Deandre Ayton Knows He's Number One

Arizona's unicorn center already runs the game. Time to get the whole world talkin'. Part 2 of an exclusive B/R Mag issue on the future of 🏀, right now.

By David Gardner

Photography by Amy Lombard

January 30, 2018

Word passes between the players like a basketball around the perimeter. The Southern Utah women’s basketball team was expecting an empty court at Arizona’s Richard Jefferson Gymnasium in December. Instead, when the players arrive, they find a photoshoot in progress. The subject’s back is to them as he hangs on the rim, but a few Thunderbirds recognize the broad shoulders, the high-top haircut and the feet hovering barely above the floor. Soon, every set of eyes, and almost every phone, is focused on Deandre Ayton.

As the big man returns to earth, he becomes aware of his audience. He takes a few dribbles, unbothered by the commotion. At heart, he’s still that Bahamian boy in a grown man’s body. When he’s not on the court, Ayton blasts reggae in his dorm room and dances. He cheats against his roommates and teammates in NBA 2K. In the fall, he rode a hoverboard around campus until it literally snapped in half under his feet. Damn, he thought, I really have put on weight.

But on the court, Ayton has become accustomed to the crowds. He is the model for the modern, mobile big man. He’s a 7-footer who is as comfortable shooting as he is slamming; he has old-school post moves but a new-school sensibility for finding the open man; he has the motor to muscle through more than 30 minutes a night. At Arizona, he’s in the stretch run of what is already a record-shattering freshman season. He is averaging 19.5 points and 10.7 rebounds a game, and with 13 double-doubles, he’s already surpassed the school’s single-season mark for a freshman. In less than six months, he’ll be in Brooklyn for the NBA draft—and he’s already confident about where he’ll go. “I don’t think—I know,” Deandre would say later. “I’m the No. 1 pick in the draft.”

So before he vanishes from this practice floor and into fortune and fame, two Southern Utah players—Natalie Sanchez and Kiana Johnson—run over and ask Ayton for an autograph. He gladly scrawls his name on a piece of scratch paper. As they skip away, he smiles. He still shrugs at the notion that his signature might be worth something to strangers, but whenever he’s on a basketball court, Deandre Ayton gives everything he can.

Deandre Ayton’s journey to Arizona began on a dusty two-mile stretch between his home and his elementary school in Nassau, Bahamas. In the fourth grade, he begged his parents to let him take the public bus to school, and they obliged. But on his first day of freedom, Deandre didn’t come home on time. His mother, Andrea, dropped into her car and went searching for him. She found him at a local gym, sipping from a bottle of water he’d bought with his bus fare and watching some older boys play basketball. Deandre didn’t mind walking if it meant he could catch a little hoops along the way.

Sensing their son’s interest in the sport, Andrea and Alvin, Deandre’s stepfather, enrolled him in a basketball league through their Seventh-day Adventist Church. Deandre struggled. Because of his size, he was slotted in a division with boys several years older. But his skills hadn’t grown as fast as his bones, and he often ended up embarrassed on the floor or worse—riding the bench. “I wasn’t fully into it,” Deandre says now. But being younger wasn’t the only thing hindering Deandre’s development; at that time in his life, basketball was a secondary concern. He preferred playing sandlot soccer.

It wasn’t until several years later, in the summer of 2011, that Deandre got his big basketball break. After school let out, he had apprenticed for a week with Alvin, whom he calls Dad. Alvin, a plumber, let all of his children join him on jobs during school breaks, and he’d pay them $20 a day. At the end of the first week, $100 cash in hand, Deandre had a decision to make: Use the money to pay his fee for the Jeff Rodgers camp, the Bahamas’ premier summer basketball program, or blow it all on gummy worms and sour skittles. “Everybody was pressuring me to play basketball, so I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do it,’” Deandre says. “But I easily could have eaten $100 worth of candy.”

At the camp, Deandre’s lack of fundamentals was fairly obvious. He sometimes forgot the jump part of a jump shot, and he’d occasionally miss free throws by several feet. But he was a 6’5” 12-year-old who could dunk and who had unquenchable energy. By the end of the week, coaches began reaching out to Andrea to discuss her son’s future. By the end of the summer, the Aytons had decided to move Deandre to San Diego, where he’d attend Balboa City School, a private K-12 program with about 150 students. But there was one snag: At the time, Balboa didn’t have an athletic department, much less a basketball program.

