How Arizona's Deandre Ayton Can Lock Up the No. 1 NBA Draft Pick This March

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterMarch 6, 2018

TUCSON, AZ - MARCH 03:  Deandre Ayton #13 of the Arizona Wildcats walks up court during the second half of the college basketball game against the California Golden Bears at McKale Center on March 3, 2018 in Tucson, Arizona. The Wildcats defeated the Golden Bears 66-54 to win the PAC-12 Championship.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Deandre Ayton has been on a rim-hating tear since the ESPN report came out Feb. 23 that Arizona Wildcats head coach Sean Miller discussed a $100,000 payment for Ayton to play for his team.

Miller, of course, vehemently denied that report in a statement last Friday, and others have poked holes in the reporting. Whether or not there's any truth to that report, Ayton is going to be the No. 1 or 2 pick in the 2018 NBA draft.

On the basketball floor, Ayton has left little to prove. He is one of the best big man prospects to enter the draft in the new millennium, joining a short list that includes Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Greg Oden and Dwight Howard.

The hit rate on supernatural bigs, as you can see with that list, is high. Oden's knees kept him from ever realizing his potential, but the others have all been great successes.

So why would anyone think twice about drafting someone other than Ayton No. 1?

His name is Luka Doncic, the Real Madrid star who is tearing up the EuroLeague at 19. ESPN's Fran Fraschilla recently said that Doncic has Gordon Hayward's athletic ability (and I'd add skill) and Manu Ginobili's brain.

No center has entered the NBA with a physique as impressive as Ayton's since Howard, and unlike Howard, he has an offensive skills package closer to that of an Embiid or a Towns.

Let's take a look at what Ayton could do in March to separate himself from Doncic. 

       

Drain Threes

Ayton is further along in his offensive development at this age than arguably anyone on the list below. Only Davis was a more efficient scorer in his one-and-done freshman season, and that was largely because his offensive workload was much smaller.

Ayton's efficiency vs. former star bigs
PPGOffensive efficiency
Deandre Ayton, Arizona (17-18)19.9127.7
Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky (14-15)10.3122.7
Joel Embiid, Kansas (13-14)11.2112.0
Anthony Davis, Kentucky (11-12)14.2133.5
Greg Oden, Ohio State (06-07)15.7116.2
KenPom.com

Ayton has shown off the ability to do just about anything. He can score off post-ups, shooting 60.2 percent in those situations, according to Synergy. He runs the floor hard and is excellent in transition; he's able to catch passes on the run and finish. His strength and ability to explode off the floor makes him nearly impossible to stop once he gets the ball within a few feet. He's shooting 84 percent at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com.

His feel offensively is not at the level of Embiid's, but he does have good feel and is a capable passer.

While most players with his build—think Howard and even Oden—typically are not good shooters, he is. He shoots 43.2 percent on two-point jumpers, according to Hoop-Math.com, and he's made 11-of-32 (34.4 percent) three-pointers.

Ayton's range is limited. I'm not sure he could comfortably shoot an NBA three, but his stroke is fluid enough that there's hope.

It's also worth noting that Towns has turned into a steady three-point shooter, and Embiid and Davis are capable of hitting that shot. None of the three shot as well as Ayton has when they were in school.

Three-point shooting as freshmen
3P/3PA
Deandre Ayton, Arizona (17-18)11-of-32
Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky (14-15)2-of-8
Joel Embiid, Kansas (13-14)1-of-5
Anthony Davis, Kentucky (11-12)3-of-20
Sports Reference

Miller is typically hesitant to have his bigs shoot a lot of threes unless his name is Lauri Markkanen, but the the only thing Ayton has left to do offensively that would get scouts drooling is drain a bunch of threes. Since that's not likely, if he continues to shoot well from mid-range, NBA teams will be confident his jumper is part of the arsenal. 

      

Dominate Defensively

The defensive end is the area where most of the question marks come up.

Ayton plays for a coach who typically has dominant defensive teams, and the Wildcats rank 91st in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. (It's the first time they've been outside the top 40 since 2011.)

A lot has been made about the difficult fit for Ayton, who is often forced to play out of position at power forward when he's alongside fellow center Dusan Ristic. This is a valid hypothesis for why the Wildcats have struggled, and the numbers show there is some merit to this argument.

In lineups that include Ayton at center without Ristic on the floor, the Wildcats improve defensively. They're also better with just Ristic and no Ayton.

Arizona's defense with Ayton at center vs. power forward
Defensive efficiency
With Ayton and Ristic105.8
With Ayton, no Ristic101.0
With Ristic, no Ayton97.0
HoopLens.com

Playing power forward has provided Ayton with some value, because he has shown he can guard away from the bucket. More importantly, especially in today's NBA, his ability to defend ball-screen situations is better than that of most centers.

The main concerns with Ayton are his instincts away from the ball and his poor shot-blocking numbers. With a 7'5" wingspan and his jumping ability, he should be a much better shot-blocker. That was an area where Embiid, Towns, Oden and Davis dominated in their lone college seasons.

Shot-blocking rate
Block%
Deandre Ayton, Arizona (17-18)6.1
Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky (14-15)11.5
Joel Embiid, Kansas (13-14)11.7
Anthony Davis, Kentucky (11-12)13.8
Greg Oden, Ohio State (06-07)12.7
KenPom.com

There are some question marks around Doncic as well defensively, but instinctively he's a superior defender.

Ayton does have the physical tools to eventually become a plus defender, and if he and the Wildcats suddenly became dominant on that end during the tournament, that's the one way Doncic vs. Ayton might turn into a non-debate.

But outside of a troubling injury, there's nothing that could hurt Ayton's stock.

          

C.J. Moore covers college basketball at the national level for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter, @CJMooreHoops.

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