LAS VEGAS — University of Arizona freshman center Deandre Ayton has both a frame and game reminiscent of the centers of a basketball era past. So who to compare him to? David Robinson? Hakeem Olajuwon? Patrick Ewing?
"We were joking around about that, because we don't know who to compare him to," said Arizona guard Rawle Alkins following Arizona's Pac-12 Tournament championship win over USC, March 10 at T-Mobile Arena.
Comparing Ayton to Hall of Famers may be premature, if not unfair. The Arizona center is just 19 years old, a fact easy to forget when seeing the chiseled shoulders that allow him to muscle opponents out of the paint in a manner reminiscent of San Antonio Spurs legend Robinson. And, yes, Ayton's footwork prompted repeated Olajuwon comparisons to Bill Walton, a Hall of Fame center in his own right.
But Ayton also plays in an era dominated by guard play, and these comparisons allude to an era in which teams built from the inside-out.
"He's his own generation's type of player," Alkins said.
Ayton's coming up in a generation defined by historic 3-point shooting, as well as 7-footers — players who would have played on the block three decades ago — now emulating wings. This new breed of center-sized slashers and shooters includes such names as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid.
Ayton consistently makes mid-range jumpers, and has hit on 12 3-pointers. However, his game is much more comparable to the classic style popularized in college basketball during the Golden Age for centers, the 1980s, when superstars like Robinson, Olajuwon, Ewing and Ralph Sampson dominated the paint.
Given Ayton's brand of basketball deviates from the trend, might he quality for the unicorn label?
"The big man version of it, yeah," teammate Allonzo Trier said. "You don't see a lot of guys his size who run like him, jump like him. He's just lab-created."
"If you look at him, he's 7-foot-1, 2, 3, whatever you want to say, and he's 275 pounds and he jumps really high," Trier said. "We expect him to go get every rebound, and a lot of times, he pretty much does it."
Trier's assessment may have been hyperbole. However, given Ayton's 18 rebounds in the championship defeat of USC equaled just one fewer than the Trojans grabbed as a team, he does enough to make one believe the ridiculous is realistic.
"Me and Chimezie [Metu] tried to do everything we could to just contain him," said Trojans center Nick Rakocevic. "[But] I don't think you're going to stop a guy like that.
"He's going to be a top pick in the NBA draft," Rakocevic added.
In what will be his lone season at Arizona — Ayton already declared his intention for this summer's draft — the Bahamas-born big man put on a performance in legion with a more recent star center. He joined current Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star and former UCLA Bruins standout Kevin Love as the only recipient of both the Pac-12/10 Freshman and Player of the Year awards.
With back-to-back performances of 32 points against UCLA and USC in the Pac-12 Tournament — his two highest scoring outputs of the 2017-18 season — Ayton added a third piece of hardware as the event's Most Outstanding Player. He also tallied a combined 32 rebounds in the two games, 14 and 18, each above his lofty season average of 11.5 per game.
"He's probably the best big man in the country," Alkins said. "And he's playing like it right now."
Ayton's uptick in production, which includes a 26-point, 20-rebound performance against Cal on March 3, comes at the ideal time for Arizona. The Wildcats begin the NCAA Tournament Thursday in Boise, Idaho, against Mid-American Conference champion Buffalo, and Ayton's play provides the foundation for Arizona's pursuit of its first Final Four appearance since 2001.
Ayton also has delivered his three most statistically impressive performances of his brief college career since the Feb. 23 release of an ESPN.com report, which alleges the most significant items publicly released from the FBI fraud investigation that led to the arrest of Arizona assistant Book Richardson in September. ESPN reported the alleged existence of a wiretapped conversation between Arizona head coach Sean Miller and ASM Sports runner Christian Dawkins, discussing payment for Ayton.
The report barred Miller from the Feb. 24 game at Oregon, Arizona's last loss, and prompted a stern denial from Ayton's family attorney. Miller returned to the sideline March 1, the same day he made a public statement denying the allegations.
The ordeal's become a rallying cry for the Arizona fan base — Wildcat backers during the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas could be seen in t-shirts declaring things like, "Arizona vs. The World," and perhaps hasty declarations of "Vindicated" — and Ayton's recent play is something of an on-court reflection of that.
"Having the teammates that I have that have my back and knowing that they know that I have their back is a great feeling," Ayton said. "It makes me go all out for them."
Thrust into the center of college basketball's biggest story in decades, while also fast evolving into one of the sport's most exciting big man in years, Deandre Ayton may be the single most intriguing player of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Finding an adequate comparison is a challenge — in the present, or in historical context.
(Photos courtesy of www.arizonawildcats.com)