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Deandre Ayton is not afraid to be the next big thing

From ESPN - January 11, 2018

TUCSON, Arizona -- On July 31, 2017, Arizona gathered at the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium, the practice court decorated with giant photos of the program's former stars who have made a combined $1.25 billion in the NBA.

Sean Miller's team stood there among the school's immortals and prepared for an exhibition trip to Spain. The games would serve as the first taste of organized competition for a squad that added a collection of young talent, including 7-foot-1, 260-pound freshman center Deandre Ayton, a Wooden Award candidate, projected top-three pick in this summer's NBA draft and a likely All-American.

On the first three-man weave drill of the season, Ayton looked different. Different from every player on the court. Perhaps different from any amateur player in America.

He'd added 20 pounds of muscle to his frame during his first two months on campus -- he never lifted weights before college -- and he reduced his body fat percentage from 13 percent to 7 percent.

"I'd been in the weight room before but I never touched nothing," he said. "If I look at it, I am like, 'Dwight Howard ca not shoot.' I did not want to be stiff like him."

In that early practice, he caught an alley-oop from Allonzo Trier that peaked somewhere near the summit of nearby Mount Lemmon. Still, he snatched the ball in midair and dunked with a force that silenced the gym.

"I'd been in the weight room before, but I never touched nothing. If I look at it, I am like, 'Dwight Howard ca not shoot.' I did not want to be stiff like him."

Arizona's Deandre Ayton

He seemed comfortable dribbling on a fast break. He made a couple of 3-pointers and he spun off the block like a cyclone, swift but powerful. He was a big man with the strides of a triple-jumper, moving toward the lane and using his imagination once he arrived.

Some combination of "How'd he do that?" and "What the hell did I just watch?" permeated the room throughout the closed session.

"He almost has a supernatural strength," Miller said. "His mobility is incredible. His love for the game and his intelligence are shocking to me. A lot of times when you are that big, you just have to play basketball. I ca not say enough about how smart he is. And I think that's going to serve him well. He's a talent like I have not seen before."

Ayton left for Spain with the coveted gold jersey packed in his suitcase. It's the honor granted at the end of each week to the Arizona player who demonstrates the best performance in practice. He did not surrender the gold jersey for the next four months, a run of 19 consecutive weeks as Arizona's most impressive performer in practice.

Ayton started his collegiate career with 19 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in Arizona's 101-67 win over Northern Arizona in November, an "unbelievable" performance, per Lumberjacks coach Jack Murphy.

"I do not know if there is one person that compares to Ayton at this stage," Murphy told reporters after the game in Tucson. "Obviously, there have been some special players that have come through here, but Deandre Ayton is a special player."

Others would echo that sentiment throughout the season.

Ayton opened the year with five consecutive double-doubles. His 22-point (10-for-14), eight-rebound performance in Arizona's 89-64 loss to Purdue on Nov. 24 in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament ended the streak.

In the first week of December, however, Rawle Alkins excelled during his first practices after missing two-plus months of action with a broken right foot.

After the last practice before a game against Alabama at the McKale Center, Miller stood in the circle of his players and announced a surprising change.

Ayton had lost his gold jersey to Alkins.

But the young talent just shook his head and repeated, 'No ... no ... no ... no,' as his teammates chuckled. Ayton, who idolizes Kevin Garnett, seemed angered and frustrated.

And that's why he's risen to the top of backboards and mock draft boards in his first two months on campus.

In a battle against UNLV and NBA prospect Brandon McCoy last month, Ayton collected 28 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. He has finished 11 games this season with at least 17 points and eight rebounds.

Per ESPN Stats & Information, he's currently ranked second all-time among Arizona freshmen with 11 double-doubles. The record is 12 (Michael Wright and Al Fleming).

He's also 3-for-5 from the 3-point line in his past seven games.

"You know who he is? Physically, he's like Dwight Howard but more developed at that age," said one NBA scout who has watched Ayton multiple times this season. "But he shoots 3-pointers. He's Dwight with a 3-ball. How crazy is that? We have not seen anybody with that combination. He moves like a 6-5 dude. He's a guy who will make an impact on Day 1. He's a franchise-changer."

Every moment for Ayton is competitive. And giving up the gold jersey felt like failure to a young man who carries his homeland on his back while he strives to create a legacy at Arizona and add his picture to the rafters of the practice gym.

"Not many people come from the Bahamas," he said. "I am representing the whole nation, the whole Caribbean. That's just my motivation."

WHENEVER CHURCH WOULD END in Nassau, Bahamas, she'd wait for her little boy to identify his target. After the Ayton family, devout Seventh-Day Adventists, attended service each week, their spry youngster would entertain friends and family members with his strong sense of humor.

If you had a funny walk, he'd imitate you. If you stumbled on a step, he'd laugh. They'd all crowd around Ayton and giggle.

"Growing up, Deandre would always say he was a star," Andrea Ayton, the Arizona freshman's mother, said. "I never thought it would be basketball. I thought he'd be a comedian."

She and Ayton's stepfather, Alvin Ayton, lived in a small, two-bedroom home adjacent to the impoverished communities the cruise ships tend to avoid when they visit. But they sacrificed and picked up odd jobs to send their son and his siblings to private schools.

"Most people say they are in poverty because they have got a little Android [phone]," Ayton said. "Those people [in the Bahamas] do not have phones. No house phones. People live in wood houses, straw houses. No electricity and barely any water, even though we are surrounded by water. My mom and dad, they really did a good job because they did their best to not show us that part of the world."

Before sports began to occupy his time, Ayton had a love for music.

In the Bahamas, he played the drums in church and school. But that became an expensive passion for the family.

"Every snare drum we'd get, DeAndre would burst," Andrea Ayton said. "He hit it too hard. So they gave him a tenor drum. He could not burst that."

He played soccer until he was 12. Then basketball became a more serious pursuit.

He was an awkward, lanky kid on the court at first. And he had no interest in going through the post drills with the other tall kids.

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