In possibly the biggest sports news to hit the Pacific Northwest in half a decade, Damian Lillard was finally traded on Wednesday … only not to the team that everyone was expecting. The Milwaukee Bucks landed Lillard in a three-way trade that sent Jrue Holiday, a first-round pick, and two pick swaps to Portland in exchange for Lillard; the Phoenix Suns got into the mix by receiving Jusuf Nurkić and other players from Milwaukee and Portland while sending center Deandre Ayton and second-round selection Toumani Camara to the Blazers.
Holiday, a two-time All-Star and five-time All-Defensive team honoree who averaged 19.3 points per game last year on 47.89/38.4/85.9 splits (per Basketball Reference), would be a dream for most teams. Portland, however, already has a crowded backcourt, and as much as they might like having a veteran star like Holiday mentoring Scoot Henderson, they are widely expected to trade Holiday in the next few days to gain more draft picks and/or young players.
But it’s Ayton who should grab Blazers fans’ interest. The former No. 1 overall pick is 25 years old and fits in age-wise with the young Blazers core of Henderson, Shaedon Sharpe, and Anfernee Simons. It’s also safe to assume that he was brought in as the starting center, given that the Blazers traded away Nurkić, their previous starter at the position.
Although Ayton hasn’t quite lived up to his draft position over players like Luka Dončić, Trae Young, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, he’s still a pretty good player. In the 2022 regular season, Ayton averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.6 steals, and 0.8 blocks per game; the average for NBA centers was 9.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.5 steals, and 0.9 blocks per game (according to StatMuse). For comparison, Nurkić put up 13.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.9 blocks (per Basketball Reference).
Physically, Ayton is 6 feet, 11.5 inches with a 7-foot, 6-inch wingspan, while Nurkić stands a similar 6 feet, 11 inches though with a 7-foot, 2-inch wingspan. However, Ayton checks at 250 pounds, while Nurkić weighs 290 (per CraftedNBA); Ayton’s lower weight could be a cause for concern when guarding heavier centers. That said, Ayton had a defensive rating of 113.2, better than Nurkić’s of 114.3 (according to NBA.com), although that may partially be influenced by the Suns having a better collective defense than the Blazers. At the same time, advanced statistics like Defensive DARKO and RAPTOR rate Nurkić as the better performer.
On the offensive end, what should really intrigue Blazers fans is Ayton’s pick-and-roll potential. For as effective as the Lillard-Nurkić pick-and-roll combination was, Ayton has the potential to form a new lethal duo alongside Scoot Henderson. 15% of Nurkić’s plays last year came as the roll man. Ayton, meanwhile, was used as the roll man on 28% of his plays (per CraftedNBA). In fact, Ayton’s 4.8 roll plays per game were second in the league, behind only Joel Embiid (per NBA.com). He shot 61.7% on those plays, which went for 1.2 points per possession. Ayton was also much less turnover-prone than Nurkić.
With Henderson’s ability to drive to the hoop and shoot from midrange in pick-and-roll plays, Ayton’s playmaking could provide similar success in Portland, even if it takes some time for him to gel with his new teammates. How he performs in Portland may hinge on whether he can have a healthy role in the organization after a rocky relationship with former Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams. He has also been benched more than once in the playoffs and has faced many questions about not playing with consistent effort.
But should Ayton overcome those obstacles, he still retains the potential that led to him being drafted so high in the first place and helped him become one of the league’s better centers. Ayton is under contract for the next three years, tying him firmly to the fortunes of the new-era Blazers. Can he put it all together and break out for Portland?
The Blazers will play their first preseason game against the Suns (fittingly) on October 12.