Shaun Manning, Deandre’s first American sponsor, promised the Aytons that wouldn’t be a problem. He’d recently partnered with a wealthy real estate investor named Ryan Stone. Together, they planned to start a premier basketball program at the school. Deandre would be their building block. As Stone worked behind the scenes to establish the team, Manning focused on Deandre’s development, waking him up each morning at 5 a.m. for conditioning. They watched YouTube loops of versatile big men like Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James. Deandre tirelessly practiced his post moves, footwork and jump shot.

By the time Balboa was ready for its inaugural season, Deandre was a sophomore in high school—and already a star. He’d spent two years on the grassroots circuit—a series of elite-level, amateur basketball showcases—and he dominated. anointed him the best eighth-grader in the nation. After ninth grade, he was just one of five players his age invited to the prestigious LeBron James Skills Academy. Later that summer, back in the Bahamas, he suited up for the Providence Storm in an exhibition against North Carolina on the school’s foreign tour. In the game, a 16-year-old Ayton posted 17 points and 18 rebounds against a frontcourt featuring Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks. UNC coach Roy Williams was in disbelief.

"I don’t think—I know. I’m the No. 1 pick in the draft."

— Deandre Ayton

But those same years had been turbulent off the court. Deandre lived in three different homes—first with Manning, then with a host family and finally with a new coach, Zack Jones. Ryan Stone had hired Jones to help Manning build their basketball program, but the three quickly discovered they couldn’t work together. When Stone sided with Jones, Deandre and Andrea did too. But Andrea would soon regret keeping her son in San Diego.

Within months, Deandre was referring to Jones as his “American dad,” and his Bahamian mom was worried that he was forgetting about his real family. She says she had difficulty reaching her son by phone, and when they did connect, their conversations were curt. Andrea had seen Deandre play on the summer circuit, but she was disappointed when she wasn’t invited to a single game during Balboa’s first season. Suddenly, the shy kid who would, even as a teen, sleep in bed with his mom and play with his younger siblings, now didn’t want to spend much time with his family at all.

A month after Deandre’s visit, Andrea had seen enough. “Things were upside down,” Andrea says. So she flew to San Diego for an intervention. She summoned Deandre to her hotel room and told him they were going to leave together. She got his passport and paperwork, and they decided to flee. “I had to take my child,” Andrea says. “That was never the plan.”

“My head was—I wasn’t screwed up, but I feel like I was shifted away from my family a lot with this basketball stuff,” Deandre says now. “You have people coming around you saying they are family or whatever. They try to keep you away from your real family. That kind of got me.”

Getty Images/Christian Petersen

In February 2016, had dubbed Deandre the No. 1 high school player in the country, regardless of class. But his recruitment, for unexplained reasons, didn’t reflect that. Going into the summer before his junior season, he told reporters that Kansas was the only school in contact with him. Other schools had scattered out of fear that he would prefer to play overseas before turning pro or that his time at Balboa—the school’s courses had yet to be certified by the NCAA—would render him academically ineligible. “I don’t know where that stuff comes from,” Ayton says of the rumors. “People just make up garbage.”

Deandre and Andrea decided that they needed to find a new high school. They eventually settled on the nascent Hillcrest Prep in Arizona, where another top recruit, Marvin Bagley III, who now plays at Duke, had recently enrolled. In the couple of months the two shared the court, Ayton and Bagley averaged more than 60 points a game. But in November, Bagley transferred to Sierra Canyon, leaving Ayton to thrive in the spotlight on his own. A 7-footer with a reliable three-point shot and remarkable ball-handling skills is almost tailor-made for modern basketball. When Ayton showed he could shoulder the load of a team—averaging 29.2 points, 16.7 rebounds and 3.8 blocks a game that season—his recruitment picked back up again.

