ARIZONA'S AFFABLE 7'1" CENTER CAN DO IT ALL (WELL, EXCEPT MAYBE GOLF), AND HE WANTS YOU KNOW ONE THING: HIS HOMETOWN SUNS SHOULD MAKE HIM THE TOP PICK.
1 DEANDRE AYTON
IF A TEAM of basketball scientists were asked to build the perfect big man in a laboratory, the finished product would look a lot like DeAndre Ayton. The problem, on a Wednesday night in the middle of May, is that the 7'1", 250-pound Ayton is nowhere near a basketball hoop. "Golf is a strange game," he says.
Ayton has already sprayed ground balls all over a Topgolf in Scottsdale, Ariz., but he refuses to give up. He just watched his 41-year-old trainer, Rasheed Hazzard, swing calmly, almost in slow motion, and loft several beautiful iron shots. "But you got the old-man swing," Ayton tells him. "No swag."
Standing in the corner stall on the lower level, Ayton licks his index finger and whirls it around his head. "Always check the wind," the 19-year-old says. Then he begins his backswing, contorting his 7'5" wingspan around a driver that's at least six inches too short, annnnnd ... another shank. Ayton cackles with delight.
This is part of the DeAndre Ayton experience. His teammate at Arizona, Rawle Alkins, says, "When the situation is down or quiet, he'll loosen everyone up. Laugh, crack jokes. There's never a bad time with him." Wildcats assistant Lorenzo Romar predicts that one day Ayton will be on Inside the NBA. His mom, Andrea, calls him both a comedian and an entertainer.
After another round of scuffs and slices, Ayton finally turns to the group of friends behind him, looks around at the corner stall and shakes his head. "It's a weird angle," he decides.
GOLF FAILURES aside, life-changing athletic success is closer than ever for Ayton. He is hitting balls just 24 hours after attending the NBA draft lottery in Chicago, where the Suns landed the top pick. That means there's a good chance that Ayton will stay in Arizona after a high school career that finished in Scottsdale and his single season of college basketball in Tucson.
Ayton was at the lottery and says that his visit to Chicago wasn't exactly fun—he was very busy—but that it couldn't have gone any better. His hometown team is choosing first, he aced his on-camera appearances and, in between, he mingled with everyone from fellow draft prospects to team executives to commissioner Adam Silver. "He was just telling me how great this league is," Ayton says of Silver. "And how, as much as everybody wants to win and be competitive, you'll never find a league so close. Everyone knows each other. Everyone works with each other off the court. And a lot of these dudes are signed to the same agencies too."
The most dramatic story line before the June 21 draft will center on Ayton and 6'6" Slovenian guard Luka Donˇci´c, 19, his competition to be the top pick. And funny enough, they are, in fact, with the same agency, BDA Sports Management. The two prospects even share a publicist, Alyson, who has been a go-between since the draft process began. Donˇci´c followed Ayton on Instagram hours after the lottery ended, then Ayton followed back, then each excitedly texted Alyson. The two teens have exchanged a few messages, wishing each other good luck. "We're just respectful right now," Ayton says.
But for all the diplomacy and the jokes, Ayton is direct when it's time to talk about his place in the draft. "No one's built like me," he says. "I play 110% on both ends of the floor." And does he care where he goes? "Most definitely No. 1," he says. "Not changing my mind. I worked too hard for that. I worked my ass off."
THERE ARE a few different versions of Ayton, and which one you get depends on what you're talking about. If the topic is basketball, he says all the right things. If the topic is life off the court, he will crack jokes about himself and everyone around him. He becomes the guy who orders two desserts—a massive brownie sundae and a Snickers pie—at lunch and then refuses to share with his girlfriend, Anissa, for two reasons. First, because he's flirting with her, and also because it's making the whole table laugh. Then, when Anissa successfully steals one of the desserts, he sprawls across the table trying to take it back. As long as everyone else is having a good time, so is he.
But if he's talking about the journey that brought him to where he is now, a more guarded side emerges. Ayton was raised in the Bahamas until he was 12. He remains intensely proud of his homeland, and people there are proud of him too. Mychal Thompson, the Bahamian big man who was drafted No. 1 in 1978 and whose son Klay plays for the Warriors, says, "I watched every Arizona game I could this year. It's thrilling, man. I feel like I've got another son in the NBA."
It was everything that came after the Bahamas that complicated Ayton's story. "Home," he says, "I was perfect. I was home. I don't even want to talk about AAU. AAU was a bunch of s---. When I stepped foot in the United States, my life became a job."
After landing on the radar of scouts at the 2011 Jeff Rodgers Camp in Nassau, Ayton was offered the chance to come to the U.S. by a couple of coaches. His mother and his stepfather, Alvin, decided that it was the right thing to do. Basketball aside, it was a chance at a free education. So he moved to San Diego as a 6'5" 12-year-old. Less than two years later he was 6'10" and christened the best eighth-grade player in the country.
