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. Ballislife.com 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.”