He is taking business and finance and some general studies, but do not try to bring that “What’s your toughest class?” question around Deandre Ayton. It is kind of a standard when speaking with college athletes and occasionally will produce some insight or humorous anecdotes. He rejects that approach with all the force and authority he exerts against any meager layup that wanders within his reach.
“The homework is a lot,” he allowed, “but there isn’t any class I’m struggling in.”
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Ayton is one of those uncommonly gifted athletes the public will eagerly categorize as “one-and-done,” with all the same assumptions about talents, motivations and interests generally assigned to these young basketball players. It is reckless, though, to try to fit Ayton into any preconceived notions. He is not ordinary in any sense of the word. And he wants you to be clear on this.
Ayton is enrolled at Arizona not because he must park somewhere while waiting for next June’s NBA Draft. There were opportunities elsewhere to make money playing the game during that period, and so many suspected he would follow that course during the early stages of high school career that few top programs recruited him. He is at U of A because he wants to be, and also because so many figured he did not.
“One reason I’m here is just proving everybody wrong: That I’m not the person they think I am,” Ayton told Sporting News. “I wanted to be my mother’s first child to go to college.”
Now, Arizona head coach Sean Miller was an assistant coach at Xavier when David West, the 2003 Oscar Robertson Trophy Winner, excelled for the Musketeers. Miller considers West a model of the student/athlete. And he insists Ayton is every bit as bright.
“He is very sharp. He’s worldly. School is easy for him,” Miller told Sporting News. “Does his work. He’s very responsible. You don’t have to follow him around on a golf-cart to double-check him: Is he where he’s supposed to be?”
He is not the player one would expect, either, after noting he stands 7-1 and weighs 260 pounds. Players his size have one position: center. And they play it one way: close to the basket on defense, blocking shots and grabbing rebounds; close to the basket on offense, scoring on post moves and tip-slamming teammates’ misses.
“I’m not a regular big man,” Ayton said. “I’m a mobile big man. I’m not trying to be big, like 270. I like it the way I am: pretty mobile and running the floor.”
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Through the first 11 games of his college career, Ayton produced nine double-doubles, 10 games in which he made at least half his shots and nine in which he topped 30 minutes of playing time. The only times he fell short of that figure were a couple of blowout victories, which means he is not fouling, not tiring, and not screwing up enough to get called to the bench for many lectures from coach Sean Miller.
When Arizona needed him to be great, he has been: 29 points, 18 rebounds in 36 minutes of a close win over Alabama. When Arizona struggled, he did not: 27 points, 14 rebounds in an opening-game loss at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.
“We as a team and as a group really appreciate him, because he gives you confidence as a teammate, he gives you confidence as a coach. You’re happy that he’s a part of your team because he embraces the challenge.
“When you’re ready to play the biggest game, he’s ready to go.”
Ayton’s uncommon approach to the game has, naturally, an uncommon beginning. He grew up in the Bahamas, one of five children, and played a great deal of soccer as a child. But he gradually grew to the point where his size became an impediment to soccer success and was encouraged to give basketball a try.
At 6-8 though just 12 years old, he looked the part enough he was invited to move to San Diego to live with a summer coach and attend school in the States. He said it wasn’t hard to move so far from home because he saw how hard his family was working to send five children to private school in the Bahamas. His move meant that bill dropped by 20 percent.
Learning the game was a lot tougher. The other players used to call him “TFN.” An odd nickname, to be sure, until the code is cracked. TFN stands for “Tall for Nothing.”
“They used to make fun of me,” Ayton said. “Sometimes, I would cry … because it was hard work. I didn’t know it took this much hard work to get to be good. I would cry, not wanting to give up. For my parents to sacrifice for us, I just wanted to really not be a mess-up. I wasn’t trying to take my opportunity for granted.”
He stayed in the gym, watched the talented players and copied from them, watched basketball videos to learn techniques and practiced his jumpshot incessantly. And he competed.
