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Deandre Ayton’s eruption at the elbows

The Phoenix Suns have dug deeper into their offensive bag with Devin Booker on the sidelines. Chris Paul has dissected the New Orleans Pelicans in pick-and-roll and put the team on his back when he needed to. Mikal Bridges has maximized every nook and cranny on the court, as evidenced by his 31 points in Game 5.

Deandre Ayton has met the challenge too. The 7-footer is averaging a cool 20.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game in the first round, which ties him with Paul as the leading non-Booker scorer on the team. The base scoring numbers are a tick up from his regular-season rates, but how he’s scoring, and his overall offensive usage, has me quite intrigued.

Ayton is currently receiving 8.8 touches per game at the elbow, far beyond the 4.8 he got in the regular season. For league-wide context, he is barely behind postseason leader Nikola Jokic (9.0) and well ahead of third-place Joel Embiid (6.0).

Ayton is shooting a whopping 5.6 times per game off of an elbow touch. That’s far and away the most of any postseason player, and more than double of third-place Nikola Vucevic’s 2.4 shots per game. In fact, it’s the highest single-season rate ever recorded in Second Spectrum’s playoff tracking history dating back to 2013-14. To top it off, Ayton is knocking down an impressive 75% of those attempts, so something obviously works.

Those elbow touches also make up a serious chunk of Ayton’s overall touch diet. Take a look at the nine players clearing 3.5 elbow touches per game this postseason. (Mobile users scroll right to view full table)

player Elbow Touches/GM Total Touches/GM Elbow Touch Freq.
Nikola Jockic 9.0 108.2 8.3%
Deandre Ayton 8.8 50.6 17.4%
Joel Embid 6.0 71.8 8.4%
Nikola Vučević 5.6 75.4 7.4%
Bam Adebayo 5.4 60.8 8.9%
Jonas Valanciunas 4.2 61.4 6.8%
Draymond Green 4.0 83.2 4.8%
Giannis Antetokounmpo 3.6 75.8 4.8%
Jayson Tatum 3.5 80.8 4.3%

That feels significant.

These statistics come courtesy of the NBA’s tracking database provided by Second Spectrum. I feel fairly secure in the accuracy of the data, but it’s worth hashing out some unanswered questions before we move forward.

The elbows are a pretty specific spot on the court, so what zone qualifies as an elbow touch? I also don’t believe “elbow-touch-field-goal attempts” are only shots that come from the same elbow zone. If a player catches the ball at the elbow, drives to the basket and scores, that would still count as an elbow touch… right?

With these queries, it’s best to hit the film to see what Ayton’s up to.

The Suns have challenged New Orleans to make decisions with Jonas Valanciunas and his defensive assignment, particularly on pick-and-roll plays. Valanciunas has been helping off of Ayton screens in ICE coverages to contain Paul drives. Because Ayton is a brick wall of a screener, CP3 can get to space easily, hence the Valanciunas help.

This, in turn, opens up slips and short-roll opportunities as you see in the above clips. Ayton can position himself for a pass from Paul or Cam Payne, and either pull up for an elbow jumper or take it all the way to the basket before Valanciunas can recover. The Pelicans have not been able to tag or help on Ayton consistently; we see CJ McCollum almost get a turnover in the second clip, but no tag or help in the third.

Ayton’s pick-and-roll play frequency of 43.6% is the highest of any player rotation in the postseason, and his 6.8 pick-and-roll possessions per game are the second-most behind Vucevic.

In general, Ayton has just been a mid-range monster. A remarkable 68% of his shots from him have come from the mid-range these playoffs, per Cleaning the Glass, which surpasses any other big. This isn’t a new development — Ayton’s 55% mid-range frequency was in the 99th percentile during the regular season — but it is an extreme peak in a small sample size. He’s canned 30 of 47 mid-range looks for a scorching 64% conversion rate.

The Pelicans have essentially granted an Ayton elbow jumper as their “we’ll live with it” shot. Even on these plays, defenders are more concerned about keeping him out of the paint.

Conceptually, it makes sense to have these shots as New Orleans’ Achilles’ heel. But given Ayton’s current momentum and track record as a successful mid-range scorer, there has to be a way to account for him defensively, right?

Here’s one more nifty play the Suns ran in Game 3 that ended with Ayton drilling a shot from the elbow:

Ultimately, this is a small piece of the Suns’ overall execution. But Phoenix and Ayton have clearly found a weak spot in the Pelicans’ defensive armor, and they’re driving the sword in. As long as Ayton receives this level of freedom to operate, expect him to keep cashing in.

THE OUTLIERS (aka other random interesting numbers I found in the void):

  • Jaren Jackson Jr.’s foul problems have been a hot topic in the Grizzlies’ first-round series. Here’s why, from Mark Cheung:
  • Grant Williams is the man, and Nekias Duncan illustrated how Williams was crucial in the Celtics’ series sweep of the Nets. I have held Kevin Durant to 6 of 20 shooting as the primary matchup, per Second Spectrum.
  • I try not to plug myself too much, but check out this thread on Jokic and how he is changing the game from a usage perspective as a center:

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