For now, the Indiana Pacers have turned up the heat on the Phoenix Suns, extending a four-year, $133 million max offer sheet to former No. 1 overall pick, Deandre Ayton, reports ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. And yet, beyond the eye-popping dollars and cents, which the Suns will have the opportunity to match over the next 48 hours, let’s take a look at what Ayton and the Pacers have to offer each other from a basketball standpoint, especially in comparison to Myles Turner and as a complement to Tyrese Haliburton.
At the most basic level, Ayton rolls hard, finishes around the rim, and runs the floor. With the Pacers building a younger, more athletic roster, each of those attributes is a match for Haliburton, who aims to jump-start the offense quickly, clapping for faster outlets and immediately heading downhill once he catches those passes. For the season, Ayton ranked in the 96th percentile for transition points per possession, a mark which speaks not only to his elite play-finishing, but also what could be possible with Bennedict Mathurin alongside to outrace defenders and fill lanes in the open floor.
Meanwhile, although Haliburton is capable of making reads all over the court, the presence of a big man who moves toward the basket, putting pressure on the defense, compensates for what he can lack in getting to the rim, while also making the cat-and-mouse game he plays, keeping defenders off-balance with the unpredictability of finding nylon with his floater or toggling between early and late lobs or skip passes, all the more deceptive.
For frame of reference, Myles Turner has never rolled on more than 50 percent of his possessions as the screener, including pre-Sabonis when he was still starting at the five. Moreover, Jalen Smith, who recently was christened as the team’s “starting power forward,” rolled on just 39 percent of his possessions as the screener for the Pacers this past season — compared to a mammoth 79 percent for Ayton.
Don’t get it twisted. That’s not all because of Ayton. Chris Paul, in needing a rim-rolling big man to free up his elbow jumper, also optimizes the talents of rim-rolling big men with his mastery of pick-and-roll manipulation. Plus, this is all occurring within a system that prefers to play with wings as fours while also actively distorting low-man help with high-level attention to detail. For example, this is effectively the same down-screen into a double drag that the Pacers ran last season, but note the difference when Devin Booker is the first screener compared to Oshae Brisett.
Even with both opponents switching the action, James Harden is hovering around Booker as the tagger, whereas Tyrese Maxey has two feet planted in the paint, sagging off Brissett to slow the roller. Granted, the Pacers could swap their “starting power forward” out of the action in favor of Hield or Mathurin to create a similar effect, but Smith has shot 26.8 percent on corner threes for his career compared to 36.3 percent above the break with the Pacers. Still, the similarities between the two playbooks are innumerable, including this exit screen action, wherein a baseline screen set near the dunker’s spot for a cutter to cut into the corner removes the tagger, thereby opening space for the roll-man.
Notably, Jalen misfires from the corner, but watch Ayton, both in the above clip as well as below. As soon as the switch occurs, he immediately recognizes the mismatch and puts in his work early, diving to the front of the rim and immediately sealing the smaller defender.
Now, spot the difference, here, as Turner (very literally) goes through the motions of this possession, pointing for Duane Washington Jr. to reverse the ball, as the choreography dictates, even though he had a switch against Lamar Stevens.
That has nothing to do with playing at the four rather than the five, nor with being a “glorified role player.” No one is asking him to defer there, especially not in a game that featured several health-and-safety replacement players. He just still struggles to manufacture his own usage and can be a beat slow in finding advantages that aren’t specifically laid out for him. If that’s Ayton, there might sometimes be too much finesse where power would be preferred, but the swim-move — in all likelihood — is happening.
By comparison, all too often, when Haliburton got bottled up by length on the perimeter, dumping the ball down low wasn’t even an available option.
On the flip side, also consider the way in which Haliburton doesn’t just read the drop defender or the switched defender; he shifts tertiary defenders, actively creating shots for others around the basket. It isn’t fair to compare him to Chris Paul at this stage of his career, but there was a noticeable uptick in the two-point percentages of every big on the roster when Haliburton was on the floor compared to off.
Part of the reason for that is the respect he commands off-the-dribble from range, occasionally drawing two to the ball or at least forcing the big to play nearer to the level of the screen. That said, there’s also something to the way he subverts expectations with his eyes, looking to pass with an outside-in progression. Think of it this way: Typically, when an offensive player drives, the opposing big will leave his man to stop the ball, causing a chain reaction wherein the nearest perimeter defender then sinks ball-side to help the helper.
This is what it looks like, albeit following a switch.
In essence, despite the size advantage, the defense is working to create the illusion that Terry Taylor is being guarded, banking on the fact that most guards will first look to what’s in front of them before eyeing the weak-side for potential kick-out threes, where, in theory, the defense will have time to recover after encouraging the longest possible pass. What Haliburton does, though, is different (**types in steam from nose emoji**), as he will routinely stare down the perimeter, all with the intention of throwing a no-look pass for the higher-percentage shot. Put simply, his eyes in combination with his hang-time, which allows him to make decisions in mid-air rather than only on the way up, tell lots of lies that run counter-intuitive to the order of what defenses are ingrained to take away.