Within four years, Ayton was the No. 1 prospect nationally in his school class. There were some who speculated that, even though a year behind, he might be more gifted than such elite talents as Josh Jackson, Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum.
What he didn’t do: trust anyone. Until his mother moved to Phoenix to live with him during his junior year in high school, with Deandre leaving San Diego’s Balboa City School for Hillcrest Prep, Ayton said he could not be certain if the people who helped him move to America “had my best interests to help me, or they were just in it for themselves.”
He had no doubts about his mother, Andrea. He chose Arizona largely to remain close to her. He believes, as well, in the coaches around him at Arizona. “I know they have the best interests for me,” he said.
When Miller first began scouting Ayton, he said, “He was the best big guy that I have ever seen, from my 25 years being on the circuit. Because he has a skill level that really stands out. He’s as skilled an offensive big man as the game has seen at his age. I’m talking about pivoting, passing, making good decisions. He’s as low of a turnover big man who produces as maybe there ever has been as a freshman.
“It’s tough to deal with him because he’s such a clever, willing passer. And he’s so skilled.”
Ayton is not yet a natural as a 3-point shooter. He has made just 29 percent of his attempts. “I would say he is a 17-foot shooter at this point,” Miller said. “But in no time, in my opinion, as an NBA player he can be a stretch-5. He has a beautiful shot.”
Like all the teams facing a third game in three days at the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Purdue Boilermakers did not have the luxury of time as they prepared to face Arizona. There was only a few games’ worth of tape on Wildcats freshman 7-footer Deandre Ayton.
So it was understandable Matt Painter and his coaching staff took one look at his matchup with dynamic Boilers forward Vincent Edwards, in many ways more a guard than a power forward, and decided the proper approach was to emphasize the obvious physical difference between the two players.
“You play guys, and they’re young, and you think, ‘Ah, we can pick on this guy.’ We started the game and tried to run some different things and do some things for Vince Edwards,” Painter told Sporting News. “And it absolutely wasn’t going to happen. Ayton moved his feet like he was 6-5.”
It sounds so simple. Moved his feet? That’s a big deal? Well, for a defender in basketball, it’s close to everything. And if that defender is 7-1, 250 pounds, and if he moves those feet like someone who stands half a foot shorter, the game becomes a lot more complex for the opposition.
“I think a lot of times when you get the long, athletic guys – he’s not a shot-blocker. He’s just a really good player,” Painter said. “I think if he were 6-foot, he’d still be a good player. He’s just one of those guys that can shoot to 18 feet right now; he’s going to be able to make NBA threes. He’s just so versatile. He’s the best one that I’ve seen so far.”
Painter was referring to the draft prospects for the 2018 class. Ayton is believed to be in competition with Real Madrid forward Luka Doncic, Duke forward Marvin Bagley and possibly Missouri forward Michael Porter to become the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft.
Depending on which mock draft site you examine, you will find each of the first three projected to be taken first. Porter played only a few minutes because of a back injury that required surgery and is expected to keep him out for the year. He probably would need to return ahead of schedule and excel to rise above them.
The book on Ayton is he hasn’t always competed hard, that he sometimes would take off on a play. But that book is, in a way, an autobiography.
“I didn’t really like playing in high school,” Ayton told SN. “I wouldn’t say I was bored, but I took a lot of plays off. Sometimes I played to the level of the competition. I was just over high school and AAU. I wasn’t really interested. I was just trying to get to college.”
When Ayton arrived at Arizona he had to learn some fundamentals of the game, like how to practice hard and to carry that into competition.
“I think what he’s had to learn is how important practice is," Miller said. "For guys as talented as he is, high school – it’s tough to keep guys motivated on a daily basis. Can you imagine Marvin Bagley and him in high school a year ago, what that would be like for them? Regardless of how great their coach is, sometimes they’re going against a guy 6-4. Flip the switch, and now it’s college, and we’re demanding that he’s ready for every shootaround, every practice. He’s embraced that.”
