On Saturday night, a plethora of NBA personnel gathered at the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz. for a much-anticipated contest involving a pair of consensus top-10 prospects in the 2018 NBA Draft. Although Alabama point guard Collin Sexton and Arizona big man Deandre Ayton didn’t figure to be matched up with one another too often, the game provided NBA teams with an interesting data point to help evaluate each player.
Both prospects delivered stat lines worthy of their big board rankings. Sexton scored 30 points on a 68.1 true shooting percentage while dishing out a pair of assists and committing just two turnovers. He finished as a team high plus-4 in 32 minutes. Ayton, meanwhile, put up a career-high 29 points on a 67.4 true shooting percentage and grabbed 18 rebounds as the Wildcats snagged an 88-82 win.
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While Sexton and Ayton didn’t wage a one-on-one battle, they did show scouts how their talents can translate to the next level. Let’s dive into the game and take a closer look at why both Sexton and Ayton are arguably the best players in regards to NBA potential at their respective positions.
Collin Sexton, offensive dynamo
Sexton, the RSCI No. 6 recruit coming out of high school, bolstered his case to be the top point guard in the 2018 draft class against the Wildcats. In particular, the Crimson Tide freshman showcased projectable pick-and-roll play that is the foundation of his lead guard potential.
For example, early in the second half, Alabama used a staggered pick-and-roll set on back-to-back possessions to free Sexton. With John Petty and Donta Hall acting as the screeners, he scored twice:
The two possessions highlight the different ways Sexton can score out of pick-and-roll, which he’s doing at better than 1.0 points per possession this season, per Synergy. On the first one, Arizona’s Parker Jackson-Cartwright fights over the first screen to stick with Sexton while Brandon Randolph stays tight to Petty, a dangerous 3-point shooting threat. Ayton hedges high on the second screen, leaving a gap for Sexton to burst through as Jackson-Cartwright recovers. On the second possession, the Wildcats defend the first screen the same way, but have Ayton flatten out on the second screen to prevent similar dribble penetration, so Sexton pulls up off the dribble and knocks down the 3-pointer as Ayton and Jackson-Cartwright swap places.
The first play is the bread and butter of Sexton’s offensive game. He wants to use his speed and deception to get to the rim first and foremost. According to Hoop-Math, 32.2 percent of his total halfcourt field goal attempts have been layups or dunks, and he’s converting efficiently at 57.1 percent. For comparison, those numbers are nearly identical to Dennis Smith Jr.’s numbers (31.4 and 58.9) from last season.
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However, simply looking at shot attempts doesn’t account for how much pressure Sexton puts on opposing defenses. He frequently forces the issue and gets to the foul line. So far this season, he’s drawing 9.4 fouls per 40 minutes, the third-best mark in the nation, and much higher than Smith’s 5.5 from last season, per KenPom. Against Arizona, Sexton attempted an impressive 16 free throws. It was just the 45th time this season a Division player had shot as many.
Sexton can thank his array of dribble moves for putting defenders in tough positions. In some ways, his handle is reminiscent of Markelle Fultz in that he relies less on strict downhill explosion and more on deception. He even uses the same half-spin hesitation move Fultz often went to at Washington. Sexton’s go-to, though, is a hang dribble crossover that is difficult to time for opposing defenders. That and more were on display in Tucson:
The second pick-and-roll clip may be more important to Sexton’s upside, however. Shooting a high percentage off the dribble helps balance his game and can keep defenders from going under screens on him. It has a scheme-changing effect. The Alabama point guard excels at changing speeds when defenders get off balance and threatening to pull up from range can create more situations where he can attack the basket.
So far this season, Sexton has been effective. He’s averaging 1.135 points per possession (87th percentile) on a 56.8 effective field goal percentage on pull-ups, per Synergy, but he’ll need to sustain his efficiency over a larger sample for teams to grow comfortable with his consistency.
Although Oklahoma’s Trae Young may push him if he continues to shoot lights out, Sexton seems to have a firm hold on the title of best point guard in the 2018 class due to his lead ball-handler potential. Nothing he did against Arizona would convince NBA teams to think otherwise.
Deandre Ayton, the next No. 1 pick?
While Sexton is fighting to be the first guard off the board in June, Arizona’s Ayton is busy making his case to be the No. 1 overall pick over the likes of Real Madrid’s Luka Doncic and Duke’s Marvin Bagley III. That trio has generally become the consensus pool for the top spot now that Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. is expected to miss the rest of the season with a back injury.
There will be serious competition throughout the season to be the first man off the board come draft time, but Ayton may be the most talented player in the bunch.
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The Wildcats’ freshman has the potential to be a three-level scorer as a 7-footer. His post-up game is physically dominant at the college level, as he’s almost always able to muscle himself into position or shoot over his defender. Ayton ranks in the 80th percentile nationally in points per possession on post-ups, per Synergy. Given that he’s already 260 pounds, it’s not hard to imagine him doing similar things against NBA level competition once his skill catches up with his physical size.
Ayton’s talent starts to impress as his game moves farther away from the basket. Arizona’s offense is designed put the big man into ball screens where’s he’s able to pop into the midrange to knock down jumpers. It’s a skill he showed frequently against Alabama:
Ayton is one of only four Division I players with more than 25 pick-and-pop possessions this season, per Synergy. Unfortunately, his efficiency is still sorting itself out, as he’s averaging 0.962 points per possession on those chances. Ayton’s jumper, especially as it reaches out to the 3-point line, can come out flat, but he’s knocked down 12 of his 20 total midrange attempts in the halfcourt this season.
The next step for the 7-footer will be sorting out his face up game. Right now, Ayton primarily prefers to pull up without a dribble. However, he’s starting to show flashes off the bounce, including one nice behind-the-back move against the Tide. With added efficiency from range and a more balanced face-up attack, Ayton has the upside to become an offensive focal point for an NBA team.
The questions with Ayton, though, lie mostly with where he fits on the defensive end. His offensive skills position him best as a center, but he’s averaging just 1.6 blocks per 40 minutes this season, raising questions about his potential to anchor a defense in the paint. In general, Ayton has struggled with his rotations down low, often failing to challenge shots on possessions where it seems likely he could get there.
Against the Tide, Ayton started to assuage some of those concerns. In the second half, he flashed some better instincts rotating into space to challenge shots around the rim. Consider this possession that ends with a blocked shot on Sexton:
Given how well Ayton tends to defend in space and rebound — he ranks ninth nationally in defensive rebound rate, per KenPom — his only real defensive warts are his rim protection and his motor. There are viable theories that Arizona’s scheme is suppressing Ayton’s block numbers, especially because he often plays alongside another big and is tasked with guarding more on the perimeter, so it’s nice to plays like the above.
Ayton’s physical stature, athleticism and unicorn potential as a three-level scorer and rim protector form a potential No. 1 pick package. Against Alabama, he continued to shed light on his offensive game and finally started to show some of the defensive rotations NBA teams have been waiting for.
For both Sexton and Ayton, Saturday’s contest was an opportunity to prove themselves against NBA talent, even if the opposing prospect wasn’t at the same position. Both players managed to live up to the hype, avowing themselves of their current draft positions by reinforcing their potential NBA strengths.