Just a month after announcing his college decision live on SportsCenter, DeAndre Ayton sits back and thinks about his journey. Since his arrival to the United States from the Bahamas in 2011, he’s emerged as the top recruit in the Class of 2017—a title he’s held for the past three years. Leaving his mother and siblings behind at the time was extremely tough. But in the grand scheme of things, living in the States without his family hasn’t even been the toughest part of the process. As his game continued to blow up, so did his name.
“The biggest challenge was blocking everybody out of my mind when I play,” Ayton says. “A lot of tweets go around saying, ‘He’s not eligible for college,’ stuff like that. I’ve had to overcome that. On the court, though, there’s no challenge, to be honest—other than just focusing. I adapted to it. I’ve heard a lot of criticism in my life, ever since I moved out here to the US, but that type of stuff doesn’t bother me. I use it as motivation.”
In an age when misinformation and rumors easily (and quickly) spread through social media, high-profile recruits find themselves having to cope with the constant drum of outside noise. And while it’s one of those “it comes with the territory” situations, Ayton seems to have embraced the chatter with ease.
A 7-foot center armed with explosive athleticism and an inside-outside game that extends out to the perimeter, his skillset has drawn comparisons to the likes of Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. Last season, as a junior, he averaged 29.2 points, 16.7 rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game at Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix while playing a national schedule against America’s top prep programs.
Ayton’s road to becoming America’s top prospect began in San Diego, where he enrolled at the Balboa School in 2011. He remained there until the summer of 2015, when he relocated to the Valley of the Sun to join Hillcrest. The different environments have provided the versatile big with some valuable life lessons.
“Growing up in the Bahamas, I really learned how to appreciate things more for when I moved out to Cali,” Ayton says. “Moving to Cali, the program really helped me to be humble. I was a very lowkey prospect. And moving to Arizona, I made it home.”
Last year, his mother, Andrea, relocated to the US to join him in Phoenix. His siblings followed. Their arrival couldn’t have come at a more perfect time—the noise surrounding his recruitment is louder than ever.
“My mom is my rock,” Ayton admits. “She is my shield. She keeps all my sharks away. I can go anywhere—she has to be with me. Everything goes through my mom.”
Of course, making Arizona his home turned out to be more than a high school decision.
It’s where he plans to suit up for college, too, after giving the Wildcats a verbal commitment in September. His slated arrival in Tucson wasn’t just about choosing a top-ranked program within close proximity. Whittling his options down to Arizona, Kansas and Kentucky, he realized that only one of those coaches had yet to reach a level that the other two had, and he really wanted to change that.
“The second unofficial visit, we went up to Arizona and I told my mom, You know? I really like this program,” Ayton says. “Coach Sean [Miller] has never gone to the Final Four, and I really was thinking about that. I really intend to help him get there—and then lead ‘em to a National Championship. I told my mom, I just want to make history.”
Franklyn Calle is an Assistant Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @FrankieC7.
Portraits by Layne Murdoch