DeAndre Ayton is the consensus No. 1-rated high school basketball player in the Class of 2017. He averages 30 points, 20 rebounds, five blocks and five assists a game, but he doesn’t attend high school, at least not in the conventional sense.
Ayton, a 7-foot, 235-pound power forward, transferred this year from Balboa City High in San Diego to Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix. Hillcrest isn’t a school. It’s a team of elite players, led by Ayton, that plays a national high school schedule against non-traditional high schools. Hillcrest doesn’t have its own building and it doesn’t have any home games. All Ayton’s classes are taken online at Arizona Connections Academy.
In another sport, Ayton’s situation might be normal. Alex Letzt, who won the girls USTA Southwest Junior Closed 18s last summer and is now a freshman tennis player at Southern Cal, graduated from Arizona Connections last year. But Ayton’s route is nearly unheard of for an elite basketball player.
“The negatives are a lot of people have said a lot of things and spread a lot of rumors,” Ayton said. “The positive is I turn negatives into positives and that’s my motor on the court. That’s what drives me. To put a new school, a new program, on the map.”
Hillcrest is the second program Ayton has put on the basketball map. Balboa City didn’t have a varsity basketball team until last season, when he missed much of the season with a broken patella. He averaged 21.1 points, 16.0 rebounds and 3.8 blocked shots for the Force, who finished 16-14.
When he left Balboa City in October to join the No. 1 sophomore, Marvin Bagley III, and his brother Marcus, at Hillcrest, things began to get interesting. In November, Marvin Bagley Jr., then an assistant coach at Hillcrest, withdrew his sons from the school. That was after ESPN declined to televise the team and national rankings, such as USA TODAY’s Super 25, did not rank the Bruins because of their non-traditional schedule.
In January, Hillcrest Prep dropped its academic affiliation with Starshine Academy in Phoenix because the NCAA Eligibility Center website said Starshine did not meet the NCAA’s nontraditional core-course legislation.
“Originally, we were planning on doing it at the school where our housing was (Starshine Academy),” said Hillcrest Prep program director Matt Allen. “We dug in and did research to make sure our kids wouldn’t be affected, so we ended up going to Arizona Connections. Education is very important.
“Arizona Connections is quality education online and it gives us flexibility with our training — three to five hours of basketball and weight training every day, along with the traveling and all those other things. On a non-game day, they’ll get up, take classes from eight to 12 and then sometimes, they’ll get in the weight room from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., then they go on the court from 3 to 5 p.m. After that, there’s dinner and SAT prep time and just relax. It’s a long day.”
Because of the negativity surrounding his situation, Ayton said he isn’t as well known as the No. 1 player in his class should be, although he is known by the top college programs. He recently said his favored colleges include Kansas, Kentucky and Duke but he said he doesn’t plan to make his decision until next spring.
“People don’t know who I am,” Ayton said. “That No. 1 ranking is deserved. Last year, I showed I was the No. 1 player in the country, regardless of class. This year, I’ve surpassed that. This is my year.”
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When Ayton says teams disrespect him, he has made them pay.
Godfrey Rolle, Rashad Davis, and Charles Bain from Sunrise Christian (Bel Air, Kan.) are from the Bahamas like Ayton, so it was a little more personal than usual when Hillcrest Prep played Sunrise on Jan. 23 in Lawrence, Kan. Ayton responded with 52 points (including 11 dunks), 33 rebounds and 10 blocks in a 71-67 victory.
“There was a little personal trash talking on the court,” Ayton said. “Some of their players were from the same place that I’m from, there was some trash talking going on. So I had to, you know.”
Advanced Prep International (Dallas) went 1-2 against Hillcrest this season. In the first matchup, a 69-66 win for Hillcrest, Ayton had 25 points. In the second, a 72-60 win for API, Ayton was held to 15 points. In the last meeting, Hillcrest won 88-81 as Ayton had 35 points and 25 rebounds.
“He’s dominant in the paint,” said API coach Ray Forsett. “He’s a special talent because he can also shoot the three. You have to try to contain him and get him in foul trouble. You have to make him work the whole game to wear him down.”
Ayton is sometimes compared to Canadian phenom Thon Maker, but Ayton is stronger and has a more well-rounded game. He has a high motor for a big man but knows he has work to do.
“I’m putting the ball on the floor a lot better and shooting better,” Ayton said. “On defense, I sometimes take off one or two plays. Or I sometimes predict a play. Stuff like that. I have to keep that motor going.”
The Bruins will end their season in the Grind Session National Championship on March 25-29 in Lawrence, Kan. Hillcrest is one of 12 teams in the tournament, which includes Athlete Institute of Toronto, which features Maker; Prolific Prep of Napa, Calif., which includes Josh Jackson; and 22-foot Academy (Greenville, S.C.), which handed No. 2-ranked Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) its only loss this season.
“Do I have any regrets about this year?” Ayton said. “Uh, no. My leg was broken last year. Now, I am a dog with no mercy.”