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Shadow world: How Deandre Ayton survived treacherous hoops path to possibly become NBA's top pick

Deandre Ayton will skip across the stage Thursday night, flash his halogen smile and shake commissioner Adam Silver’s hand after his expected selection at No. 1 in the NBA draft. On the surface, it’s a feel-good story of a boy who grew up poor in the Bahamas fulfilling the vast potential that comes with his 7-foot-1 frame. But Ayton’s journey to the No. 1 pick has been anything but idyllic.

He’s arrived at this moment despite the American grassroots basketball system, not because of it. Since moving to California to attend high school in the United States, Ayton’s basketball career has been pockmarked by dueling handlers, schools with questionable academic credentials, sneaker companies competing for his services and seemingly endless drama.

There was enough adult in-fighting, shoe company posturing and positioning for Ayton’s favor that his mother ultimately had to move to America from the Bahamas and uproot him from San Diego. The scene around Ayton became so toxic that few major schools bothered to recruit him, the headaches and risk not worth the considerable on-court impact. “When I stepped foot in the United States,” Ayton said recently to Sports Illustrated, “my life became a job.”

It was a job where he couldn’t earn any piece of what many surrounding him were attempting to siphon off. Ayton’s journey through the shadow economy that is routinely built around elite basketball teenagers in America is unique in the extreme and brazen nature of the opportunism around him. Two separate sources called the Ayton web so complex that it could be its own book. That web is yet another reminder of a flawed American basketball system that despite unprecedented levels of federal and media scrutiny shows few signs of meaningful change.

NBA draft prospect Deandre Ayton poses for a portrait during the 2018 NBA Combine circuit on May 15, 2018 at the Intercontinental Hotel Magnificent Mile in Chicago, Illinois. (Getty)

Condoleezza Rice’s NCAA Commission on College Basketball exploring the ills of the American basketball system has been widely regarded as a dud. The recommendations released in April will lead to changes in the sport, but overall they did little to alter the enduring issue: allowing players access to the massive amount of money they help generate. When Rice was criticized for this after the commission’s report, she awkwardly backtracked in a meek attempt to save face.

One of the biggest shortcomings of the Rice Commission stemmed from not knowing where to look to find the root of the ills of the American basketball system. A panel of accomplished men and women with blue-blood résumés and elite educations had no members from the gritty grassroots level, where shady business gets done. The best way to understand that would be to learn the story of Ayton and his mother, Andrea.

Deandre Ayton’s journey highlights the paradox of amateurism, as a money trail followed him on the high school and AAU circuits and through his one year of college at Arizona.

“Players like [top European prospect] Luka Doncic, their window of opportunity is immediate, they’re free agents from around age 15,” says Sonny Vaccaro, a longtime shoe executive and vocal NCAA critic. “In America, because of the NCAA, we make it a shadow industry. The system forces these kids into bad situations.”

Ayton pops onto radar in stunning fashion

In August 2014, the University of North Carolina played a rag-tag group of locals during a foreign trip to the Bahamas. UNC coach Roy Williams values these trips much more for team building than competition. So when a local organizer for the Providence Storms told Williams he was struggling to get his roster together before the game, it wasn’t too much of a concern. That’s when the local coach mentioned: “Well, we’ve got a young kid we’re going to play.”

That turned out to be 16-year-old Deandre Ayton, who bolted into the gym a few minutes before tip and delivered a 17-point, 18-rebound performance that still has Williams laughing in awe. “Oh my goodness,” Williams said in a phone interview with Yahoo Sports last week. “What he did to my basketball team that day is what he’s done to everyone ever since.”

Ayton led the Storms to one of the most stunning preseason results in college basketball history, upsetting the Tar Heels 84-83. Ayton cracked dunks on a Tar Heel frontcourt that included Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, swished baseline jumpers and showed deft form on mid-range pull-ups.

When Ayton announced himself as a potential superstar prospect on that day in the Bahamas, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was in the locker room. The Bearcats were preparing to play the next exhibition game, but Cronin popped out to watch after his father, former Cincinnati-area high school coach Hep Cronin, told him that UNC was losing and a 16-year-old Bahamian was dominating. Cronin recalls Ayton hitting 3-pointers and blocking shots in his short viewing period. “I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be an interesting handshake line,’ ” Cronin told Yahoo. “Coach Williams is going to be hugging the guy.’ ”

North Carolina had stumbled into a potential recruiting coup, with a chance to make an impression on a prodigy. Yet after Williams and his staff did some homework on Ayton, the Tar Heels never seriously recruited him. “We had some reasons,” Williams said. “I don’t recall what they were.”

