The Raptors would bolster their weaknesses by acquiring Deandre Ayton

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After a season in which the Raptors emphatically beat Vegas’ preseason odds and nearly toppled Joel Embiid’s 76ers, they’re in a position to recount what worked and what can be improved upon. Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet showed excellence once again on both ends of the floor, earning All-NBA and All-Star honors respectively. Rookie sensation Scottie Barnes was even better than Raptors fans could have imagined and earned himself the Rookie of the Year award with his surprisingly potent offensive production and improving defense. OG Anunoby once again made improvements on the offensive end and showed flashes of creation that should have Raptors fans very excited. Precious Achiuwa and Gary Trent Jr. both had great seasons as they showcased burgeoning shot-creation tools and defensive prowess. The path to an NBA championship is never crystal clear, and neither is the path to improvement. But, the Raptors have a simple path to the latter: Get Deandre Ayton.

Offense

Deandre Ayton is a fourth-year center who would bolster the Toronto Raptors’ offense. Ayton averaged 17.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists this season for the Phoenix Suns on 65-percent TS. He showed his dominance in the midrange in a multitude of ways: post ups, flashing middle, and attacking on the short roll. The touch from the midrange is elite at 45 percent and helps him navigate the middle of the floor better than most of his peers. Not to mention, his size is overwhelming on rim runs, as Ayton shot 79.3 percent within three feet. He’s also shown flashes of a burgeoning 3-point shot. He took exclusively above the break threes, which teams have a hard time defending because it spaces the floor in a way that makes it difficult to recover to the ball handler. For example: Siakam and VanVleet would be able to get more space to create driving lanes in pick and pop actions with Ayton popping high rather than to the corners. (Think Marc Gasol) Teams also structure their defenses in a way where they recover to the corners first and foremost (save for a few leaguewide), and this makes above-the-break marksmen extremely valuable. Ayton’s free throw shooting (74.6 percent) along with all of the other markers show signs of a talented shooter who will definitely expand his range as his career carries on. 

How does this help the Raptors offense? Ayton replacing a couple seasons of below average Raptors centers would be a breath of fresh air. He’s a much better roller than Khem Birch or Achiuwa due to his improved size, their lack of touch around the rim, and their lack of proficiency in the in-between spaces. This sort of versatility on the offensive end at center is particularly important when we consider VanVleet’s limitations in passing his bigs into layups, but he’s accomplished at finding them on the short roll. The Raptors don’t run a lot of ball-screen actions, and I think that is in part due to a lack of a roller that can force rotations from a defense; Ayton can do that and more after the catch. On a roster full of good playmakers (Siakam, VanVleet, Barnes) a lob threat like Ayton will be well appreciated and effective. Ayton can also be used as a release valve on offense due to the midrange shooting I mentioned earlier. Many possessions were saved by Siakam or Trent in the midrange last season, and Ayton will help solve some late-clock problems. Simply put, Ayton should be able to hold advantages and make life easier for the Raptors ball handlers and be a reliable source of offense when he runs with the bench. In order to score against NBA defenses you need to accumulate advantages, and Ayton will absolutely help the Raptors do that in a way they have lacked for several seasons. 

Defense

The Toronto Raptors ended the season as a top-10 defense due to the prowess of elite defenders such as VanVleet and Siakam and the inventive and hellacious defensive scheming of head coach Nick Nurse. But their defensive scheme has induced many frustrating moments for fans, such as Game 1 against the 76erswhen Tyrese Maxey dropped 38 points in a blowout and the 76ers as a whole put up a near-historic offensive rating. Maxey was able to do this by attacking the Raptors’ defense as they shifted to help on stars like James Harden and Embiid. The Raptors’ goal on defense is to limit paint touches by providing a lot of help, which leads to opponents getting up a lot of threes. The acquisition of Ayton could make life easier. Deandre Ayton may be 6-foot-11, but he moves well for a center and would allow the Raptors the ability to go away from the current scheme and run drop coverage for a change, which Ayton is capable of due to his rim protection and defensive rebounding skills. For all his defensive talents, Achiuwa never became a great drop center last year. VanVleet at the point-of-attack on a screening action with Ayton in drop and Scottie and Pascal in roamer positions is in theory a very intimidating defense to try and score on, and one that has strengths in a lot of places. (Without the same weaknesses that the Sixers exposed in Game 1.) Less of the current scheme would shore up the 3-point defense and allow the Raptors defenders to play straight up since they would have a great rim protector to back them. Statistically, Ayton contested more shots within six feet than any Raptor last year other than Barnes and Siakam, and he forced a lower field goal percentage than any other than Achiuwa.

With potential Deandre Ayton suitors dropping off due to interest in other centers or just a lack of belief in Ayton’s capacity as a max player, it has become glaringly apparent to me that the Toronto Raptors should do everything they can to acquire the 23-year-old, All-Star level big man with many burgeoning offensive and defensive skills before it’s too late. Most of all, he theoretically would address a number of Toronto’s weaknesses the 2021-22 season exposed.