Few transitions are more difficult in sports than the adjustment for a big man entering the NBA. The size, physicality and strength needed to battle against some of the largest humans in the world on a nightly basis takes time, effort and mental toughness to build that consistency.
Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andre Drummond, Nikola Jokić, Steven Adams. Even the league’s most elite centers had to adjust to not being able to just bulldoze anyone who got in their way. Some it took a year and others it took four, but for Deandre Ayton, it seems to be coming along rather quickly with credit going to Suns Assistant Coach Mark Bryant.
After one of the most efficient rookie seasons in NBA history, Ayton went back to the lab this summer to keep adding to his game and it continues to grow. That work he put in was on display immediately in the Suns season opener as he notched a double-double and dominated on the defensive end with four blocks and a steal.
His offensive efficiency and work on the glass have remained consistent while his defensive intensity continues to grow as he’s quickly developing into one of the most elite lockdown forces in the entire league. Ayton is getting challenged often, but much of that is due to being in the right position, switching when needed and overall closing off the paint.
The Big Fella has the second most DFGA (field goals defended at the rim attempted) with 18.7 per game, trailing only two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. However, he’s outplaying Gobert in what he’s doing with those attempts.
With players who have at least 10 DFGA per game and have played in at least 10 games, Ayton has the third-lowest DFG percentage. Allowing just 38.7 percent, only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis are holding their opponents to a lower percentage.
Over the last seven games, Ayton has been locked-in in all aspects of the game and, at just 21 years old, has shown the league what he’s capable of when he steps on the court. Ayton is averaging 20.7 points, 13.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals while shooting 53.7% from the field over that span. Despite already having the physical gifts, Ayton credits Mark Bryant for assisting in pushing himself to the next level.
“He's taught me a lot of tricks, a lot of things that I need,” Ayton said “He basically polished up my game, like the cherry on top. Everything I have, he enhanced it and added more to it. It's a major impact to where he evolved my game into an enforcer. Everybody knew I could be that, but he basically showed the moves and the tools that I need to become that and to be consistent with that.”
Bryant spent 15 years in the NBA and knows first-hand how difficult it is for big men first entering the league.
“It takes time because right now the game is moving so fast being a younger player,” Bryant said. “After a couple of years, it starts slowing down for you.”
Bryant grew his reputation following his playing days as he became an assistant coach and started working with big men such as Dwight Howard and Serge Ibaka. Bryant was later with Suns Head Coach Monty Williams in Oklahoma City and played an integral part in the development of Steven Adams.
“MB, he's amazing with bigs,” Williams said. “Steven was not that before he came to Oklahoma City and now look at him. It took him a while. I was in OKC four years ago and Steven wasn't that, but MB is one of those guys who's a plotter. He's in the gym step-by-step, day-by-day, getting guys to a level where they can play that position and be effective.”
Williams is now seeing that same type of development from Ayton as he and Bryant continue to build his game.
“He and MB, that combination, they've been in the lab since this summer and they've built a pretty cool relationship,” Williams said. “I walked in the gym this morning and they were already in a full sweat working in the post, trying to get him to be lower on the box and more physical down there and understand how gifted he is.”
The talent is there, Bryant’s goal is to push it to the next level, but he’s also aware that it’s not just a switch that happens overnight.
“The biggest thing is him trying to learn the game,” Bryant said. “He’s trying to be a student of the game and just working with him as far as that is concerned. I think there's a lot of growth there. I think he's grown being patient with his post-up moves. It's going to take time. It's still his second year.”
“DominAYTON” has been living up to his nickname lately as he’s been dominating on the hardwood in all phases of the game. He’s crashing the glass, he’s playing bully-ball in the paint and he’s locking down defensively, but still, at just 21 years old, Bryant knows there is still room to grow.
“His ceiling can go as high as he wants it,” Bryant said. “We can all talk, but it's how much he wants it to go higher. That's the biggest thing.”
After scoring a season-high 31 points on 86.7 percent shooting in the Suns obliterating victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday, Ayton doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon. Through his physical gifts, his hustle and his willingness to keep getting better, Ayton has all the tools to develop into an all-time great and Bryant is by his side to continue that push.