A few bleachers were set up inside Precision High’s small gym in south Phoenix for a news conference that officially announced DeAndre Ayton as a McDonald’s All-American.
Almost everybody watching was his family from the Bahamas. Eight strong.
The 7-footer towered over everybody.
In the Bahamas, this is a big news story.
“He is like in the newspaper every week over there,” said Andrea Ayton, DeAndre’s mother.
In Phoenix, one reporter and TV news cameraman showed up for Ayton’s introduction as the state’s first McDonald’s High School All-American since 2007, when Phoenix St. Mary’s guard Jerryd Bayless made the most prestigious team in the nation.
Ever since Ayton came to Hillcrest Prep before his junior season, he has been lauded as the No. 1 prospect in his class in the country. But there has been a huge disconnect in Arizona.
That is mainly because the Arizona Interscholastic Association won’t let the national basketball factory in, not even as an associate member that would let it play top high school teams in the state, the way prep academy Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep is able to do every year in Arizona. Because Findlay has an affiliation with Nevada’s high school association (although it can’t play in its state tournament), the AIA lets Findlay come to Arizona to play its member schools.
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Ayton plays in the national limelight.
But in Arizona, there is no spotlight. There is no pep band playing. No student section engulfing the megastar.
Because the AIA doesn’t recognize Hillcrest, it isn’t being considered for the eight-team Dick’s Sporting Goods High School Nationals at the end of March in New York. Phoenix Shadow Mountain, which is 24-0, is among 12 teams nationally considered for it.
“It’s tough,” Hillcrest coach Kyle Weaver said. “But at the end of the day, we do it for the kids. We don’t do it for the national glory, for the national television. It’s to develop the kids. The whole thing we’re going for is getting these kids better in the classroom, as well as on the court.”
Precision provides the academic side and a court on which to practice. Hillcrest is its own entity, a prep academy that doesn’t have a community celebrating every accomplishment.
That’s OK with Ayton, who knows what he wants, no matter the skeptics.
He insists that he’ll be playing next basketball season at the University of Arizona and wants to get there after the March 29 McDonald’s game at United Center in Chicago.
“I’ll probably just go to the U of A and get into the weight training,” Ayton said about his plans after the McDonald’s game. “Just practice with the team.
“I’m going to the U of A. I’m going to college.”
Asked about her son’s plan to go to college, Andrea said, “Wonderful, I want him to do that.”
Andrea knew her son was destined to big things when he was 9 and already her height at 5-9. DeAndre’s father is 6-9.
“When he was a little kid, he used to stay back from school and watch the high school games,” Andrea said. “I said, ‘Why don’t you do that?’ He kept on doing it. I realized he liked basketball. My husband put up a basketball court. He was just there playing.”
Among his friends in the Bahamas, Ayton stood out.
When he was 12, his mom sent him to the United States to challenge himself on the court. He started out at Balboa City School in San Diego. That private school didn’t start a basketball program until Ayton arrived.
Ayton left to come to Hillcrest, which at the time, featured 6-11 Marvin Bagley III, the nation’s top-rated 2018 prospect, who left Tempe Corona del Sol after leading it to a fourth consecutive state championship after his freshman year.
When Bagley left Hillcrest in November 2015 and moved to California in January 2016, Ayton carried Hillcrest in the program’s two-year national high school start, his inside-outside game drawing comparisons to NBA stars Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis.
This year, he became a leader, a coach on the floor, barking out instructions to teammates, diving for loose balls even when his team was down by 12. He became more relaxed, having fun while averaging 27.9 points, 18.2 rebounds, 3.7 blocks and 3.3 assists, not playing in the final quarter of five games.
Academics weren’t an issue, according to Hillcrest director Matt Allen.
“As of right now, he’s 100 percent ready to go,” Allen said. “‘Bear down,’ is what he says. So, he’s ready to go. He actually might finish (academic requirements) at the end of March.”
Weaver said he believes Ayton’s game will elevate UA to another level.
“It’s a great honor to have our first McDonald’s All-American player two years in,” Weaver said. “The kid is a generational-type player. He’ll change the game like that. He changed the game for us. Right now, we’re 22-6, which is phenomenal. We’ve had four games missing a starter. We didn’t have DeAndre in two losses, and (guard) Josh (Green) in two losses.
“He’s a great kid who has developed so much. He is starting to become a guard. Lately, he is showing he’s a guard. In practice, he’s handling the ball, doing a little step back, becoming that Kevin Durant-type basketball player. He has a hesitation dribble up top and shooting off of it.”
“UA is going to be a monster next year. They’ve got a rare talent. Coach (Sean) Miller is going to use it. They’ll showcase the talents he has. It’s going to be crazy to watch this kid in two years.”
Ayton first wants to finish out high school strong at the McDonald’s game.
“It’s a blessing,” he said. “It shows what my hard work is doing. I just want to be a role model, to be honest, and tell the kids who are on their way, this is the biggest goal of high school. Don’t just stop here. Keep going.”