So, yeah, Haliburton may not be Chris Paul, but he is special in a way that has the potential to pass Ayton open in addition to passing to him when he’s open. All of which seems fairly significant for a player who was assisted on a higher percentage of his made twos last season (80.9%) than Isaiah Jackson (75.7%). In that regard, if Ayton needs to be fed to that degree as a max-level player, then he has to grow into playing with more consistent force while also being somewhat less formulaic with his movement patterns.
For example, this from the Phoenix-Dallas series should be a dunk — not a fadeaway after spinning away from the basket.
To that point, his go-to hook shot is dominant (66%), and his field-goal percentage from mid-range (45.2) ranked second among centers who attempted at least two shots per game from in-between the paint and the 3-point line, but he almost exclusively goes to his right on the former while also spinning back to his left, in reference to the latter, as a counter.
Smart teams, equipped with exaggerated game-plans, know this and will occasionally induce him into traveling, as he persists in trying to get to his strong hand.
Another solid strategy, particularly as it pertains to his mid-range, is to close to or crowd his right leg so he has to put the ball on the floor with his left. Here, the Pelicans are practically begging him to attack the left side of the floor, and he still wants to take one dribble with his right, even at the risk of squirting through two defenders, in order to plant and spin back left into his jump-shot.
Plus, while he and Myles are clearly very different players, they can be similar in their weaknesses as it pertains to processing what reads to make when playing in space. This, from when the Pacers were still hedging on ball screens is a prime example of that, as he record-scratches momentarily from the middle of the floor, rather than forcing the defense to commit. Jae Crowder’s reaction to how the ball ends up going everywhere but where it needs to go, here, is all of us.
For the season, Ayton finished the season with more turnovers (91) than assists (84) and only attempted 13 total shots off more than two dribbles. As a result, he doesn’t necessarily project as a hub, but he is capable of creating space with contact as a hand-off operator in certain situations, including on the very same play executed by another team from Arizona that’s designed to prevent switching, allowing his potentially new teammate, Bennedict Mathurin, to attack downhill with his defender trailing, relieving pressure on Haliburton.
Another team from Arizona is known to make use of that same tactic. pic.twitter.com/BF2VehooOP— Caitlin Cooper (@C2_Cooper) May 23, 2022
At the same time, Ayton also puts together some tantalizing flashes, such as reading that his defender’s left arm is up and responding with a quick rip-through into a drive, that make a leap seem reasonable, particularly on a team with lower expectations where he will be allowed to play through mistakes.
Moreover, the thing about Ayton’s feel is, he’s already really impactful without it, what happens if — for someone who is currently only 23 years old, by comparison to Myles about to enter his eighth season — that improves?
Defensively, as this nifty chart compiled by @Bowser2Bowser (an excellent follow!) goes to show, Luka Doncic attempted the highest percentage of his field goal attempts during the second round of the playoffs against Ayton.
just rewatched the Phoenix–Dallas series and then watched each Luka Doncic field goal attempt.— Bowser2Bowser (@bowser2bowser) July 5, 2022
Almost every one of them was "switch Mikal Bridges off him, then iso."
Luka shot more often when defended by Cam Johnson than by Mikal, despite Mikal guarding Luka *30 minutes longer* pic.twitter.com/qAJ3pWmwpV
Of course, it also begs pointing out that, before Jalen Smith was traded to the Pacers in February, he had only logged 11 minutes of action with Ayton for the year, in part, because he was slightly worse at defending in space than his teammate, thereby making the pairing somewhat untenable, particularly given his overall level of inexperience on a supposed championship contender. Still, while it’s certainly worth questioning why the Suns didn’t eventually resort to blitzing hand-offs or hedging pick-and-rolls during their series against Dallas, they also ran into a few of the same problems the Pacers discovered throughout the season, as they shifted increasingly toward switching, predominantly with smaller lineups.
Just take this possession against the Cavs, for example, and notice not only the lack of secondary rim protection once Jalen gets beat, but also how Isaac Okoro cuts to remove Buddy Hield’s ability to load to the ball at the same time as Dean Wade lifts up to the wing, displacing Oshae Brissett from being able to slide along the baseline.
Those types of possessions aren’t fully to blame for why the Pacers surrendered so many points regardless of who was at solo five last season (remember on-ball perimeter defense? what a concept!), and it’s fair to question why Haliburton and Brissett didn’t swap assignments late in the clock, so the latter could still be in position to make a read from the back-line, but there’s probably something to be said for having the flexibility at the four-spot to offer more in the way of sizable help defense and rebounding, at least in spots.
After all, these are the numbers, and they would also have the option to shift between Ayton as a drop big while continuing to develop Isaiah Jackson to switch (although he’s been playing drop in Vegas) as a backup.
Overall, after finishing the season with the worst defense in the league following the trade deadline, the Pacers have a lot to figure out at the end of the floor that neither Ayton, nor even Turner, is or was guaranteed to solve, particularly in and of themselves. For that reason, from the potential symbiotic relationship that could exist with Haliburton to the way his skills will translate to Rick Carlisle’s offense and the potential for him to make a leap with more leash to grow even while already making an impact, there’s reason to bank on Ayton, both figuratively and perhaps also literally.