Deandre Ayton’s introductory press conference with the Portland Trail Blazers presented the world with a man with a new lease on life. He was happy, confident, and ready to put the toxicity that enveloped his final days in Phoenix behind him.
After five seasons with the Suns, which started with Ayton’s selection as the first pick in the 2018 NBA draft and peaked as he helped the franchise to the NBA Finals, hit its nadir this past season as his relationship and importance to the franchise deteriorated. He used his introductory press conference to say the quiet part out loud and called his move to Portland a "New beginning," adding, “I get to show the world, show you guys, who I am as a player.”
Ayton was so confident about the change of scenery that he felt comfortable dropping a line straight out of “Best Dad Jokes of 2023,” saying, "I bring dominance. My name is DominAyton." Through 13 games, Ayton’s game has been anything but dominant, and his complete lack of free throw attempts best signifies his struggles.
Maybe the Suns were right about Deandre Ayton
The knock on Deandre Ayton throughout his Suns tenure was his lack of consistency and physicality. Blessed with a rare combination of size, speed, agility, and strength, Ayton has all the tools to be a dominant force around the basket. However, he has a habit of shying away from contact, and it’s never been more pronounced this season.
Dominant frontcourt players exert this physicality to carve out space for baskets and generate free throws along the way. Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are two of the premier scorers in the league, and both feast at the free throw line, sitting first and second in free throw attempts per game.
Ayton has never been a free throw magnet like most centers. Of players who have played 100 minutes, 12 of the top 20 players in free throw attempt rate (FTAr: number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt) are centers. Much of centers’ dominance in free throw metrics lies in their on-court geography.
2-point attempts and shots around the rim, which make up a massive portion of a center’s shot diet, generate the most free throws. Also, by virtue of being massive humans, it requires defenders to get within inches of them to contest their shot. Being tall is a basketball cheat code, and one of its perks is frequent trips to the free throw line.
However, Ayton hasn’t reaped the free throw benefits like his behemoth brethren. He owns a career free throw attempt rate of .209, which is 19 percent worse than the league average, and that’s despite him attempting only 80 3-pointers in his career. For a non-spacing center, Ayton’s lack of free throw generation is confounding and has reached a new low this season.
All stats through November 18th unless otherwise noted
Deandre Ayton is chasing the wrong type of history
Through 12 games, Ayton’s .055 FTAr is the second lowest for a center who averaged at least 28 minutes per game in the history of the NBA, behind Al Hortford’s .044 FTAr in 2022-23. However, 67.8 percent of Horford’s shots were 3-pointers, where shooting fouls are far less common, compared to Ayton’s zero percent 3-point attempt rate this season.
The next closest seasons to Ayton’s FTAr are Nikola Vucevic’s 2021-22 and Blair Rasmussen’s 1990-91 seasons when they sported FTAr of .105, nearly double Ayton’s current rate. Vucevic took a moderate level of 3-pointers, and Rasmussen was one of the worst players in the league. For a center who isn’t a volume 3-point shooter and exclusively takes shots within the arc, Ayton is in uncharted territory.
If you take how many times a player has been blocked, committed an offensive foul, and attempted a 2-point field goal, you’ll have a very good idea of how many times they’ve gone to the free throw line. Through Nov. 16, the sum of those three values has a correlation coefficient of 0.836 to free throw attempts.
Intuitively, these variables being predictive of free throws makes sense. 2-point attempts lead to more free throws, and getting blocked and offensive fouls are contact plays with defenders, and contact with a defender is required to earn a foul. However, Ayton substantially bucks this trend.
As of Nov. 16, he’s added two free throws and 14 2-point attempts since, Ayton ranked 37th out of 338 players to have played 50 minutes or more in total times blocked, committed an offensive foul, and attempted a 2-point field goal at 124 but 267th in free throw attempts at five.
Ayton is an extreme outlier, which suggests he will improve to some degree, but this isn’t just a case of a bad whistle from referees.
Breaking down Deandre Ayton’s film
On the season, from 131 true shot attempts (FGA + shooting fouls drawn), Ayton has earned seven free throw attempts from four shooting fouls. Two were on putbacks, one was as a pick-and-roll roll man possession, and his lone and-one came on a fade-away floater. His inability to get to the line stems from a combination of factors that are readily apparent when you watch his film.
Thanks to NBA.com’s boxscore feature, there is video of almost all of Ayton’s field goal attempts, with only three out of 124 missing. Going through the film, four major skill deficiencies are hindering his ability to generate free throws.
- Low confidence in left hand
- Not enough variety in offensive skill set
- Avoidance of prolonged contact
- Lack of ball fakes
1. Low confidence in left hand
There are plenty of players who significantly favor one hand. While being one-handed doesn’t prevent players from getting to the line, it does make it more difficult. It functionally shrinks the usable space on the court and allows defenders to position themselves better.