They weren’t the only ones to stay out of the Ayton chase. A high-major coach recalls watching Josh Jackson at an Under Armour circuit game in Georgia during the summer of 2015. He saw Ayton on an adjacent court and said to a coach next to him, “Holy God, who the f— is that?” When told it was Ayton, the coach noticed that only three or four coaches were scouting him. “I almost chuckled at the time,” the coach said. “How insane is it that it’s got to the point where the guy is clearly going to be the No. 1 pick in the draft and no one is recruiting him?”

But that was exactly the case, as concerns about the scene around Ayton, his academics and the potential of him going overseas for a year scared away recruiters. UCLA watched him early, but never was considered a serious contender for his services. Kentucky offered a scholarship and was reported to be a finalist, but it was never considered to be seriously involved. Texas steered clear. Arizona ignored him until the end of his junior year, as he eventually visited twice unofficially. (Ayton took no official visits, according to Rivals.com.)

“Right now, it’s Kansas. That’s it,” Ayton told the Louisville Courier-Journal in April of his junior year. “I’m only seeing Kansas right now. I don’t know [why]. The word is I’m not going to college or something, but I say college is a must.”

Ayton’s treacherous grassroots/AAU journey 

In the fall of 2015, Deandre Ayton and projected top-five draft pick Marvin Bagley III played together for Hillcrest Prep (Phoenix), an archetype of the overnight basketball powers that have popped up to dominate the high school basketball landscape the past decade. They spent about two months on the same team – dominating competition by combining for 60 points per game – before Bagley bolted for another high school in California. Their divergent paths from their time together in 2015 illustrates the difference between being sophisticated enough to exploit the grassroots basketball system, as opposed to being exploited by it.

Bagley’s father brokered a deal to run his own elite Nike AAU team and the family managed resources well enough to afford to live in a home that an Oregonian report valued between $750,000 and $1.5 million. It was quite a lifestyle upgrade. The Bagleys moved to California from a working-class area in Phoenix. They’d declared bankruptcy in 2008 with a reported combined income of less than $50,000 annually, the Oregonian reported.

Andrea Ayton, moving to a new country and knowing little about basketball, didn’t have the same savvy to manipulate grassroots basketball. Deandre’s path to the pros is littered with bungling handlers and opportunistic sneaker companies vying to control a prospect who couldn’t profit off his own ability.

“One of the lessons of Deandre’s story is the buffoonery involved with the people around him,” said Dinos Trigonis, a veteran West Coast event operator. “It’s like the futures market, except they’re betting on kids becoming the next big thing.”

Kansas and Kentucky were in the running to sign Deandre Ayton before he ultimately chose Arizona in a surprise. (Getty)

Chronicling Ayton’s journey through the underworld is complex. There are conflicting accounts and agendas, with finger pointing much more common than admissions of motive. One person directly involved in Ayton’s high school life estimated there were at least seven people trying to control him at various times, stressing that number could be considered conservative. “With the amount of people trying to pimp that kid,” said the source with direct knowledge, “if he and the mother ever told their story – the whole story – that thing is a book.”

Ayton’s voyage began seven years ago in the Bahamas, when the 12-year-old flashed raw ability competing against older players at the Jeff Rodgers basketball camp in Nassau. Among those impressed was Larnelle Johnson, a Bahamas native who at the time was serving as an assistant coach for a professional basketball team in Mexico under former NBA guard Reggie Jordan.

Johnson put Ayton’s family in touch with Jordan. Jordan referred the family to Shaun “Ice” Manning, a veteran West Coast grassroots presence who at the time was in discussions with San Diego real estate magnate and philanthropist Ryan Stone about the possibility of forming a basketball program for elite prospects. At Manning’s request, Stone agreed to fly Ayton to San Diego from the Bahamas for a private workout.

“His jump shot, his footwork, his athletic ability, it was awesome,” Stone said. “The deal we made with his mother was that we were going to give him a great education to prepare him for college and train him every day to help him realize his potential.”

