LAS VEGAS — An uneven debut for No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton on Friday night at the NBA summer league in Las Vegas was highlighted by a handful of athletic plays that illustrated why he was the first choice in a talented draft.
Donning a Phoenix Suns uniform for the first time, Ayton finished with 10 points and eight rebounds in 22 minutes. His ability to play above the rim was the biggest strength of his performance. Ayton went up high in the first quarter to score his first basket on an alley-oop finish from teammate Shaquille Harrison, then in the third quarter exploded out of a pack of players to tip home an offensive rebound with maximum elevation.
With new Phoenix coach Igor Kokoskov also making his debut on the sidelines, the Suns spent much of the night determining how to best take advantage of Ayton’s skills offensively. They started the game posting him up, to which the Dallas Mavericks replied with hard double-teams. Ayton was able to pass out without trouble, though mostly back to the entry passer rather than a diagonal pass to find the open teammate — a lot to ask of a player who won’t turn 20 until later this month, certainly.
By the second half, Phoenix had largely eschewed the post-up in favor of using Ayton as a roll man in the pick-and-roll. This strategy found more success, even when Ayton did not actually touch the ball. Though Harrison was unable to find Ayton on a hard roll to the rim in the third quarter, the attention he drew set up Mikal Bridges for an open corner 3, one of four triples the Suns’ other first-round pick made in his debut.
Ayton shot just 1-of-3 on attempts outside the paint, but he showed his midrange skill on a difficult turnaround jumper as he caught the ball on a hard cut.
The biggest disappointment of Ayton’s night offensively was that he wasn’t more involved, attempting only six shots and four free throw attempts in 22 minutes. (Ayton also had three turnovers.) That’s fairly typical for a big man in summer league, where the limited offenses tend to favor the skills of perimeter players who can create their own shot. In the Suns’ case, that was 2017 lottery pick Josh Jackson, who put up 16 shot attempts from thei field in his 21 minutes, making only four.
Ayton showed more room for improvement at the defensive end of the court, where opposing big Johnathan Motley was able to overpower him in the post. Motley, who spent most of last season in the G League on a two-way contract with the Mavericks, is one of the few players in Vegas with a frame more chiseled than Ayton’s. He used that to create space to finish against Ayton one-on-one as well as complete a pair of and-ones when Ayton tried to contest after providing help to a teammate.
Phoenix was more successful having Ayton switch out on Dallas point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who was one of the most impressive players in summer action a year ago. Ayton managed to stay with Smith one-on-one, forcing the Mavericks to look elsewhere on offense. When Ayton did not switch, the Suns generally asked him to show and recover to his man, which he executed well aside from a play where he allowed second-round pick Jalen Brunson to turn the corner and draw a shooting foul.
It has been almost four months since Ayton’s Arizona career ended in the opening round of the NCAA tournament against Buffalo, and that showed early in the game as Ayton was huffing and puffing. Kokoskov got him an early blow after barely three minutes following a play where Ayton didn’t get back on transition defense. Defensive plays that required multiple efforts were also a challenge at times for Ayton, though he attributed the issue more to nervous energy at the start. By the second half, he’d largely settled in.
As openers go, Ayton’s wasn’t especially memorable. However, the No. 1 pick showed enough unique skill in his debut to reassure Suns fans that bigger things are in store. — Kevin Pelton
Next matchup to watch: July 7
Suns vs. Kings, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN) — Deandre Ayton vs. Marvin Bagley III
In maybe the most anticipated matchup of Vegas summer league, all eyes will be on former high school teammates — and the top two picks in the 2018 NBA draft — Ayton and Bagley.
The head-to-head bout is a contrast in styles, as Bagley is the more explosive, springy of the two, and Ayton is clearly superior from a physicality perspective. With neither known for defense, it could be a big scoring night for both heralded rookies.
Ayton and Bagley actually squared off on this exact day two years ago when Ayton and California Supreme defeated Bagley and Phoenix Phamily 74-60 on the Nike EYBL Circuit. Ayton finished with 23 points, 18 rebounds and 5 blocks in 32 minutes, and Bagley went for 15 points and 7 rebounds in 31 minutes. — Mike Schmitz
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