A quartet ofSTELLAR FRESHMANforwards, led by Arizona's Deandre Ayton, could determine the course of the tournament. They're long, they're skilled and they're mobile, popping three-pointers, rattling rims and intimidating shooters from every spot on the court
UNFOLDING INTO A navy-blue leather chair, Arizona's colossal freshman, Deandre Ayton, leans forward, crossing his right leg over his left to better unlace his white Nikes. It's mid-February, and minutes earlier the Wildcats had polished off USC at Tucson's McKale Center to take control of the Pac-12. Despite that achievement, something is eating at Ayton, and in a Bahamian lilt tinged with indignation, he's eager to express it. To move this mountain of a man, it seems, all you have to do is question his competitiveness.
"I've been hearing I have no motor," he says. "No motor? I don't know what that even means. I'm playing my heart out. This thing has just been bugging me."
The indolence rep has followed Ayton since high school, possibly because, he admits, "I'd get bored." But after leading the conference in scoring (19.7 points per game, through March 1), rebounding (11.1) and double doubles (20)—and becoming the likely No. 1 pick in the NBA's June draft—Ayton figures that notion should be treated as dismissively as a defender on the left block. "It's just another chip on me," he says, acknowledging that coach Sean Miller will "throw it out there to get me mad and start my engine."
Whether it's hoops, a locker room dance-off or which Wildcat has the largest portion on his dinner plate, Ayton insists, "I'm a little crazy. Just competing always." And with March Madness about to tip off—and even more controversy swirling around his team—he has the ideal opportunity to show how serious he is about the game.
A Feb. 23 ESPN report on the FBI's investigation into college-basketball corruption stated that among the 3,000 hours of phone calls intercepted by the feds, Miller talked with Christian Dawkins—a runner for NBA agent Andy Miller, who is at the center of the case—about paying $100,000 to ensure that Ayton would sign with the Wildcats. That news came five months after assistant coach Emanuel (Book) Richardson was arrested for his part in a bribery scheme uncovered by the FBI, and just one day after junior shooting guard Allonzo Trier was ruled ineligible for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. (Arizona successfully appealed the ruling, contending that a remnant of the substance Trier tested positive for in September 2016—and for which he served a 19-game suspension in '16--17—was to blame.)
Ayton and his family denied receiving any money, and the university released a statement stating that he "abided by all applicable rules and regulations and is fully eligible to participate." He was on the court for a 98--93 overtime loss to Oregon on Feb. 24, scoring 28 points and grabbing 18 boards.
Miller did not coach against the Ducks, but he returned to the team in time for the 75--67 win against Stanford on March 1. He maintains that ESPN's reporting was incorrect: He never met Dawkins until after Ayton had committed to Arizona. (SI has independently confirmed the latter statement.) Miller added that he has never knowingly violated NCAA rules while coaching the Wildcats.
It was the strangest week in program history, but the Wildcats still clinched at least a share of the Pac-12 regular season title in spite of it. As Miller has said, "This team goes where Deandre goes."
BORN IN NASSAU, AYTON WAS DISCOVERED AT A basketball camp in the Bahamas as a 6'8" 12-year-old and then attended high schools in San Diego and Phoenix. The summer following his freshman year he put up 18 and 17 for a Bahamian team called the Providence Storm in a one-point exhibition upset over North Carolina—yes, that North Carolina—draining a go-ahead three for the win. Shortly afterward, recruiting sites dubbed him the nation's top prospect, and he arrived in Tucson as the highest-rated freshman (No. 3 in the class of 2017 based on composite rankings) of Miller's eight-year tenure.
Standing 7'1" with a 7'5" wingspan, Ayton has dimensions that echo Joel Embiid's. All square shoulders and rippling limbs, he insists he had never lifted a weight before last July. "Facts," he says. He'll tell you he weighs a comically lean 260 pounds with just 5.4% body fat. "I used to get butterflies when I'd see big dudes," Ayton says. "I don't get butterflies no more."
The notion that Ayton would be nervous is amusing, given his physical power, quick-twitch agility and improving ball skills. While he delivers punishment with his back to the rim, he can unleash an unblockable jump shot when he feels like it. (He's 10 of 31 from three-point range this season.) "I don't see how you can pass on that," says one Eastern Conference executive. "For me, the thing with him was playing hard," says another scout. "I've seen what I needed to see."
Ayton headlines an exceptional group of freshman big men with modern skill sets who are relishing the chance to debunk the adage that great guard play is the key to winning titles. Duke forward Marvin Bagley III, who was briefly Ayton's high school teammate at Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix, missed four games with a sprained right knee but returned on Feb. 24 and scored 19 points in a 60--44 win over Syracuse. Jaren Jackson Jr. has emerged as a two-way force for Michigan State, making stunning strides since November. And the shot blocking of Mohamed Bamba has turned Texas into an elite defensive team.
The NBA's stylistic revolution has been well-documented, with the success of the Warriors and the Cavaliers spurring a ripple effect of wide-open offenses and three-point barrages. Small ball, however, may be a bit misleading. There will always be a correlation between size and utility on the court. And at every level of hoops, post players are evolving to take on new responsibilities.
"For years, people saw how skilled big kids were in Europe, and I think coaches were able to start to really bang that drum here in the States," says one former general manager. "It's really evident now that the earth-mover, back-to-the-basket big is a thing of the past. If you're a big dude, you better be able to guard in space. That's a very rare thing. I think that's why people are so excited about the top of this draft."
While their defensive abilities are varied, Ayton, Bagley, Bamba and Jackson—all 6'11" or taller—are athletic enough to contest on the interior, attack the basket and knock down threes. "It's a whole new generation," Ayton says, citing Pelicans stars Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins as his inspirations. "The key word is versatility."
