At this point, it almost doesn’t matter whether or not Deandre Ayton received a payment from Arizona or another affiliated party during his recruitment. As the second trial in the FBI’s college basketball corruption case continues in Manhattan, Ayton’s name has become synonymous with the black market perpetuated by wildly antiquated NCAA bylaws that continues to determine talent distribution in the sport.
Arizona has been involved in this mess since the very beginning, when assistant coach Book Richardson was arrested in the feds’ initial probe. Ayton’s name entered the mix a few short months later as ESPN dropped a massive report detailing a wiretapped conversation where Sean Miller allegedly discussed a $100K payment to procure Ayton. The timeline of that initial report didn’t match up with Ayton’s recruitment, and ESPN had to issue a correction.
Ayton’s name has come up again this week as another trial started in Manhattan. This time, $10K per month is the number in question. A wiretapped phone call between Richardson and disgraced agency runner Christian Dawkins was played in court, which inferred that’s how much Miller paid Ayton while he was at Arizona.
”We’ll see how Sean plays it out,” Dawkins said.
”You know what he bought per month?” Richardson asked.
”What he do?” Dawkins asked.
”I told you -- 10,” Richardson replied.
”He’s putting up some real money for them [expletive],” Dawkins responded. “He told me he’s getting killed.”
”But that’s his fault,” Richardson said.
Like almost everything else that has come out during this trial, the recording feels damning but not exactly concrete. Perhaps Miller and Arizona will wiggle their way out of this only to welcome another top-ranked recruiting class next year. Regardless, the court of public opinion seems to have already made up its mind. If you Google Ayton’s name right now, no one is talking about his productive rookie season for the Phoenix Suns. Every result is about whether or not he got paid under the table in college.
Maybe Ayton did get a payment, somewhere between $10K per month or $100K total. We’ll likely never know for sure. But even if it’s true, one thing is for sure: Arizona got a bargain.
Ayton was worth way more than $10K per month for Arizona
Let’s put it in basketball terms first.
Ayton was the consensus No. 1 recruit in the class of 2017. Even dating back to when he was a sophomore in high school, Ayton was considered by some as the best prospect in the country regardless of class.
Miller had already established himself as one of the top recruiters in the sport by this time. In April of 2016, we wrote that Arizona was pulling more five-star prospects than any program but Duke and Kentucky. Then he landed Ayton.
Arizona had earned past commitments from big-time talents like Aaron Gordon, Lauri Markkanen, and Stanley Johnson, but Ayton was at a level above even them. For a program that was running the Pac-12 at that point but had yet to get past the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament, Ayton was a symbol that Arizona could now compete with any program in the country. They had national title expectations as soon as he arrived on campus.
Arizona stood to make a ton of money with Ayton. So did Sean Miller.
The NCAA makes more than $1 billion in revenue from basketball, with most of it coming from its TV deal with CBS/Turner. College basketball have a fascinating arrangement where that money is doled out to universities based on performance.
Just by making this year’s tournament, a school earns its conference a projected $1.67 million over the next six years, broken into annual payments from the NCAA that will start with $260,500 in 2016. A run all the way to the Final Four earns five units, or an estimated $8.33 million, which is the maximum for most teams. The NCAA stops awarding units after the national semifinals.
Arizona did make the tournament as a No. 4 seed with Ayton, who was the team’s best player by a wide margin and easily one of the best players in the country. Arizona also saw its attendance numbers go up to an average 14,000 fans per game, which was top-15 in the country and only slightly behind BYU for the best of teams in the western portion of the country. That’s without factoring in merchandise that was moved because of players like Ayton.
Landing Ayton meant Miller was in line for a big pay day, too.
Miller is only the No. 31 highest earning DI coach according to USA Today, taking home a salary of $2,700,000 per year that comes with large bonuses tied to performance. Yes, Ayton’s presence could have helped Miller hit those bonuses. But even more than that, this is a sport where one great run can immediately get you paid. Just look at Chris Beard’s new deal after leading Texas Tech to the national title game.
Yes, Arizona fell short with Ayton. The money they paid him is still a pittance.
By now, you know how this story ends: Arizona was upset by No. 13 seed Buffalo in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. As we wrote at the time, it was the final nail in how Arizona’s dream season turned into a nightmare.
Even after the loss, Ayton was still worth whatever he was allegedly paid. He gave Arizona a serious chance to finally break through to the Final Four. He gave Miller the opportunity to show he could compete with any head coach in the country. The earning potential through NCAA tournament units and raises/bonuses to Miller may not have come through, but Ayton still brought so much value to the program and its head coach.
More than anything, you can bet Ayton’s value would have been much, much greater than $10K per month on the free market. He’s made more than $8 million per year as a rookie in the NBA, and even that doesn’t show his true market value. NBA rookie contracts are slotted based on where you’re drafted. If the NBA had rookie free agency, Ayton would probably be earning twice that.
We may never know for sure if Ayton actually did get money from Miller and Arizona. One thing we do know is that, if he did get paid, he was well worth it.