Ayton enrolled at Balboa City School in San Diego, a curious choice on the surface. The tiny, high-priced private school didn’t have enough players to field a basketball team at the time, nor did it even have a gym on campus.

Stephen Parker founded the school in 1991 as a refuge for “gifted underachievers” — kids whose families could afford to pay for a fresh start for them after they got in trouble or struggled academically in public school. In 2012, Stone persuaded Parker to allow him to attempt to launch a premier basketball program at the school, with Manning and Balboa School executive director Zack Jones at the helm and Ayton serving as the first building block.

“The school was created to help kids like Deandre,” Stone said. “The goal was to give them the best of both worlds, world-class basketball training and an excellent private school education.”

Manning is an eccentric figure, best known in basketball circles for ties to former NBA player Jeremy Tyler and current prospect Brandon McCoy. Ayton initially lived with Manning, who trained him and acted as his guardian. Manning is proud of the work he did with Ayton over the nearly two years he lived with him and hasn’t been surprised by what’s unfolded since. “There were definitely people making money off him, attempting to make money of him, using him and attempting to use him,” Manning told Yahoo last week.

When he and Jones had a falling out not long into their partnership, Manning lost the power struggle. Jones became the coach at Balboa School, ran Ayton’s grassroots program and eventually had Ayton move in with him. The typical prodigy economy began building around Ayton, as Under Armour sponsored both Balboa School and Supreme Court, the grassroots program centered around him. Jones coached both and was quoted on SI.com in 2015 saying Under Amour “stepped up big time,” and the company’s moves showed how much they valued Ayton. Balboa went from not having a team Ayton’s freshman year – he focused on skill development – to a national schedule and a foreign showcase his junior year. Under Armour’s former grassroots executive Nick Blatchford was a familiar face on campus and at games. But the apparel company’s big investment ended up being one of the more embarrassing wastes of money in recent grassroots history. (Blatchford declined comment, and an Under Armour spokesman said the company didn’t want to comment pending the ongoing federal investigation.)

After Ayton played for Balboa in a showcase in Germany in the fall of 2015, Ayton returned to San Diego and his mother pulled him out of the school. Andrea Ayton became uncomfortable with how close her son had become to Jones. “She felt like she was losing her kid,” said a source with direct knowledge of the situation. But his departure from Balboa wound up triggering an uptick in the activity around Ayton.

There’s still lingering bitterness in San Diego over Ayton’s withdrawal from Balboa. Jones called it “surprising and disappointing,” and Stone told Yahoo Sports last week that Ayton’s decision to leave was unfortunate. Asked why Ayton would leave so abruptly, Stone said, “I don’t think it was Deandre’s choice to leave Balboa.”

No one will dispute the assertion that the whole thing ended up a mess. Shoe companies scrambled, as his break-up with Jones meant a break-up with Under Armour. Eventually, the NCAA began poking around.

“There was constant jockeying for control and influence over DeAndre and his family,” said former Balboa coach Ollie Goulston. “Amateur basketball has become such a business, and the crazy part is that the adults are positioning themselves to benefit while often times the kids don’t even know what’s going on or even have a say in the decisions that impact their future.”

Andrea moved with her son to Phoenix, and eventually brought her other three children from the Bahamas to live there. Around the same time, an underground figure on the West Coast known to tie himself to top prospects, Mel McDonald, began hovering around Ayton. (McDonald eventually moved on to Oregon signee Bol Bol, a top player in the 2018 class, accompanying him to USA Basketball junior national minicamp in October.)

The Aytons soon parted ways with both Johnson and McDonald. (McDonald said he had “zero comment” on Ayton when reached on Tuesday. Johnson didn’t return multiple outreaches for comment.) After years of third-party battles for control, Andrea and Deandre Ayton essentially attempted to figure things out themselves.

“A lot of people aren’t equipped and aren’t knowledgeable in a basketball recruiting sense, and many are financially vulnerable to the temptation,” Trigonis said. “A lot of them find refuge and resources from the outer-tier of NBA strata of runners [for agents] and money managers who are using other people’s money and deep pockets to gamble on someone making it.”

How Ayton got back on track

Deandre Ayton’s trajectory was restored during his lone season at Arizona, and his career is back on target to fulfilling his potential.