LAURI MARKKANEN, A STAR FORWARD for Arizona in 2016--17 who now plays for the Bulls, would know. "There's not too many guys in the league that can't shoot a midrange shot or a three-pointer," he says. The 7-foot Finnish sharpshooter was drafted seventh last year largely because of a skilled faceup game, and his early NBA success sets a positive precedent for this year's crop of forwards. Markkanen has become a fan of Ayton's game. "[Deandre] does a bit of everything," he says. "He can really shoot the ball, and he's a monster inside."
Like Markkanen, Ayton will also have to make his biggest improvement on D. NBA teams see him as a center, but Arizona lists Ayton as a power forward. It's understandable given how much time he spends alongside plodding 7-foot, 245-pound Serbian senior Dušan Ristić. Miller's decision to play with a size advantage has forced Ayton out of his comfort zone, challenging him with a wider variety of assignments than anyone else on the team.
While the Wildcats are among the top dozen scoring teams in the country, their defensive efficiency ranks 99th on kenpom.com. "We're a much better offensive team than defensive—that's the truth," Miller admits.
In an 82--74 home loss to UCLA on Feb. 8, the Wildcats came out flat, and Ayton struggled to keep up with crafty 7-foot midrange ace Thomas Welsh and post Gyorgy Goloman, occasionally looking lost running around screen after screen. "Deandre just didn't have his usual energy and bounce," said Miller. "We weren't talking, we weren't communicating," Ayton adds. "I put that all on me." A tough 24 hours of meetings, film sessions and teamwide gut checks followed.
"Dudes are coming at me every day, I'm playing different positions on the defensive end," Ayton says. "I'm really working on that, because that's the next level. In the league, everybody can dribble." The demands of the modern game aren't lost on him: "Guarding ball screens, there's a lot of one-on-one. You really have to have a lot of pride in guarding your man, especially off the ball."
In the 81--67 win over USC two nights later, Ayton looked like a different player. He drained jumpers, unleashed a lefthanded pirouette from the high post and threw down a backdoor lob with uncanny ease. But the biggest change was evident in his defense: He aggressively tracked three-point ace Bennie Boatwright on the outside and harassed star forward Chimezie Metu in the paint. Ayton contested shots, recovered on screens and never stopped moving his feet. "His defense sets the tone for a lot," Miller said after the game. "When he's playing like that, with energy, it's not [just] his shot blocking, it's his quick movement away from the basket."
Even when he's not perfect, Ayton's production has been a stabilizing force in a year when little has gone according to plan for SI's preseason No. 1. Richardson, who had been a member of Miller's staff since 2009 at Xavier, has been charged with accepting $20,000 from Dawkins and financial adviser Munish Sood to steer Arizona players who turn pro to use their services. (Richardson and Dawkins have pleaded not guilty; Sood has not been indicted.) On the same day the feds came to Tucson last fall, Rawle Alkins, Arizona's top perimeter defender, broke his right foot. He returned on Dec. 9 and has averaged 13.7 points and 2.8 assists, but is still working toward peak form.
Ayton knows he needs a higher gear for the NCAAs. "I've been double-teamed my whole life," he says. "I know when a double team's coming, I know what side the guy's coming from, I know how to dribble out of it." And as the clock ticks down on his D-I career, the Wildcats still have plenty of problems to solve.
While it was always clear that Ayton's stay in college would be brief, he insists that thoughts of the draft are on the back burner (but his homework is not). Before games he has taken to ending warmups by flinging dainty, half-court granny shots at the rim. It is a sight to watch, a man that large getting so excited about something that silly. Whether it takes two attempts or 10 to find twine, a roar of adoration from the student section chases him back into the locker room, arms aloft. "I know when the time is right to compete and get serious," Ayton says. That's versatility.
"IT'S REALLY EVIDENT NOW THAT THE EARTH-MOVER, BACK-TO-THE-BASKET BIG IS A THING OF THE PAST."
—Former NBA general manager
The Stateside front-runner for the No. 1 pick in the June draft (Slovenian phenom Luka Doncic is making a strong case overseas), Ayton makes 61.2% of his shots from the field.
JAREN JACKSON JR.
It's safe to say that Jackson, who won't turn 19 until Sept. 15, hasn't looked like one of the youngest players in college basketball. The Spartans have held opponents to 42.0% shooting, the best mark in the country, and rank second in point differential (17.5). The 6'11", 242-pound freshman has been a driving force on both ends of the court. "He's going to be a hell of a player," says coach Tom Izzo, who will most likely see Jackson enter the NBA draft. While he isn't the team's primary offensive option, Jackson (11.4 ppg) is a consistent threat from long range (41.6%) and an acrobatic finisher.
Any discussion of the 7-foot Bamba begins with the 7'9" wingspan that makes him the country's most menacing interior defender. To alter shots and smother drivers, he doesn't even need to jump. As Kansas coach Bill Self noted after Bamba swatted eight shots on Dec. 29, "The guy could block the sun." Bamba helped make the Longhorns the eighth-most-efficient defense in D-I, but he missed the final two regular-season games with a sprained toe as Texas finished 18--13. An NCAA appearance looked doubtful at press time.
MARVIN BAGLEY III
Over the past 20 years, only two Division I freshmen have averaged at least 21 points and 11 rebounds: Kevin Durant (at Texas) and Michael Beasley (Kansas State). With 20.7 points and 11.1 rebounds through March 1, that feat is within reach. His team-leading scoring paces an attack that ranks second in offensive efficiency (behind Villanova). He has lagged behind his peers when it comes to individual defense but forms a dominant interior tandem on offense with 6'10" classmate Wendell Carter.