USA TODAY High School Sports is publishing a series called “The Class of 17,” highlighting 17 members of the Class of 2017 whom we will be watching in the coming year. The athletes were selected by the USA TODAY HSS staff.
Name: DeAndre Ayton
School: Hillcrest Prep, Phoenix, Ariz.
Position: Power forward
For the No. 1-ranked player in his class, DeAndre Ayton was relatively unseen this past winter because his high school team didn’t get to play in many major tournaments.
The 7-foot, 247-pound power forward made up for that with a big summer, helping California Supreme reach the semifinals at Nike’s Peach Jam, averaging 19.5 points 11.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks over a 16-game EYBL season, then leading Team Harden with 13 points and 14 rebounds in a 123-96 win against Team Canada in the championship at the Adidas Nations in early August in Garden Grove, Calif.
At Peach Jam, he outplayed the No. 1 2018 prospect, Marvin Bagley, with 23 points and 18 rebounds to Bagley’s 15 points and seven rebounds.
“This summer is the best I’ve ever played,” Ayton said. “I led the team with a lot of positivity and I just kept pushing and tried not to take off plays. … At Adidas Nations, it was a lot of fun. That team was stacked. We had no problems and everybody shared the ball.”
Hillcrest Prep coach Matt Allen said while it was great that Ayton played well over the summer, the big focus for him was his academics. Hillcrest Prep has no classrooms. Ayton takes his classes online at Arizona Connections Academy. Allen said Ayton has maintained a 3.2 grade-point average and is working hard to make sure he’s eligible academically for college.
“His parents want him to go to college,” Allen said. “He’s good enough that he could (skip college and play a year internationally) like Emmanuel Mudiay, but they really want him to go to college. He has five credits to graduate and will need to take four to six classes as a senior. He’s scheduled to take the SAT in October and December.
“When you have the No. 1 player in the country, you need to make sure he’s eligible for college. If he isn’t, it falls on us.”
Ayton, who is from Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, said he took two classes this summer, Algebra II and English II, and he plans to take six classes in the upcoming school year.
“I’m all caught up with what I have to do,” Ayton said.
Ayton has been clear that college is “a must.”
“I just want to go to college and get the experience.” he said recently. “I really want to win a national championship. Get a chance, even though I’m one and done. I would love to be in that atmosphere.”
Ayton has said that he needs to work on his consistency. Against Mohamed Bamba in the EYBL opener in Brooklyn in April, Ayton had seven points and five rebounds to Bamba’s 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Allen agrees that Ayton needs to work to keep his motor going at full speed. Part of that is knowing when he needs a break.
“He plays a lot in the summer,” Allen said. “He’s a big guy and sometimes his knees will hurt and people will think he’s not trying. My thing is working on his mindset. When he’s focused on being 100 percent, he’s dominant. He’s the most naturally gifted player I’ve seen.”
That upside that explains why he’s the top player in his class.
“If you take his ‘A’ game and compare it with everyone else’s ‘A’ game he’s slightly better and he’s got more upside,” ESPN recruiting director Paul Biancardi told USA TODAY Sports’ Jason Jordan. “We still think he’s overall the best player in the class and he’s had great performances all summer.”
Expect Ayton to to have a higher profile this winter as Allen said the team has gotten invites from The City of Palms, the Marshall County Hoopfest and the Spalding Hoophall Classic.
“People are going to see who Hillcrest really is,” Ayton said. “Last season, we really didn’t get to show that.”