After three games at McKale Center, it’s pretty clear Arizona freshman Deandre Ayton is confident enough to handle returning home to the Bahamas and playing in front of ESPN cameras this week.
But not just because of the three double-doubles he posted in three games, his wide variety of dunks or even the 3-pointer he sank against Cal State Bakersfield.
It’s also because of the way Ayton has confidently and humorously handled himself in post-game media appearances so far this season.
Like when teammate Alex Barcello was asked Thursday about the alley-oop inbounds pass he threw Ayton for a dunk … and Ayton, sitting next to him, arched back in his seat, partly rolled his eyes and said “Did y’all see the (previous) one on ESPN?”
Or when Ayton was asked about the first thing he wanted to do or see upon returning home to Nassau — and spoke of the reception UA could get.
“Energy,” he said. “I just want to hear a lot of chanting. I don’t know. Billboards?”
Ayton said he was expecting a big crowd to follow the Wildcats in the Battle 4 Atlantis, played on adjacent island to the city of Nassau, where Ayton grew up.
“Arizona is about to shut it down,” Ayton said.
But other than planning to see his dad, Ayton said he wasn’t sure how many friends or family might be on hand. He said he’s just heard that a lot of people will show up.
“Some of these people I don’t even know,” Ayton said. “They just telling me they rooting for us. The Bahamas is just rooting for the U of A in the Battle 4 Atlantis.”
That kind of talk is not unusual for Ayton. In fact, the way UA coach Sean Miller describes it, Ayton’s confident and playful personality shines through in private moments with the team, too.
“His talent speaks for itself but what I’m so impressed with is how fun he is to be around,” Miller said. “He’s competitive and sometimes something doesn’t go right and you can see he’ll leave his emotions on his sleeve, but I would much rather tame a guy down and talk to him in those terms than wonder if he wants to compete.
“And with Deandre, you always know that he loves to play the game and he hates to lose. Just watching his competitive spirit, it’s fun to see with a guy that young and also that talented.”
So while the idea of playing in front of his home fans in a high-profile event could be a potential pressure-cooker for some players, maybe not for Ayton.
“I don’t think so,” Miller said. “Deandre, when you’re him, you have pressure every day you get up. I mean everybody expects the world from him and that’s part of taking care of him, looking after him and developing him.”
Miller said Ayton simply has to just be himself, work hard in practice and show up in the Bahamas, and things will probably be just fine.
After all, Ayton has already proven he can do things that most humans just can’t do.
Even point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, having played with a number of NBA players already during his UA career, can attest to that. Of one Ayton dunk against UMBC on Nov. 12, Jackson-Cartwright said “I was running back downcourt with my mouth open. I couldn’t really believe it. ... He’s special. Special.”
So can Barcello, who threw the inbounds lob to Ayton on Sunday … and didn’t even need to watch the inevitable dunk that followed.
“I just turned around and screamed and ran back on defense,” Barcello said. “I knew it was going in.”
Even as Miller cautioned that he hasn’t been around all that long at Arizona, the UA coach went so far as to say “it’s safe” to declare Ayton one of the best Wildcats ever at his stage.
“I don’t know if anyone has ever walked in and been better on Day 1,” Miller said. “He’s an excellent passer. He’s very unselfish. He can shoot the ball. He’s skilled, physical, and he’s starting to get better defensively. He works at it and he’ll continue to work at it as well.”
Ayton doesn’t get rattled either. On Sunday, Ayton scored just two points on 1-for-5 shooting in the first half against Bakersfield — then finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds while making 5 of 6 field goals after halftime.
“I’m sure he was disappointed he didn’t score in the first half but, man, he was great in the second half,” Miller said. “Just watching him put that first half behind him, that’s how you grow and learn as a player.
“Reminding him he was doing some things well in the game and not scoring — that’s powerful for him to learn. Because at the end of the day, he’s still 19 years old. But I believe he’ll go down to the Bahamas and play really well.”
So does Ayton, of course. And the more fans, cameras and, well, billboards surround him and the Wildcats, the happier he’ll be.
“I want that, yeah,” Ayton said.
“I want all that excitement.”