Deandre Ayton has nothing to lose.
That’s the sense I get talking to NBA scouts and front office personnel going into the NCAA tournament, where Ayton’s Arizona Wildcats open tournament play as eight-point favorites vs. Buffalo. Ayton is in contention with a handful of other players for the No. 1 pick, but in recent months it’s become increasingly clear that the top pick will come down to Ayton or Real Madrid’s phenom Luka Doncic.
The expansion of scouting personnel and the technology and metrics used to evaluate prospects have advanced so much that several sources indicated that this, regardless of whatever happens, is not going to make or break the seven-foot phenom with a seven-foot-five-inch wingspan.
“When it comes to college players, you have the regular season as a way better scouting tool. While the tournament gives you this pressure situation you want to see them in, in the regular season you get to see them in a wider variety of matchups. If someone dominates or struggles in the tournament because of a matchup issue, that shouldn’t change your evaluation.”
Still, the experience of the tournament is a big enough deal to create extra attention. One former executive said that sometimes head executives don’t spend time scouting players in advance of the tournament, which provides them with the opportunity to evaluate how these players perform in high-leverage situations.
Ayton, though, doesn’t need to prove his ability to produce, averaging 20.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per game and shooting 61.6 percent from the field. Ayton doesn’t need to prove his athleticism, since it absolutely jumps off the screen at you.
What will be watched is how he handles different kinds of coverages. Young bigs often struggle when facing double teams, but Ayton’s exceptional in this regard. Ayton faced the ninth-most hard doubles in the country, via Synergy Sports. And when teams sent those doubles, the Wildcats scored 1.30 points per possession, which is straight-up incredible.
Ayton is so good against doubles in part because of his raw size. If a smaller defender is on his strong side, he’s able to turn baseline and hit his shots. I hate to compare another player to Hakeem Olajuwon after comparing Joel Embiid to him a few years ago, but this is pretty Dream-like.
That’s over a seven-footer, by the way.
When the double is harder or from better defenders, Ayton will need to be able to pass, which he can do.
Imagine if that were Dennis Smith Jr. streaking down the lane? The Mavericks may have made a huge mistake in winning their past several games.
The bigger issue for bigs in the NBA isn’t strong-side help, though. They can recognize that and make the pass most times, especially at the elite level. But the weak-side help is a much bigger issue. When defenders come along that baseline, players almost need to have a sixth sense to recognize it.
Here Ayton spins right into a charge. Some of that’s on teammates to let him know, but his ability to deal with baseline defenders is something to keep an eye on.
Defense is always the question with Ayton, although he has great potential. Watch him make three different show-and-recovers here in the pick-and-roll to contain on the perimeter.
The big knock on Ayton is his post defense, but while he struggled early in the year he was able later in the season to force players into awkward shots.
Those shots went in, but they were all tough fadeaways. Of course, there are also problematic plays like this.
He gets bodied and scored on there. That’s not great, but at the same time what he is now might not be what he will be in the NBA. Here’s what DeAndre Jordan looked like at Texas
Now here’s what he looks like.
Guys can add some muscle with a few years in the NBA. Ayton’s defensive potential is exceptional. Even if he never reaches an elite level, he’ll still be a difference maker with his size.
In the NCAA tournament, Ayton’s not playing to improve his stock. If he struggles with a troubling matchup or breaks down in a clutch spot, the scouts will notice, but the book is out on Ayton: He’s a phenom. With his exceptional size and talent, he’s a lock for a top-three pick regardless of whatever kind of madness he experiences this March.
Pictured above: Deandre Ayton
Photo credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports