Editor’s note: The Star’s Zack Rosenblatt is counting down the 50 best athletes on the University of Arizona campus right now, with help from athletes, coaches and those close to the program.
No. 5: DeAndre Ayton
The details: Ayton is a 7-foot-1-inch, 250-pound freshman who played high school basketball at Hillcrest Academy in Phoenix. UA coach Sean Miller has consistently reeled in top-10 recruiting classes filled with five-star-rated players. Some of the more highly-regarded recruits included future NBA players like Stanley Johnson and Aaron Gordon.
However, Miller has never reeled in a recruit quite like Ayton. The talented big has long been projected as a top-five pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, as high as No. 1. Scout.com recently altered its rankings for 2017 — which is rare — to make Ayton the No. 1 recruit in the incoming freshman class. Ayton uniquely has already declared he’ll only be in college for one season before leaving for the NBA. He committed to the Wildcats early, too, in September 2016 over Kansas and Kentucky, who rarely lose recruiting battles to anyone.
“I was just ready to become a Wildcat,” Ayton told the Star at the time. “I didn’t want to make too many dramas.”
The numbers: Ayton was born in the Bahamas and began his career at Balboa City School in San Diego, but didn’t play as a freshman after being ruled ineligible. As a sophomore, Balboa finished with a 17-14 record as Ayton averaged 21 points, 16 rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game, recording double-doubles in 21 of 22 games. After transferring to Hillcrest, he averaged 29.2 points, 16.7 rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game as a junior. As a senior, Hillcrest went 33-6 and Ayton averaged 26 points, 15 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game and was in turn selected as a McDonald’s All-American.
The value: Ayton is a program-changing talent with the ability to become an All-American in his first season. With Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins back in the fold, the Wildcats could compete for their second national championship.
“He’s obsessed with being a great player and because of that I think his future is incredibly bright,” Miller said after Ayton officially signed his letter of intent. “We’re all looking forward to providing him an environment where he can grow and also give our team and recruiting class that special player who can go inside and out.”
Why Ayton? There aren’t too many players built quite like Ayton. He’s a 7-footer with 3-point shooting range, all-world athleticism with top-notch rebounding and shot-blocking ability, with low-post moves to boot. The only question mark surrounding Ayton at this point from those who have watched him revolves around effort, but all indications in the early going point to Ayton fitting in well in early workouts for UA.
Proof he’s good: This incoming national freshman class is considered one of the most talented at the top in a while, with projected lottery picks like Michael Porter (Missouri), Mohamed Bamba (Texas) and Collin Sexton (Alabama). Some consider Ayton a better prospect then all of them. NBADraft.net has Ayton projected as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft, as did DraftExpress before shutting down in June.
A DraftExpress scouting report on Ayton read: “What’s so impressive about Ayton at this stage, is his physical and athletic abilities, and how he uses them to have an impact on the game. He has the ability to dominate the game in the paint, using his size and strength to finish inside, crash the boards, and protect the rim. He is not the most explosive athlete, but he is long, and quick off the floor, and has the fluidity and change of speed to look at ease running the floor in transition, not a skill many guys his size have.”
What Ayton can accomplish: It’s hard to project exactly what he can do, but Ayton certainly has the potential to accomplish quite a bit beyond a possible Final Four run. If he puts up the numbers, Ayton would be a candidate for All-America honors, even first-team, and should run away with the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year award. Depending on how his statistics match up with other top talent in the Pac-12, including Trier, he’d be a reasonable candidate for the conference player of the year award, too.
Coachspeak: “I’m not gonna sugarcoat it: he’s one of these once-in-a-generation types of players. He is big, 7 foot, and the fact that he hasn’t lifted weights is astonishing to me. When you look at him and shake his hand he has a physical presence as a young person that you don’t often see. One thing I’m really excited about is to get him with us and plug him into our strength and conditioning program and I think his body will change in a big, big way.” — Miller
He said it: “To me, I’m glad I committed to U of A, man. So glad. If I had committed to the others, I think I would have been mad because I didn’t want to leave my family … and with a coach like Coach Miller, we can make history. I really intend to give him his first Final Four. And I think I can really change the college game.” — Ayton