Not long after he was hired as coach at Arizona in 2009, Miller worked to get the athletic department to invest in an upgraded weight training facility as part of the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium opened a year earlier as the team’s practice center.
When he arrived at U of A, Ayton was not all that excited about entering that weight room.
He never had lifted weights before, fearing it would transform him from the lean, agile big man he’d always been into a muscular, immobile low-post monster. He decided to trust the Wildcats staff, including strength and conditioning coach Christopher Rounds. Now, Ayton is a lean, agile big man who can bench-press 185 pounds 16 times.
When Ayton gets to the NBA scouting combine event in May, he is going to dazzle observers with not only his strength, but also his leaping ability. “He touched – and I saw it with my own two eyes – the top of the backboard,” Miller said. Now, he clarified, it was not the actual top of the board, but rather one of those vertical jump trainers that measure leaping ability. And that was from a running start. He gets 42 inches off a single step.
People, that’s almost four feet.
“He is so God-given, he is so physically strong and explosive and smart,” Miller said, “I just can’t imagine that you wouldn’t pick him 1.”
Miller said his experience recruiting Bagley allowed him to see that the Duke star is “equally gifted,” but he believes Ayton has more room to improve because the life of an elite basketball talent is so much newer to him.
“I learned something about myself: It really affect both ends of the floor when I play hard all the time,” Ayton said. “Coming to college really showed that every play matters, every possession counts in college basketball. And you have to run. You can’t jog if you’re tired. You have to keep going.”
The transition to college basketball has presented other challenges. The arrest of assistant coach Book Richardson, the program’s sudden immersion in the Justice Department investigation of agent/money manager/apparel company activities around the game – no current player has been entangled in that mess, but it surely has had an impact on the daily conduct of basketball business at Arizona.
With that still lingering, Arizona took a No. 2 poll ranking with them to Ayton’s home country, where he is revered as a young athletic hero, and the Wildcats showed they weren’t at all ready for such respect. They fell in three consecutive games; when they met Purdue, a game many thought might be for the championship, they were competing for seventh place.
“It was surprising we lost three games in a row,” Ayton said. “I really wanted to put on a show for my hometown. It was unfortunate we couldn’t do that. It was a lesson for us in the team. Purdue is a really good team. I was just looking at their chemistry to see how a team is supposed to be at both ends of the floor. We were pretty quiet.
“Every team we lost to, all of them had the same thing Purdue had: chemistry, leaders on the team that took over and helped their younger guys through it. Their intensity level was amazing.”
When Arizona returned to the States and faced a road game against UNLV and a neutral-court matchup against top-10 Texas A&M, Ayton saw those qualities from guards Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allonzo Trier. “They really kept the team together,” he said.
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Despite his size, Ayton is playing primarily as a power forward, with 7-0 senior Dusan Ristic his partner at center. That means Ayton most often is defending players similar to Edwards, dealing with denying penetration and closing out on shooters and coping with the pick-and-roll on the shooter and not just the big man’s dive. Miller has had to make some adjustments to his schemes for this to work, but he is trying to both put his five best players on the floor (Ristic averages 9.3 points and 5.8 rebounds) and allow Ayton to grow as much as possible during his one year with the Wildcats.
“When you don’t have a big guy like him, as a coach you always say, ‘Man, if I had that guy, he’d get the ball every time down,’ ” Miller said.
“But it’s never quite as easy as everybody thinks. There’s more to it than that. You have to get him the ball in scoring position. You have to give the other guys confidence.
“Some of the things maybe you’ve done in the past as a program, that you really believe in and like, you have to change. How can we get him the ball the best we can, the most times we can? As long as we do our job and stay healthy, where we are now may pale in comparison to where we’ll be down the road. That’s the challenge, and I think that’s the gift that Deandre gives you. He gives you a big upside as a team.”