He’s on track to make hundreds of millions of dollars, and none of the early handlers and competing middlemen appear to have survived. Trigonis points out the inherent economic dangers of those who attempt to attach themselves to talented teenagers: “There’s always bigger sharks waiting.”

Ultimately, the Aytons seem to have escaped the sharks. (The Aytons declined comment Tuesday through their agency, Bill Duffy Associates.)

For his NBA future, the most troubling part of Ayton’s journey through American grassroots basketball was that it stunted his development as a player and put his academic credentials at risk. He ended up playing AAU for Nike-sponsored Cal Supreme and finished his final two years at Hillcrest, the pop-up school in Arizona, despite that school essentially needing to switch educational providers in order for the NCAA to accept its grades. (That was part of the reason Bagley left Hillcrest, according to reports at the time). Ayton’s effort fluctuated, his game stagnated and he often expressed poor body language. Recently, he summed his experiences playing AAU to Sports Illustrated this way, “I don’t even want to talk about AAU. AAU was a bunch of s—.”

Deandre Ayton found a place to get his basketball career back on track with Sean Miller at Arizona. (Getty)

Josh Gershon, a national recruiting analyst for 247 sports, said watching Ayton proved both tantalizing and maddening. “He’s one of the best high school basketball prospects I’ve ever seen, and he was also frustrating to watch,” Gershon said. “He had that pure physical ability, but so often didn’t use it close to his full capacity. You can only watch that for so many years and not want more from him and want him to want more from himself.”

Ayton’s fulfilled potential arrived when he got to Arizona. But so did another helping of controversy. Ayton’s limited collegiate options, in part because of the cacophony of handlers around him, made Arizona the winner in part by default. The Wildcats hadn’t recruited him at all until after his junior year at Hillcrest, and Andrea Ayton wanted to stay settled in Phoenix.

Some of the skepticism whether Ayton would become eligible was valid. His eligibility case sputtered through the NCAA’s amateurism clearing process, which flooded the Aytons with logistical questions. Ultimately, multiple sources with knowledge of the NCAA process said a main reason why Ayton was cleared to play at Arizona was that the NCAA took into account that he essentially didn’t have control or knowledge of anything going on in his recruitment. In other words, they showed some empathy because of the severity of everything going on around him. They decided to judge him once Andrea Ayton came over to care for him in the fall of his junior year, which eventually led to a quiet period in his recruitment.

“Few prospects who’ve come through the grassroots system the past decade needed it less than Deandre Ayton,” said Gershon. “He dealt with a lot. It’s hard to say that anything [from high school or AAU] helped him significantly. In fact, we saw the biggest development once he got away from it all [at Arizona] and focused on school and basketball and not wondering what all the people around him want.”

On the floor, Ayton finally found consistency. His body transformed, as he weighed 242 pounds with 11 percent body fat when he arrived and quickly changed to a chiseled 261 pounds with 5.2 percent body fat. He grew strong enough to bench 185 pounds 19 times, jump 43.5 in max vertical and he measured a 7-foot-5 wingspan.

He finished his freshman year averaging 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds, his combination of power and touch making him the clear-cut top player in college basketball.

But the season featured plenty of controversy. Early in Ayton’s freshman season at Arizona, the program ended up in the middle of the federal basketball scandal. Assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson got arrested in September amid the sweeping probe. (Richardson, who was fired, wasn’t heavily involved in Ayton’s recruitment.)

Ayton ended up as the centerpiece of the next Arizona controversy. ESPN reported in February that Arizona head coach Sean Miller was caught on an FBI wiretap discussing “paying $100,000 to ensure star freshman Deandre Ayton signed with the Wildcats.” Arizona never suspended Ayton. Miller, after a one-game absence, ended up emphatically denying the ESPN report. The report was scrutinized and criticized, leading to multiple timeline corrections. Awkwardly, Ayton was asked in an ESPN video interview recently about how did he “process that entire situation.” He answered: “It was something to really overcome.”

This week, Ayton got the last laugh on those who wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars and an untold amount of energy trying to control him. Days ahead of finally being drafted, he announced a shoe deal with Puma — until now a complete non-entity in American basketball.

In the end, Deandre Ayton overcame grassroots basketball far more than he was helped by it. Now that he’s made it through that corrupt system, the  Rice Commission might want to ask him for an exit interview.

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