Deandre Ayton’s third year has been outstanding and a huge improvement on his first two. As a similar player, there’s a lot that Golden State’s James Wiseman can learn from the Phoenix big man.
The traditional big man is a dying breed in the modern NBA. If you’re not Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis or Rudy Gobert, the impact bigs can have on an NBA game is limited.
This is exacerbated in the playoffs when teams move on from the day-to-day nature of the regular season and start to abuse mismatches, embarrass slow feet and punish coaches for sticking to the archaic model of basketball.
While a talented big like Montrezl Harrell can win the Sixth Man of the Year award in the regular season (and deservingly so), a trophy means nothing when Jamal Murray runs circles around you for seven straight games in the 2020 NBA playoffs.
Because of this, if a team doesn’t have a difference-maker at the position, some smart front offices have stopped investing major assets there at all. With the top-tier talent elsewhere on the court, teams have successfully gotten away with replacement-level options at the five.
The Deep Two contributor Alessio Conte summed it up well in his most recent piece: “Of the last ten championships, the traditional big man has only been influential in two (Duncan in 2014 and Davis in 2020).
“In those corresponding ten seasons, 21 big men have been drafted in the top ten picks of the draft. The only one to have found any championship success is Davis, and he did so for a team that did not draft him while being attached to one of the greatest players of all time. Additionally, none of the top ten big men in the ten drafts before that have found any championship success either.”
Full disclosure, Alessio is a Sacramento Kings fan and has seen first-hand what drafting a big man in the modern NBA looks like (see Cousins, DeMarcus and Bagley, Marvin).
One of the other bigs alluded to in that previous passage is Deandre Ayton, the Phoenix Suns centre who spent the first two seasons of his career being known as ‘the guy drafted ahead of Luka Doncic’.
Ayton, a 6’11” Bahamian, struggled to make a high-level impact when he entered the league. In retrospect, it might have been a dangerous concoction of too much responsibility and Phoenix not having a better option.
This season, and more specifically, these playoffs, Ayton has played at an elite level with quality defence when it matters and excelled on offence next to Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
In the playoffs, Ayton is averaging a neat 15.2 points and 10.6 rebounds on 35.1 minutes a night and 72 percent shooting from the floor. Yes, that last number was correct, out of 95 field goal attempts this postseason, Ayton has made 68 of them.
While he’s not a top-tier centre like Jokic or Embiid, he has found himself in the right positions, setting solid screens and making the opposition centre work harder for theirs.
Jokic still performed like an MVP in the second-round series between their two sides, including a historic 30–20–10 game, but he had to at least try harder for his production, which goes a long way in a seven-game series.
Devin Booker, among other teammates, has been effusive in their praise of the big man: “Just consistently wear [Jokic] down throughout the game. [Ayton’s] so locked into that and I know he has a lot of respect for Jokic. I love when he respects somebody and then goes at him that much more. That’s the mindset that you need to have,” he said in his postgame media availability.
Head coach Monty Williams echoed the effort DA is giving on his assignment: “DA has played him well. I think Jokic would say the same thing. A lot of his shots are tough shots. I’m watching from the bench and he’s elevating his shot, putting more arc on it because DA is so long and athletic.”
The praise for Ayton is worlds away from the comments he was hearing at the start of his career.
Compare this with Golden State Warriors rookie James Wiseman
In 39 games this season, Wiseman played like a 19-year-old who had only played in three college games. Lucky for him, he was a 19-year-old rookie who had only played in three college games.
Big Jim, if you will, was gifted minutes for this Warriors team that, unlike Ayton’s rookie year Suns, had playoff aspirations and needed production from the get-go. His 19.8 usage percentage was in the 76th percentile among all bigs per Cleaning the Glass but it was sadly mirrored by a 25th percentile 110.1 points per 100 shot attempts.
At times it looked like he didn’t know who he was guarding and it was seriously concerning, especially given the weight of his role defensively at centre.
Unfortunately, Wiseman’s rookie season was cut short as he underwent surgery on his right meniscus. Without their rookie (and Marquese Chriss), the Warriors finished the season with a 21–12 record, Draymond went back to what he was good at and Golden State leaped from tenth in the Western Conference to eighth.
What was more concerning for Warriors fans was the fact that yet another traditional big man had been drafted in the high lottery. Ironically, it was this Warriors team that took him, tantalised by his physical attributes, when they had found so much success playing Draymond Green at the five, forcing other teams out of using their traditional bigs.
In the 33 games after the Wiseman injury, the Warriors made a league-leading number of threes per game (16.7 — tied with Milwaukee’s season figure), got incrementally better on the boards and took more free throws.
Despite all this, Ayton’s success in these playoffs gives Wiseman a blueprint to ascendency.
He might not be a difference-maker like Jokic, Embiid, AD or Gobert, but if he can stay on the court, he can impact winning in a big way.
Both Ayton and Wiseman can be the fastest big men on the court at all times.This has led to plenty of free baskets all season for Deandre and there’s no reason to think the same can’t happen for Wiseman.
Another thing the two share is their personnel. Ayton has been lucky enough to play alongside CP3 this season and his crisp passing rewards the big man if he finds himself in the right spots, making the right cuts.
This doesn’t have to be directly off of a pick-and-roll either, the gravity of Paul, or Booker for that matter, gives Ayton a few free pathways to the rim each game.
It’s impossible to “teach” someone to play with elite passers and scorers, but Wiseman is lucky enough to play with maybe the best scorer of all time in Stephen Curry and a lot of these examples in the playoffs can carry over.
See how much attention CP3 draws on this pick-and-roll, giving Deandre a free lane to the hoop
Nobody’s drawing up plays for Ayton, but he manages to get his.
By virtue of being a large human being with the ability to jump, you can see Wiseman excelling at this role on offence. Where it gets sticky is defence and unfortunately, defence is mostly about repetition and knowing where to be.
With a 7’6” wingspan on his 7’1” frame, Wiseman should be scaring opposing scorers before they even get to the rim. I’ll put it nicely and simply say this isn’t the case. Opponents took more shots in the paint when he was out there last season and a took less from the mid-range per Cleaning the Glass.
Why were opponents to happy waltzing to the rim against Wiseman? Well, they shot 4.4 percentage points better there when he was on, a mark that puts him in the 12th percentile among bigs.
If Wiseman can grow into a Defensive Player of the Year-level centre, then that’s okay, you have a guy who can stick on the court. If he’s a supercharged Kevon Looney on offence but the same on defence, then we’re getting into a major issue.
“Oh no, oh no! The sky is falling!” I hear you say from behind your phone. In Ayton’s rookie year, opponents shot a full seven percentage points better at the rim when he was out there and more in that area than elsewhere — very similar to Big Jim’s spread.
In my post-draft grades for Sir Charles in Charge all those months ago, I gave Golden State a ‘B’ for the pick. I criticised both Golden State and Minnesota for not drafting the player I believed to be the “best player available” in LaMelo Ball, but the Warriors also got a lesser grade for not drafting from a position of need.
Fortunately for the Warriors and Wiseman, Ayton has drawn a blueprint to success for a young centre. It’s less about the positional role and now more about Wiseman growing.
In the meantime, let’s sit back and enjoy Ayton entering the prime of his career. Hopefully, I’ll be writing that about Wiseman soon too.