Domatas Sabonis almost exclusively uses his left hand, and he has to play extreme bully ball to get to the basket and generate free throws. He’s still an effective player and racks up trips to the line, but he’d be even better if he had more confidence in his right hand.
Ayton rarely uses his left hand to dribble or shoot, and defenders position themselves accordingly. If he were to have more faith in his left hand, he’d be able to create more dangerous situations by taking open lanes to the rim and earn a few extra fouls in the process.
2. Not enough variety in offensive skill set
Ayton does not have a bag, as the kids on X, formerly known as Twitter, would say. He’ll occasionally dribble it between his legs in the mid-range, but his go-to move for carving out space is the spin move. Unfortunately, he only spins backward and is extremely predictable. When he spins to his right side, it’s to create a fadeaway hook, and when he spins left, it’s to create a fadeaway jumper.
If he spun to attack the basket, it could be a tremendous weapon to generate quality looks and rack up free throws. Instead, he uses it to shy away from contact. There were multiple instances where he had the ball right under the basket, and instead of going up strong for a dunk and risking contact, he spun out and threw up a little hook.
Ayton possesses a soft touch on his hook, but that doesn’t mean he should forego more direct play entirely. His reliance on his spin move to his right side makes him predictable to guard, and he doesn’t use it to beat his defender to dangerous scoring areas.
3. Avoidance of prolonged contact
When Ayton is on the ball, he has little interest in initiating contact. Whether it’s a lack of confidence in his handle, poor lower body strength, or just an aversion to slamming into other mammoth humans, Ayton rarely engages his defender with contact more than once.
The best low-post scorers go to work with their shoulders and bully their way to their spots. But gaining this advantage takes multiple moments of contact, especially when guarded by the opposing center. This season, Ayton, if he engages contact at all, almost universally gives one bump to his defender before spinning to his right for a hook or taking a fade-away jumper.
His habit of shying away from physical battles makes him a poor mismatch exploiter and inefficient post-scorer. Ayton has all the physical tools to bully his way around the court, but it requires extreme effort. And all too often, Ayton opts for the easy, less physically demanding option.
4. Lack of ball fakes
Most of this article has been about what Ayton doesn’t do well, but he is a solid and very willing mid-range jump shooter for a center. Mid-range jumpers are widely understood to be the least valuable shots, but that doesn’t mean they have no value at all. Many of the NBA’s best scorers are excellent in the mid-range and use it to set up other parts of their offensive arsenal.
The vast majority of Ayton’s mid-range jumpers see him fire the ball as soon as he receives it. If he began throwing pump fakes into the mix, it would help open up driving lanes and get his defender off-balance. He did it once and blew by Anthony Davis, one of the best defenders in the world, but all too often, he shot as quickly as he could.
Ayton’s mid-range game could help separate him from other centers in the league, but he limits its efficacy by not employing greater variety in its deployment. Ayton is a good reminder that mid-range jumpers are an extremely effective part of an offensive arsenal but quickly lose utility when it’s the end goal.
Ayton not throwing pump fakes in the mid-range isn’t surprising (he’s a center, after all), but his unwillingness to do it near the basket is. The defense is in trouble when someone is three feet from the basket, and just a little fake can get a defender to bite. Once they’re off their feet, it’s an easy layup or a chance to ride the contact for a potential three-point play. But Ayton has only attempted one pump fake at the basket this season, and it is costing him points, free throw attempts, and added foul pressure on opposing defenders.
Deandre Ayton has more to offer
Deandre Ayton will get to the free-throw line more than he has to start the season. He still takes plenty of shots around the basket, and a small part of his low free-throw numbers are down to bad luck.
Even with all that being said, he still has significant issues to sort out to begin performing at a level near his capabilities. His season stat line of 12.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per game is a significant regression from where he was in Phoenix.
The problem is larger than Ayton not getting to the free-throw line. It is his avoidance of the free throw line seemingly at all costs and the effect it has on the rest of his game. For example, when matched up against Anthony Davis, he was stripped twice on jumpers because Davis knew as soon as he caught the ball in the mid-range he was going up with a shot.
The predictability in his offensive game costs him efficiency on shots from the field and efficiency through trips to the line, where he’s a 75.6 percent career shooter. Even with his limited offensive arsenal, there is no reason for Ayton to shy away from contact. He should welcome it and reap the reward.
It’s still very early in the season, but Ayton might be embarking on the worst free throw generation season in NBA history. While that would be an unwanted distinction, it is actually how he is earning it that makes it so ignominious. The free throws, or lack thereof, are symptomatic of a greater problem ailing Deandre Ayton.
The Suns asked Ayton to carve out space for Chris Paul and Devin Booker as a rim-running center. The role led to a steady supply of easy opportunities around the rim, but it prevented him from showcasing his impressive combination of size, athleticism, and touch.
Now in Portland, Ayton must expand his game beyond his comfort zone to realize the potential that made him the first overall pick. When he begins to push the boundaries of his game, the free throws will follow. Getting to the line isn’t the goal for Ayton. It’s the symptom of growth.