Deandre Ayton arrived about 20 minutes before tip-off at Phoenix College on Thursday. He quickly stretched, got loose, clapped hands with Marvin Bagley III. And he was off.
The 7-foot-1, 240-pound junior scored Hillcrest Prep’s first points on a thunderous dunk on a missed shot.
A minute later, he deflected a pass in the lane and finished a break at the other end with a two-handed dunk on a lob pass.
Hillcrest trailed by as many as 19 points to a junior college that won a national championship two years ago, before Bagley, a 6-11 sophomore, playing the point forward, went to work. He made a dazzling array of shots and dunks, feeding Ayton for more dunks, and Hillcrest rallied for an 85-82 exhibition victory.
Their first game together in the books, Ayton and Bagley, the No.1-ranked prospects in the nation in their respective class, acted like they’ve been friends their whole lives, photo bombing each other.
Each scored 30 points, pulled down double-digit rebounds, and showed why Hillcrest is suddenly taking off in its first year as a national high school program.
“It’s pretty chill,” Ayton said about his first few days at his new home. “You feel free as a player. You’re having fun. I love the competitiveness and the talent here. Everybody works hard.”
When Bagley left Tempe Corona del Sol at the start of the school year to follow his dad, Marvin Jr., an associate head coach of the national high school team, he “knocked the door down,” for Hillcrest to achieve a big Nike sponsorship and open up national exposure, said Hillcrest basketball director Nick Weaver.
When Ayton committed early this week on his visit to the Phoenix basketball academy, “he blew the house down,” now creating an even greater national buzz that will lead to national television exposure in its first year.
Ayton coming to Hillcrest also led to the established Southwest prep academy power, Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep to back out of four scheduled games it had with Hillcrest. But it opened the door to getting an invitation to play in the Hoophall West against two out-of-state national powers at Scottsdale Chaparral High in December. One of those could be St. Anthony out of New Jersey.
Hillcrest is located in Phoenix, where the players receiving school from Starshine Academy, which has NCAA accreditation. It is not a part of the Arizona Interscholastic Association. It started out to want to compete with Findlay Prep, which has won national championships.
With Ayton teaming up with Bagley, National Prep Hoops released a revised West Coast Rankings with Hillcrest No.1, Findlay Prep 2, Prolific Prep 3, Sierra Canyon 4 and Mater Dei 5.
The game against Phoenix College doesn’t count. But Hillcrest wants to get a taste of top competition, as Ayton and Bagley get used to each other.
“It feels great,” Bagley said. “I love playing with Deandre. I know where he’s at. I try to get it to him real quick. It will be a fun year.”
As he was saying that, Ayton walked behind the video camera where Bagley was being interviewed in an attempt to photo bomb his new friend and teammate.
“We like to play around,” Bagley said. “Off the court, we’ve become brothers already.”
Ayton and Bagley are different players on the court. Bagley creates more off the dribble, handling the ball like a point guard. Ayton can go from the high to the low post and simply out-muscle players at will for points. They bother alter the game defensively as shot blockers and tenacious rebounders.
“In practice, we feed each other’s games at different positions,” Ayton said. “We play each other on defense, making each other better.”
After getting down by double digits to Phoenix College, Ayton went up to Bagley and said, “Let’s dominate this second half.”
“Marvin can play any position to me,” Ayton said. “He can put the ball on the floor and he can shoot the rock. I just play off of that.
“I just want to be a leader.”
Ayton, who is from the Bahamas, left Balboa City School in San Diego unexpectedly last week, before coming to Hillcrest. He averaged 21 points, 16 rebounds and nearly four blocks last season.
The departure prompted coach Zack Jones to issue a statement that was circulated to the media on Thursday. Jones expressed disappointment, after Ayton had invested five years in his program.
“For us who have helped Deandre Ayton develop into a young man, we specifically feel hurt because he was a part of our family,” Jones said. “My wife and I took him into our home and welcomed him as if he were our own son. We set out to give him the best opportunity to succeed. And we believe we did that.”
Jones felt Ayton was in the best position to succeed as a person and player at Balboa City School, a private school that was not part of the San Diego Section in the California Interscholastic Federation.
“The circumstances that surround his exit are as much a mystery for us as it is to everyone else,” Jones said.