A core tenet of any scouting philosophy is initially determining if a prospect meets the NBA threshold physically. It indicates whether their skill-set can be the bedrock of crafting a significant footprint. If physical limitations prevent someone from getting to their spots on the floor, all the other traits will constantly be working uphill and decline in practicality. Circumventing that hurdle is a precarious endeavor. Skill only travels so far if athleticism is a steadfast hindrance.

For the Phoenix Suns, there were no doubts in that regard with Deandre Ayton. He immediately hit the physical benchmark. At 7 feet tall, his intersection of size and mobility stand out upon first glance. He moves like he’s 6’5”. Almost every game, he’s at a significant advantage against his counterpart in the middle. He glides and bounds across the 4,700-square-foot court with an elegance that belies his stature. 

Among some within the organization, his “sheer physical talent” established a baseline of nightly double-doubles as a rookie. His tools were that rarified and functional. An assimilation to the league was expected, but he would produce from the outset while navigating said assimilation. 

“When you can move the way he can move, at the size he can move, your possibilities for scoring are amplified,” said Ryan Resch, Suns Vice President of Basketball Strategy and Evaluation.

In the years following his inaugural season, the 24-year-old center has transformed himself from promising youngster as an All-Rookie First Team selection to rising star. Roughly a third of the way into his fifth campaign, the former Arizona Wildcat is averaging 18.1 points and 9.7 rebounds on 64.6 percent true shooting. He’s riding an especially prolific wave over his past 17 games, averaging 21.2 points and 10.6 rebounds on 67.9 percent true shooting. 

Ayton is an exceptional play-finisher. He and Chris Paul share refined chemistry in ball screens. He and Devin Booker’s five-year partnership is flourishing. Outside of Nikola Jokic, Ayton probably possesses the deftest interior touch among centers around the NBA, a characteristic that popped when the Suns scouted him prior to the 2018 Draft. 

His comfort zone is about 15 feet and in, and he’s money within that region. According to Cleaning The Glass, he’s shooting 83 percent at the rim (95th percentile among bigs) and 47 percent from midrange (65th percentile). Last season, he shot 77 percent at the rim (89th percentile) and 56 percent from midrange (94th percentile).

Not only is Ayton exceptional in his play-finishing, he’s multifaceted. Over the years, he’s developed a slew of patented weapons to excel as a post scorer or pick-and-roll release valve. The hook shot is a particular favorite. He’s netted 64.8 percent of his 219 attempts the past two seasons, per NBA.com. 

Hundreds of hours of practice are discernible in this move. Take zero to three dribbles. Plant the left leg as the inside foot. Turn over the left shoulder. Yield profits. Follow accordingly next time. It’s like he scribbles the steps on his palm and mutters them to himself before acting. They’re second-nature.

While he prefers to catch on the left block and shoot from about a step beyond the restricted area, those specific factors are not prerequisites for his success. The beauty and merit of Ayton’s hook shot is its portability. His graceful footwork and touch migrate throughout the paint. Rigidity is absent in his approach.

Whereas some bigs of Ayton’s profile -- 7 feet tall, 250 pounds -- may gravitate toward brute force as a leading component of their play style, this center leans on dexterity of both hands and feet. His embrace of the floater the last couple seasons embodies that. 

For him, it could be classified as more of a push or flip shot. Floaters are typically associated with shots released off one leg, a la Jokic’s dastardly effective runner. Ayton tends to fire away with both feet anchored to the court. It’s become a counter to avoid charges on the roll, late arriving taggers or firing before the defense can reorganize itself, while simultaneously further diversifying his interior scoring repertoire. 

Enabling Ayton to showcase his pristine footwork and delicate touch is heightened recognition of angles. His off-ball instincts have swelled in recent years. Acutely cognizant of where he exists on the floor in relation to others, he’s better equipped to thrive as a cutter and dive man. He frequents open space for putbacks and other scoring avenues. He properly paces his rolls to the rim to ease passing windows for ball-handlers. He can increasingly leverage his footwork and touch as a self-creator.

“His visual acuity and spatial awareness has improved. He can do more things with the ball in his hands, he can move in tighter spaces,” Resch said. “That's all a function of repetition, but it's also a function of a body that has developed the motor skills to speed up and slow down, and turn on a dime.”

While Ayton utilizes his left leg for stability on hook shots, his right leg is the limb of preference on turnaround fadeaways. In varying the gather phase and process of delivery on two of his foundational moves, he complicates matters for defenders. Both are favorites of his. Eliminating one leg as the pivot foot doesn’t mean the opposition has won. Sitting on the left leg in fear of a hook shot opens an opportunity for the right leg to facilitate another option in the toolbox.

Watching a 7-footer drift away from the hoop may be frustrating or confounding. Yet for Ayton, it broadens his choices on any given touch and is merely another way to ensure the defense cannot box him in. Since the beginning of 2021-22, he’s drilled 48.4 percent (75 of 155) of his turnaround jumpers, per NBA.com. Much like the hook shot, note his footwork, body control, haste with which he functions and the different spots he scores at. He’s rhythmic every single time. 

The final member of Ayton’s reliable scoring quartet is the face-up jumper. He keeps that left leg firmly in the ground and wields a lively right foot, tap-dancing in his defender’s orbit, searching for space, no matter how small, before concisely rising for buckets. Overwhelmingly, he is at peace when he fires off these looks. They may not fall, but they’re a focal point of his arsenal. Hoisting one up is frequently a win for him. Jab, elevate, launch, trot back on defense -- that’s the recipe.

The most prosperous scoring stretches of Ayton’s career coincide with generating his ideal shots, like the run he’s currently amid. Almost every time these surges occur, the definition of an ideal shot seems to expand.

“From a skill-set standpoint,” Resch said, “we are seeing the consequence, the positive consequence, for the effect of repetition.”

These flurries are rooted in the feathery touch he’s long possessed, which helped provide him a notable scoring pulse upon entering the NBA four years ago. This pulse remains notable, simply on a much grander scale, yet nonetheless linked to his distinct touch, a longstanding lifeblood of his game.