a sudden no-dribble jumper, sometimes even mixing in a jab-step. He can go to a turnaround, fadeaway jumper too. His jump-shot has evolved into more of a legit threat since he was in high school, as he’s been able to put more arc on it more often.
Ayton has also flashed a move where he pivots around his man very fluidly for a short hook or a scoop finish and a counter where he fakes the pivot and goes the other way, proving himself to be an ambidextrous finisher.
Overall, he converted 42.1% of his 198 two-point attempts away from the basket.
But more impressive, perhaps, has been Ayton’s dexterity escape dribbling out of hard double teams and his court vision passing out of the low post. He’s not a genius passer but has shown he is able to spot breakdowns in the defense and read cuts or drifts very well, which he was not previously known for.
Ayton assisted on 10.2% of Arizona’s scores when he was on the floor and turned it over on just 11.3% of his possessions – which is a low mark in the context of his 26.6% usage rate.
Last but not least, he’s flashed more robust potential as a jump-shooter.
Ayton is now a capable shooter from the college three-point line on pick-and-pops. He does nice shot preparation catching it on the hop, elevates in balance, has fluid mechanics, gets his shot off comfortably against closeouts from opposing big men, releases it from a high point tough to block and shows nice touch.
Ayton nailed 12 of his 35 three-point attempts in college and was enough of a threat that opponents were selling out to run him off his shot towards the end of the season. In these instances, Ayton even flashed a mini-pump fake and the ability to attack off the dribble on a straight line, using his strength to maintain his balance through contact and get all the way to the rim.
He needs to continue working on getting arc on his shot consistently in order to back down a few feet out to NBA range but Ayton has also nailed 73.3% of his 191 foul shots, so the expectation is he should be able to develop into a legit threat from three-point range in the NBA as well.