A projected NBA lottery pick pretty much since, well, junior high, Deandre Ayton arrived at Arizona last summer as the Wildcats’ highest-rated recruit ever.
Then, after committing to the Wildcats early in his senior year of high school, Ayton said he wanted to get UA coach Sean Miller to his first Final Four.
That’s pressure, you’d think.
Except Ayton – and the show he put on Wednesday in his Arizona exhibition debut – would suggest otherwise.
Ayton dropped 31 points on 13-for-16 shooting to lead Arizona to a 91-63 exhibition win over Eastern New Mexico at McKale Center while dominating the undersized but gritty Greyhounds inside, then gave a laid-back Bahamian vibe in his first-ever UA media appearance afterward.
“There’s no pressure at all,” Ayton said. “I’m just having fun.”
Until he checked out courtesy of a leg cramp with 7:15 left in the game, Ayton had fun all night. He scored in a variety of ways with dunks, short jumpers, finger rolls and rebound putbacks, while also behaving like a 6-3 guard when he darted out to intercept an Eastern New Mexico pass and then dribbled down court for a dunk in the first half.
Even for Miller, who knows everything about Ayton while having recruited him since his freshman year of high school, it was the kind of performance that justified another round of excessive praise — even though he isn’t the kind of coach who typically does that sort of thing.
“Deandre’s performance speaks for itself,” Miller said. “We pretty much see that every day. As you guys can see, his intelligence, his hands and his awareness is something you don’t see often for a young big guy like him.”
Certainly, Ayton was something Eastern New Mexico won’t see often while playing in the Division II Lone Star Conference. The Greyhounds, who went 13-15 last season and lost at NAIA Arizona Christian on Monday, did not play anyone taller than 6-foot-7.
So, Ayton shot at will over them anytime he had the ball in the post, and he rarely missed.
“If he took 20 shots, he probably would have made 17,” Miller said. “For us, it’s taking advantage of his talent and making sure we get him the ball in scoring position. … Deandre around the rim, he’s very, very good and he’s a willing passer as well.”
Ayton’s performance aside, the shorthanded Wildcats did have some issues Wednesday against a team much more lightly regarded than their second exhibition opponent on Sunday, Chico State.
ENMU had only four fewer rebounds overall than Arizona (36) and managed to keep things reasonably competitive for much of the game. Miller said that was a result of ENMU having smaller, quicker guards, though he acknowledged the UA defense broke down several times in part because of its inexperience.
The Greyhounds had 17 offensive rebounds, turning them into 16 second-chance points, and keeping them somewhat afloat during a game when they shot just 36.8 percent. Arizona shot 61.4 percent and hit 5 of 15 from 3-point range, including two each from Allonzo Trier and Emmanuel Akot.
While Trier and Akot each finished with 10 points, Brandon Randolph added 14 points for Arizona, which was playing without Parker Jackson-Cartwright (ankle), wing Rawle Alkins (foot) and guard Dylan Smith (suspension).
After scoring 17 points in the first half, Ayton picked it right up after halftime, scoring eight through the first five minutes, all around the basket as he dominated the undersized Greyhound interior players. He did not miss a shot for the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Ayton had his 31 points with 7:15 to go on a dunk, and left the game during the ensuing timeout when he walked gingerly on his right knee. Trainer Justin Kokoskie then worked with him on what appeared to be a cramp but Ayton did not re-enter the game.
In the first half, Ayton had 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting with three rebounds, two assists and a steal he converted to a dunk.
Without Jackson-Cartwright, the Wildcats started freshman Alex Barcello at point guard while also starting Randolph in place of Alkins.
UA was also without Smith, a projected reserve guard who was suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules.
Barcello missed a shot on UA’s first possession but the Wildcats went ahead 11-8 by the first media timeout after Ayton showed off his surprising speed for a 7-footer when he stole the ball from ENMU and raced downcourt for a dunk.
Arizona then went on a 21-4 run over the middle of the first half to take a 32-12 lead with 7:39. At that point, Ayton already had 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting. Akot hit his second 3-pointer, from the right corner, to give UA a 39-24 lead with 3:43 remaining.
The Wildcats led 47-31 at halftime and kept slowly extending their lead in the second half.
Arizona will host Division II power Chico State in its second and final exhibition game on Sunday at McKale, giving Ayton and the other UA freshmen another look at what it’s like playing in front of a five-figure crowd before they open the regular season on Nov. 10 against NAU.
So far, Ayton says he likes what he sees.
“That was live,” Ayton said of the McKale atmosphere. “That was fun. I enjoyed that.”