"It felt normal," Ayton says, "until I grew up and realized I never really had a childhood. It was just basketball and business. Never went to Disneyland or any of that. Kids used to tell me about it, and I'd have to lie and say, 'Yeah, I went.' But I never never knew any of that."
For the next few years Ayton lived with three different host families and spent most weekends traveling the grassroots hoops circuit. "Sometimes I'd go a month without talking to my mother," he says. "You're [in the gym] going 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. It was like a job."
Andrea moved to Phoenix when DeAndre was 16, bringing him from San Diego and things began to normalize. Looking back now, DeAndre says he had become entitled, a bully who was resentful of the people around him. "I was lucky," he says. "My mom came and knocked some sense into my head. Like, 'Yo—that's not gonna work.'"
For his junior and senior seasons, Ayton enrolled at Hillcrest Prep, an elite basketball academy in Scottsdale. He thrived, earning All-America honors and finishing his career as a top five recruit. And then there was college.
MOST CASUAL sports fans first learned Ayton's name during coverage of the FBI investigation that has rocked college basketball over the past nine months. On Feb. 23, ESPN alleged that Wildcats coach Sean Miller had been caught on tape by the FBI offering $100,000 to an employee of an agent for Ayton's services. And while ESPN's story has not held up—Ayton and his family have denied any involvement, the timeline has been debunked and there have been no findings of wrongdoing—the allegation still stings. "The exposure I wanted in college wasn't the exposure I got," Ayton says. "Me and my family did not expect that. It was bad." (Miller has said he expects to be fully "vindicated.")
Alkins recalls that the team was playing NBA2K when alerts flashed across each player's phone telling them that Ayton had been implicated in the scandal. Ayton looked down in shock. A few minutes later managers knocked on the door and brought him to meet with coaches. The team was scheduled to play at Oregon the next day. Since none of the ESPN allegations had been confirmed by NCAA investigators, the school decided that Ayton would suit up—but Miller would not be on the sideline. "If he coached that game right after the news broke, he felt like the environment would've been just too crazy," says Alkins.
The environment was plenty crazy anyway. As Ayton recounts the evening, he gets animated: "I came out there for warmups, and I saw this little guy with this microphone. And I'm running and running [through the tunnel], doing my pregame workout, and he's like, Here he comes! The whole gym booed me." He cups his hands around his mouth to imitate the fans, some of whom were dressed as FBI agents. "Hun-dred thou-sand! Da-da-da-da-da. Hun-dred thous-and!"
Ayton finished with 28 points and 18 rebounds, along with four blocks. He played 44 of 45 minutes, and while the Wildcats lost in overtime, Ayton says that those 48 hours, surrounded by headlines and chants and fake FBI agents, were the closest he's ever felt to his teammates. "We ended up losing," Alkins says, "but it wasn't one of those feelings where we were disappointed. We were just happy to play hard together. It was like a movie."
Romar, who coached Arizona that night, says, "I've never been more impressed by a player that age on a basketball court. To have his name thrown around in regards to something he didn't do, it really shook him. But to rally from that.... "
Ayton finished the season averaging 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds. After that Oregon game, the team bounced back to secure the Pac-12 regular-season title and dominate the conference tournament. Arizona was upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament—"Buffalo had some dogs," Ayton says ruefully—but the final month of that season wasn't the disaster it could've been. And then it was time for the NBA.
BACK AT lunch, Ayton is looking at his phone when he says to no one in particular, "You saw Michael Porter Jr. say he was the best player in the draft?" A few seconds later, Ayton looks up to the rest of the table and tilts his head. "What draft is he in?"
Ayton will likely go first or second on June 21. From a physical standpoint, he checks every box imaginable. He's nimble enough to guard on the perimeter, he's tall enough to meet anyone at the rim, and offensively he's got a combination of skill and power that makes him like a new-age David Robinson. His shooting extends to the three-point line.
Fran Fraschilla, an ESPN commentator and draft expert specializing in international hoops, says if he had to choose between Donˇci´c and Ayton he'd be "flummoxed." He leans toward Ayton for now. He recalls a 25-point, 16-rebound performance in a win at Arizona State. "I've watched a lot of basketball over my 59 years," Fraschilla says. "He was breathtaking. There was one play—he blocked the shot at one end, his teammate came up with it and [Ayton] ran by me at courtside. It was like the Coors freight train. I almost got a frost on me."
If there's any room for skepticism, it usually starts with Ayton's defense and his ability to protect the rim. He blocked 2.3 shots per 40 minutes—fewer than any of the past three big men taken No. 1 (Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Greg Oden). Because of that, some advanced metrics put his D on par with the likes of Jahlil Okafor's. Arizona did, however, have an incumbent center in Dusan Ristic, so Ayton played out of position, which skewed his block numbers.
There's also the question of whether, in a league increasingly dominated by small ball and versatile wings, a team should even use the top pick on a big man. Jazz 7-footer Rudy Gobert was played off the court by the Rockets in the playoffs, and Houston center Clint Capela's value was cut in half against the Warriors.
