The 2018 NBA draft may not be the deepest class in recent memory, but in terms of sheer top-tier talent, it has a chance to become one of the best of this millennium. Potential stars such as Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley III, Trae Young, Michael Porter Jr., Mohamed Bamba and Collin Sexton all come to mind. So too does Arizona freshman big man Deandre Ayton, who has emerged as not only the best prospect, but should also draw favorable comparisons to New York Knicks unicorn Kristaps Porzingis, who unfortunately suffered a devastating injury Tuesday night.
The 7-foot Ayton already possesses a fluid midrange jump shot to go along with sensational athleticism. It’s that athleticism that allows him to finish above the rim, run the floor like a gazelle and switch onto perimeter players defensively with ease. (Ayton and Porzingis played soccer as children, surely honing their footwork on the pitch.)
He has showcased his immense ability against some high-level guards. Take Arizona’s November loss to SMU. Multiple times he was caught in a switch against Shake Milton, who is a future pro himself. Ayton used his Stretch Armstrong length to play a couple steps off, but also moved his feet well enough to thwart Milton’s drives. The same occurred in a recent win over Oregon State and gifted Beavers guard Stephen Thompson Jr.
With that in mind, think about how Porzingis, who is 7-foot-3, does the same things. Their quick feet and rare length (Ayton has a 7-5 1/2 inch wingspan; Porzingis’ is 7-6) help shrink driving and passing lanes while allowing them to bother pick-and-rolls.
“An elite talent, no question,” one NBA GM said of Ayton.
But elite talents don’t always become great pros. Think about the 2015 draft class: top-10 picks like Frank Kaminsky, Emmanuel Mudiay and Justise Winslow were all considered marquee prospects and all have struggled immensely with the transition.
What could ultimately separate the 19-year-old Ayton is an exciting combination of skill level in the paint (including with his back to the basket), paired with excellent physical tools. Kaminsky, for example, had the skills without the tools. Mudiay had the tools without the skills, and Winslow was somewhere in between.
While the hype around Ayton coming to Tucson was palpable — both ESPN and Rivals rated him as the third-best prospect — his production has surpassed even the wildest of expectations. The Bahamas native already has an impressive 15 double-doubles, which surpassed the school’s single-season mark for a freshman. It bears mentioning the names who have passed through the Wildcats program over the years: Gilbert Arenas, Mike Bibby, Richard Jefferson, Andre Iguodala, Aaron Gordon, Jason Terry and 2017-18 NBA Rookie of the Year hopeful Lauri Markkanen.
Watch Ayton play for just a few minutes and one thing that stands out is what basketball junkies often refer to as a “motor.” For someone as big and talented as he is, part of Ayton’s appeal is that he plays with a chip on his shoulder — an edge even — almost like a walk-on with something to prove. He routinely dives on the floor and plays with the necessary nastiness and grit (again, like Porzingis) required to achieve NBA stardom. It’s also why he continues to develop at such a fast rate.
“He has big upside,” a former head coach told Yahoo Sports.
If there is one weakness for Ayton, it’s that he’s not a dominant shot-blocker. Whereas Bamba — the 7-foot freshman at Texas — controls the paint with a video-game-like 4.4 blocks per game, Ayton averages fewer than two. Not bad, but not anywhere near his potential. He is more of a help-side rim protector at this point. Ayton’s robust size, fluid movement and general dexterity suggest he eventually could shut down the paint as well.
As we near Ayton’s first and only March Madness, he ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 in a myriad of statistics, including offensive rating, total rebound percentage, defensive rebound percentage, total rebounds, defensive rebounds and defensive win shares, and is second in defensive rating. He shoots 34.6 percent from beyond the arc and 73.4 percent from the free-throw line, both healthy clips for a teenage center often masquerading as a super-sized four man. (He averages 19.7 points and 10.8 rebounds.)
Ayton’s powerful hands and frame are precisely the canvas that teams like to start with, and he is an unselfish player. (He will routinely make the correct pass out of double-teams, which will serve him well at the next level.) In other words, his learning curve will not be as steep as Bamba’s. “He’s a future All-Star,” one former college coach and well-respected recruiter told Yahoo Sports.
Coming from the Euroleague, Porzingis’ learning curve wasn’t all that steep either. The Latvian soon became one of the league’s most feared offensive weapons because of his ability to stretch the floor — Ayton is nowhere near him in this department yet — drive, post up and excel in the pick-and-roll. The 22-year-old Porzingis also had taken a dramatic step defensively in his third NBA season before tearing his ACL, upping his blocks from two to 2.4 per game , while improving his defensive rating from 107.7 to 105.4.
Ayton, in time, has the capacity to become a similar type of player — a true franchise cornerstone, like Porzingis. It’s why he, too, can become a basketball unicorn and it’s also why he makes for such an interesting NBA prospect with the potential to go first overall in the June draft.
“Deandre Ayton is blessed with great athleticism and strength,” Washington Huskies assistant coach Dave Rice — whose team defeated the Wildcats on Feb. 3 — told Yahoo Sports. “What stands out is his versatility. Offensively, his game is advanced for a freshman — he can score at the rim, runs the floor extremely well and is a consistent mid-range shooter.”
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Jordan Schultz is an NFL, NBA and NCAAB insider/analyst for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at Jordan.Schultz@Oath.com.