“People always ask me, ‘What’s different about Deandre?’” Kyle Weaver, who was his coach at Hillcrest and now heads up Bella Vista College Prep in nearby Scottsdale, says. “He will run through a brick wall to win a game. I saw him dive for loose balls when we were comfortably ahead with a minute left, and I saw him do the same when we were down big with no time left. He is fierce. He is tenacious.”

The head coach of the Arizona Wildcats, Sean Miller, just two hours away in Tucson, made sure to take advantage of having the nation’s No. 1 recruit in his neighborhood. He and then-assistant Joe Pasternack (now the coach at UC Santa Barbara) pushed hard to land Deandre, and Ayton warmed up to the idea of being a Wildcat. He liked Arizona’s campus, and he loved the idea of helping Miller get to his first Final Four. (Miller insists that Emanuel “Book” Richardson, the former Arizona assistant who was arrested as part of the FBI’s investigation into bribery in college basketball recruiting, played no part in Deandre’s recruitment.)

Image title

Photo by Associated Press/Ralph Freso

For Deandre, the decision came down to staying close to his mother. “My mom went through too much in my high school years trying to get her son,” Deandre says. “I wasn’t going to make her go cross-country again. I want to put on a show for her every game.”

And put on a show he has. Deandre is the top player in the Pac-12 in offensive rating, and he’s top-10 in the conference in effective field-goal percentage, true shooting percentage, offensive and defensive rebounding rate, block percentage, fouls drawn per 40 minutes and two-point percentage. Pro scouts liken him more to “unicorn” bigs like Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis.

"His skill development is mind-boggling ... uncanny fundamentals."

—Sean Miller, Arizona head coach

Sean Miller says that he expected his prized freshman to be really good, but even he has been impressed by how quickly Deandre has grown into a phenom. “His skill development is mind-boggling,” Miller says. “Pivoting, passing, pure jump shot stroke—things that you have to be trained from second grade, he has. He has uncanny fundamentals. … He’ll have the greatest freshman season in the history of Arizona.”

Andrea—who lives in Phoenix with Deandre’s younger siblings Tian, Serenity and Horace—drives down Interstate 10 to watch every Wildcats home game. With the family so close, Deandre says, he finally feels at home. Before the end of the year, they’ll all follow him to whatever NBA city he lands in. But his ultimate goal isn’t to go pro. “When I sign that second contract, that max deal,” he says, “that’s when I’ll say, ‘Mom, we made it.’”

When Deandre was a little boy in the Bahamas, he would watch the Battle 4 Atlantis basketball tournament on TV with his stepfather. His family could never afford to step foot on the resort, so it took on a kind of mythic quality to him—a paradise reserved for rich tourists. In November, Arizona entered the tournament, and Ayton was eager for a triumphant return to his home country.  

#TheComeUp – The Future of Basketball Issue

PART ONE: Trae Young Is Your Favorite Player's Favorite Player 💦

PART TWO: Meet the NBA's Next Unicorn 🦄

PART THREE: Asia Durr 'Can Be One of the Greatest...Ever' 🐐


What he didn’t realize was that his most lasting memory would come off the court. The Wildcats went 0-3 in the Battle 4 Atlantis and plummeted from their perch as the No. 2 team in the country to outside the Top 25 in a single week. But away from the hotel ballroom where the tournament games are played, Ayton dazzled a different crowd—the students at Mt. Carmel Preparatory Academy in Nassau. He fielded questions from children: They asked him about his shoe size and his wingspan. A staffer then asked Ayton about how it felt to be back home as a budding basketball superstar. “I was looking at all these kids, waiting and leaning forward and anticipating my words,” Deandre says. “They were just staring at me. I told them to put God first and to be prepared to sacrifice. That’s my story.”

In the moment, Deandre remembered what it felt like when he was one of those boys stretching his hand out for a question, or a high-five, from whatever basketball star had shown up at his school or camp. He knew what it took to cross over from the crowd to the center of the court. And that day, he began to understand how much more he had to give. ■

David Gardner is a staff writer for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. Before B/R, he worked for Sports Illustrated and Yahoo! Sports. You can follow him on Twitter: @bydavidgardner.

Click here to get B/R Mag on the go in the B/R app for more sports storytelling worth your time, wherever you are.