Fraschilla thinks that the awkward fit at Arizona may eventually work in Ayton's favor. "He was forced to defend wing players and guards," he says. "I think it did him wonders. He can move his feet extremely well on the perimeter. He's not going to be a guy you have to cover up in late-clock or emergency switch situations. He's going to be able to hold his own against electric guards and do a reasonably good job keeping them out of the lane."
Ayton brushes aside the small ball question: "Small ball? What is small ball? I play basketball. I play center, and if you haven't watched me play, I'm not a regular big man. I can move my feet. Not saying I can stop anyone out there who's in front of me, but trust me, I can really be a problem on the perimeter guarding somebody. I can switch from the center to the guards. The game is evolving. You got dudes like Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, all these 7-footers, doing everything. They're unstoppable. We can grab the board, take it down the floor and then score just as well. There's no stopping us."
Those comparisons may not be as outrageous as they seem. In the same way that Towns became twice as dangerous once he moved out of Kentucky's low post, Ayton stands to benefit from the freedom of the spacier NBA.
And he has a history of improving. Romar notes that Ayton hadn't lifted weights before college. "Within two weeks you could see a change," Romar says. Alkins echoes the point: "He can get quicker. And I wouldn't be surprised if he starts coming off screens, pick-and-roll. That's something to think about. He's kind of like that Giannis, KD type. Whoever's training him, if they get his handle right, he can play like a guard."
OFF THE court, as he's said, Ayton was forced to grow up faster than almost all of his peers. But there are still times when it's clear he's 19 years old. And strangely, it's in the moments when he strains to sound like a hardened, serious adult that his youth becomes most apparent.
The day after the golf outing, a minor social media controversy flares up. A website that specializes in search-engine optimization publishes a guide to DeAndre Ayton. The introduction fuses two unrelated quotes in a way that suggests he hated his childhood on the Bahamas. And eventually that new, context-free quote makes its way to the people of the island nation.
"I saw that," Mychal Thompson says later. "He knows what's in his heart. Everybody who knows him knows how proud he is of his country. Anybody who tried to frame it that way is just trying to bring him down."
All day in Phoenix, though, Ayton hears from people back home. He's stressed. He huddles with his publicist and issues a statement: "It's upsetting.... I have never said one disparaging thing about the place that continues to give me nothing but love and support."
The whole episode reopens wounds, and his guard comes up again. At lunch Ayton is talking about the nature of the media, using his Instagram following as an example. "I had 30K," he says, and after the ESPN report, "I gained 60K in one night. The whole world knew me as the college athlete that took [money]. That's how this world works. They love negativity.
"In college I really couldn't say nothing. Coach Miller was like, 'Keep a low profile. Don't worry about that stuff.' But now? Oh, yeah. Wait till I start really getting some money in my pocket. I'll say a few things. Pay that fine."
But then he breaks character—"No, I'm playing"—and a few minutes later he's bragging that he can sing. He tells a story about the Bahamas. He was in church performing a solo next to his sister when he spotted a friend in the back—"I was tall, so I could see the whole audience"—and burst out laughing. "My mom gave me the whooping of a lifetime," he recalls. "That was the end of my singing career. But I can sing."
So, obviously, someone challenges him to sing on the spot. He refuses. What about the national anthem next year? "Chill, chill, chill," he says. "I'm not Victor Oladipo."
Singing anthems or not, Ayton the player will be fine for the next decade. The hope for Ayton the person is that the NBA will allow him to be himself and enjoy this. He is the rare 19-year-old for whom life as a professional athlete might actually be easier. The next level will come without AAU tournaments and host families. There will be no NCAA investigations and more floor spacing than ever. The more comfortable he becomes, the less he'll have to worry about the world's negativity.
For now, there's just basketball and workouts. At the end of lunch, after the Snickers pie and the brownie sundae, neither of which Ayton came close to finishing, Hazzard slides over a scouting report from his time with the Knicks. Ayton's eyes get big as he looks over several pages of stats and plays. "This is like an exam," he says.
His trainer tells him that an NBA scouting report will have all the information he needs. "You may have three pages of diagrams," Hazzard says. "All the different calls, the variations of what they run, and the pick-and-roll coverages you'll use. And like you said about an exam? The exam is the game."
"This is the cheat sheet," Ayton says.
"Exactly," Hazzard nods.
"And at the end of the day," his trainer adds, "if you forget the coverage, just be athletic and big, and go block some s---. It's still a simple game."
"YOU GOT DUDES LIKE JOEL EMBIID, ANTHONY DAVIS, ALL THESE 7-FOOTERS, DOING EVERYTHING. WE CAN GRAB THE BOARD, TAKE IT DOWN THE FLOOR AND SCORE. THERE'S NO STOPPING US."
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For a behind-the-scenes look at DeAndre Ayton as he prepares for the draft, go to SI.TV.