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DeAndre Ayton’s defense was his greatest college weakness. It could be his biggest NBA strength.

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Ayton had to play power forward in college and that did not set him up for success.

UCLA v Arizona Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Arizona center Deandre Ayton could be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft for good reason — he’s a physical freak. At seven feet tall with a 7’5 wingspan and 240 pounds of muscle, Ayton will have no trouble adjusting to the size and strength of the pros. But like every prospect, he isn’t perfect.

His biggest question is if he can defend and rebound against like-sized behemoths and those smaller than him. The answer is what will separate him from a Jahlil Okafor-esque trajectory to a Joel Embiid one.

Before anyone can evaluate how Ayton defended at the college level, it’s important to understand that he wasn’t put in the best position to succeed. Similar to Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr., another high-lottery pick-to be under Tom Izzo, Ayton had to sacrifice his ideal fit at the 5 for the better of his Wildcats team.

That meant playing a power forward position that required never-been-flexed muscles and a different outlook of the game from a defensive perspective. He also dealt with eligibility allegations and the temporary suspensions of his head coach, Sean Miller, and co-star Allonzo Trier.

Nothing was ideal about Ayton’s only college season.

Ayton was statistically the worst defensive big of the top five prospects

Ayton is one of the five best center prospects along with Jackson Jr., Texas’ Mo Bamba, Duke’s Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter.

Among them, he ranked second-worst in block rate, last in steal rate and in the middle of the pack in defensive rebounding percentage. Given his superhuman physique, that puts his motor question, as well as his defensive IQ.

But defending out of position against wings and 4s didn’t make his life any simpler — or his stats any bolder.

NBA Draft Bigs By the Numbers

Player Block % / Nat'l Rank Steal % / Nat'l Rank D-Reb % / Nat'l Rank
Player Block % / Nat'l Rank Steal % / Nat'l Rank D-Reb % / Nat'l Rank
Deandre Ayton 6.1 / 130 1 / Unranked 28.2 / 16
Mo Bamba 13.2 / 5 1.5 / Unranked 28.2 / 15
Jaren Jackson Jr. 14.3 / 4 1.6 / Unranked 19.7 / 260
Marvin Bagley 2.6 / 494 1.4 / Unranked 21.3 / 161
Wendell Carter 7.6 / 64 1.7 / Unranked 23.1 / 92

His poor defensive numbers weren’t entirely his fault

Because he was forced to chase wings on the perimeter, Ayton struggled at times defensively. For most of his life he played the 5, and you could see how uncomfortable he was away from the basket. There’s a learning curve involved in playing any new role, and he never had the time to adjust.

Ayton looked out of place. He’d often drift towards the paint by nature, and there were open shooters galore for an opposing offense. He was defending the wrong space a lot of the time, and any talented three-point shooting team took advantage of that. Teams will only exploit those mistakes more in the pros.

Had Ayton played a true rim-protector’s role his individual numbers surely would’ve been better — and he probably would’ve been an overall more effective defender.. He’s extremely disciplined around the bucket and knows how to use his length and size. It’s really hard to get a look off over him. It was baffling that Arizona kept him at the 4.

When tasked to chase out towards the perimeter and close out on shooters, Ayton was steps slow and sometimes not there at all. That’s a cause for alarm.

Ayton struggled defending the pick and roll, too. That’s concerning.

Regardless if he never plays the 4 on defense again, Ayton will need to be able to defend the pick-and-roll at the next level. That’s something he really struggled to do in college.

Today’s NBA has adapted into a switch-on-everything league that requires its bigs to defend perimeter players and vice-a-versa. Ayton seemed all over the place on where to be and when, and that cost Arizona time and time again. Instead of chasing a wing to the 3-point arc, Ayton often dropped back to the rim or noticed when to switch way too late.

Here’s a whole montage of those types of mistakes, including Ayton getting blown by off the dribble.

All of Ayton’s mistakes are correctable

Ayton has the body of Hercules on steroids and it’s foolish to think his defensive lapses will be a permanent dilemma. He’s 19 years old, and played one collegiate season for a program under constant scrutiny and disarray while playing out of position. The odds were stacked against him.

Yet he showed flashes of brilliance, and in a 30-something game season, moments can be important. It shows the ceiling a player can reach, and what could be an everyday expectation if developed properly. Ayton had those moments.

When he’s fully engaged and in the right places, Ayton’s proven impressively nimble defending laterally. He can beat guards to the spot and block shots over the rim. All the tools are in his arsenal if a team can teach him where to be and when.

He can slide into place with the quickest of guards. Once he learns where to be defending screen and rolls, he can stop them.

As a whole, the college version of Ayton was hard to picture playing in a series with the Celtics or Warriors or Rockets. But in brief moments, that image was conceivable, which leaves room for hope in whichever team selects him.

We already know everything he brings on offense, with an incredible leap, soft touch around the hoop and inside-out shooting potential.

If he’s able to put everything together, he could join the rank of the NBA’s elites.

That’s why Ayton is in the conversation to go No. 1 in the draft. He could be the best player available if developed properly and evolve into a franchise cornerstone piece. He isn’t just yet, and that’s ok.

He’s shown he can get there, even in a season that made his life more and more difficult as it progressed.