When DeAndre Ayton sat down to announce his college choice live on SportsCenter Tuesday evening, no one expected him to pull out an Arizona hat. Kansas was the overwhelming favorite to land the No. 1 basketball recruit in the country and Kentucky was the program with late buzz. Arizona, for its part, had exactly zero predictions logged for Ayton on 247 Sports’ Crystal Ball.
Kansas was the school that had sent an assistant to see Ayton play every game since ninth grade. It was the only school even recruiting him as recently as April, according to Ayton himself. This was always a bizarrely quiet recruitment that seemed ripe for a surprise ending. Once the initial moment of shock passed, Arizona made perfect sense.
To anyone paying attention, there’s nothing surprising about Sean Miller getting a commitment from an elite recruit. Miller has made a habit of pulling in more five-stars than anyone this side of Duke and Kentucky in recent years. Something about Ayton is different, though, and it represents the chance for Miller to take the program to heights he’s yet to reach.
For all of his success, Miller has also had some bad luck with top recruits. Consider:
- Josiah Turner: Ranked No. 14 in the class of 2011, Turner lasted only one season at Arizona before being asked to leave school amid drug and alcohol problems.
- Grant Jerrett: The No. 11 recruit in 2012 came and went without ever making a real impact on the college game. Jerrett averaged just over five points per game as a freshman and promptly declared for the draft, where he was a second-round pick.
- Ray Smith: The No. 18 recruit in class of 2015 tore his ACL the weekend before committing to Arizona in July of 2014, then tore his ACL again once he arrived on campus the next October.
- Terrence Ferguson: Ranked No. 12 in 2016, Ferguson gave Arizona his commitment in April before deciding to play professionally in Australia in June amid whispers of eligibility concerns.
Most programs would do anything to land a top-20 recruit in the RSCI. Arizona had three in six years that didn’t pan out, plus Smith’s hard luck with injuries up to this point. It’s a testament to Miller that he’s still been able to pull in enough talent to power three runs to the Elite Eight and a trip to the Sweet 16. Now he’s eying what comes next.
Ayton is a cut above anyone Miller has signed before — and that includes Stanley Johnson (No. 3 in 2014), Aaron Gordon (No. 4 in 2013) and Kaleb Tarczewski (No. 7 in 2012). Even with a strong push from Michael Porter Jr., Ayton is likely to end the year as the No. 1 recruit and become the way-too-early favorite to be the first pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. This is the superstar Arizona has been waiting for.
Ayton will enter college basketball as the best freshman big man since Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor debuted in 2014-15. Towns’ team started 38-0 before losing in the Final Four and Okafor’s team won it all. Arizona will have similar aspirations with Ayton because they’ll have a big man no other team can match up with. He looks like an evolutionary talent who could represent the game’s next step.
From the moment he posted 17 points and 18 rebounds in an exhibition game against North Carolina as a 16-year-old, it’s been clear Ayton is special. He earnestly compares himself to Kristaps Porzingis and mentioned Kevin Garnett by name when he committed Tuesday. The common thread there is versatility, and it’s the same thing that makes Ayton’s game so exciting.
Garnett became a phenom for flashing the skills of a wing in the body of 7-footer when he entered the NBA in 1995. Porzingis is doing the same thing now with an unprecedented combination of three-point shooting and shot blocking. Towns is somehow even more tantalizing, giving the impression that he might be the best young player of his generation after one season in the NBA.
Ayton is expected to fit into a similar mold. He’s a graceful athlete for a player with a strong 245-pound frame, phenomenally quick off the floor and blessed with a 7’5.5 wingspan. He’s quick and coordinated in ways men with his size shouldn’t be. His outside shooting stroke is promising, too. That’s why Scout.com has had him as the No. 1 long-term prospect in all of high school basketball since he was a sophomore.
If the inevitable answer to small ball is finding big guys who can play with the skill of smaller players, Ayton represents that next frontier. He gives Arizona a primary option from the moment he enrolls in school and could be dominant on the defensive end if he buys in. Consistent effort has been a question mark for Ayton over the last two years, but no one doubts his talent.
This has been a long time coming for Arizona, and it happened at a time when the program is desperate to take the next step. The next time Miller lands the best-of-the-best on the recruiting trail, it won’t be a surprise.