NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. – DeAndre Ayton’s talent is unquestioned. His ranking as the top high school basketball recruit in the Class of 2017 unanimous. So why in the world would Kansas be the only program actively recruiting the 7-foot-1 star?
That’s what Ayton wanted to know this spring, when he told reporters at an AAU tournament in Indianapolis that everyone but the Jayhawks had backed off in pursuing him. There were concerns about whether he’d skip college – or if academic issues would even allow him to play NCAA ball.
But after going off for 23 points, 18 rebounds and five blocks against 6-foot-11 Marvin Bagley, the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2018, on Thursday at Nike’s Peach Jam, Ayton had some good news about his recruitment.
“Kentucky came back,” he said, “and Arizona.”
UK coach John Calipari and top assistant Kenny Payne had a courtside seat for the Ayton vs. Bagley matchup. They’ve recently reconnected with the former, either because they’re no longer worried about his red flags or he’s just so good that it at least warrants trying.
“They just said they’re hoping we can get a relationship and get things together,” Ayton said. “That’s what they do – they recruit the top players – and they would love to have me at Kentucky.”
Every program in America would like to have the skilled center, who can score with his back to the basket or step out to shoot jump shots and is a holy terror on the glass. He averaged 19.5 points and 11.5 rebounds on Nike’s EYBL circuit this spring and summer.
But Ayton, a native of the Bahamas who began his high school career in California before moving to Hillcrest Prep in Arizona, admits that some classwork slipped through the cracks in the transition. He said he’s taking online courses through Arizona Connections Academy this summer to make up what he missed – and he’ll attend an actual, physical high school as a senior in the fall.
“He didn’t have a stable situation for some time,” Scout.com director of recruiting Evan Daniels said. “Things kind of fell apart with his mentor and the first high school he was at. I just think there’s been a lot going on there. But when you look at DeAndre Ayton as a player, as a prospect, it’s hard to find a better one. So guys are just reexamining him and saying, ‘We might as well recruit this kid.’”
MORE FROM PEACH JAM
- The six Class of 2017 prospects Scout.com’s Evan Daniels believes Kentucky is best positioned to land right now.
- 5-star point guard Quade Green has his Duke and Kentucky offers now. He noticed “a lot of pros on the wall” in Lexington.
- Live updates throughout Peach Jam. Who is John Calipari and his staff watching? Who’s standing out? What are they saying about the Cats? All in one place.
Ayton said he’s been in contact with the NCAA, and the college athletics governing body has told him he’s “on track” to be eligible next season.
And what about the whispers that he might skip college and choose an earlier payday by playing professionally overseas for a year?
“It’s no overseas,” Ayton said. “I’m going to college; it’s a must. I just want to go to college for the experience. 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 environment.”
Kansas probably sits in pole position for his services right now, thanks to never backing off him, but Ayton is not close to making a decision. Both Kentucky and Arizona hold great appeal to the potential top pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
The Wildcats of the West have been “catching my eye,” Ayton said, by pitching his potential to become the storied program’s first No. 1 pick. “I like to hear stuff like that,” he said.
Calipari’s Cats have produced the top pick in the draft three times in the last seven years alone, and that’s attractive, too. They’re telling him – without exaggeration – that he could be their next Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns.
What comes to mind when Ayton thinks about Kentucky?
“Just greatness, to be honest,” he said. “They build NBA players. Everybody that goes there is pretty good, and they just work on them and turn them into NBA players, superstars.”
Assuming all the other noise around him quiets down, Ayton can certainly be one of those. His talent has never been the issue.
“He’s a ridiculous prospect,” Daniels said. “If he consistently plays hard, he’s the best player on the court.”
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