DeAndre Ayton's long road from Bahamas project to No. 1 prospect

Tip-off was only minutes away, and DeAndre Ayton wasn't sure he'd make it in time.

The tall, lanky 16-year-old burst through the gym doors, apologized to his coach for being late and threw on a jersey just in time to deliver one of last summer's most remarkable performances.

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• June 23: Teenager Kaylin Whitney hailed as America's next great sprinter
June 30: Linebacker has 11 scholarship offers before starting high school
• July 2: DeAndre Ayton's long road from Bahamas project to basketball's No. 1 prospect
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In an exhibition game pitting a hastily assembled collection of Bahamas natives against a highly regarded University of North Carolina squad, it was Ayton who was most responsible for swinging the outcome in favor of the underdogs. The 7 footer embarrassed the older, stronger Tar Heels by outworking them on the glass and outmaneuvering them around the basket even though he was still three years away from even graduating high school.

Ayton's 17-point, 18-rebound performance helped doom North Carolina to an 84-83 loss in the opener of its exhibition tour of the Bahamas last August, a stunning result considering the discrepancy in talent between the two teams. The preseason top 10 Tar Heels featured six former McDonald's All-Americans. The most accomplished members of the Bahamas squad besides Ayton played a few years at obscure colleges or in far-flung professional leagues.

"That was one of the most fun games I've ever played in," Ayton said. "I was beating guys off the dribble, I was shooting jumpers and I was grabbing rebounds over everyone. Every time I scored a basket or got a rebound, I'd look at their head coach. He was red and he was mad."

Roy Williams probably won't be the last college coach to nearly blow a blood vessel searching for ways to contain Ayton. The supremely gifted big man has a stranglehold on the consensus No. 1 spot in class of 2017 rankings thanks to a combination of length, athleticism and mobility reminiscent of a young Kevin Garnett.

Ayton is a threat to score in a myriad of ways, whether by displaying soft touch in the paint, by burying mid-range jump shots or by beating lumbering big men down the floor for transition dunks. He's also a multifaceted weapon on defense, quick enough to switch onto speedy opposing guards after a perimeter ball screen yet also effective in the paint altering shots and protecting the rim.

Almost every high-profile college program has offered Ayton a scholarship, from Kentucky, to Duke, to Kansas, to Arizona. Scout.com named him its No. 1 overall high school prospect regardless of class last February while he was still a sophomore, a title he'll try to defend the next few weeks by performing well during the three-week July evaluation period.

"If he's not the best prospect in all of high school basketball, he's definitely in the conversation," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi said. "What stood out to me was how he did against North Carolina last summer. He was playing against high-level college players and future pros and he dominated. He did that before he'd even started his sophomore year of high school, so he's definitely a big-time prospect."

A player of Ayton's caliber hailing from the Bahamas reflects the inroads basketball has made in a nation better known for producing world-class sprinters than hoops phenoms.

Ex-Los Angeles Lakers forward Mychal Thompson is the only notable NBA player from the Bahamas, but the country has exported an impressive amount of hoops talent in recent years. Reigning Big 12 player of the year Buddy Hield, Michigan State point guard LouRawls Nairn and Houston forward Danrad Knowles were each teenagers in the Bahamas when word of their natural ability began to spread, opening doors for them to pursue basketball in the United States.

The story of how Ayton got to San Diego is very similar.

Already about 6-foot-6 by age 12 yet fast enough to run the floor like a guard, Ayton flashed unpolished but undeniable potential competing against older players at the Jeff Rodgers basketball camp in Nassau. Among the counselors Ayton impressed at the camp was Larnelle Johnson, an assistant coach under former NBA guard Reggie Jordan with Fuerza Regia of Mexico's top professional league.

DeAndre Ayton (Photo by Kelly Kline/Under Armour)
DeAndre Ayton (Photo by Kelly Kline/Under Armour)

Johnson told Jordan about Ayton's raw ability. Jordan relayed the scouting report to a friend in San Diego attempting to launch an elite basketball program at one of the city's smallest private schools. Pretty soon Ayton's parents were deciding whether or not to accept an invitation to send their son to live with strangers in an unfamiliar city 2,500 miles away.

"It was a blessing, so we took the opportunity and ran with it," DeAndre's father Alvin Ayton said. "It was very difficult [to let DeAndre leave] at first but he was happy so we were happy too."

Two of the people most involved in Ayton's life during his first couple years in San Diego were coaches Shaun Manning and Zack Jones, both of whom were working together to turn Balboa City School's fledgling basketball program into a destination for top prospects.

Manning, who initially became Ayton's legal guardian, was a successful AAU coach with ample experience grooming young big men, most notably ex-NBA center Jeremy Tyler. Jones, who also coached and mentored Ayton, previously won two state championships at San Diego's Horizon High School and also coached at San Diego City College and Liberty University.

In the roughly two years that Ayton lived with Manning, the coach insists he and his fiancee treated the boy as though he were their own son. They took him to church twice a week. They introduced him to new types of food. And above all else, they encouraged him not to neglect his academics.

For Ayton, everything was an adjustment, from being separated from his parents, to incorporating green vegetables into his diet, to adapting to San Diego's temperate climate. Even the diversity in Ayton's new city was unfamiliar to him.

"We didn't see too many white people in the Bahamas," Ayton said with a chuckle. "At first I was like, 'Whoa, is this real?' The only time I'd ever seen anything like it was on TV."

The smoothest aspect of Ayton's transition was actually the basketball part.

Eager to bring more to the court than merely height and athleticism, Ayton worked tirelessly with both Manning and Jones to elevate his skill level. What impressed both men most was they never had to hassle Ayton about practicing his post moves or taking extra jump shots because he always had a voracious appetite to improve.

"Basketball is something DeAndre really wanted and really worked for," Manning said. "When everybody else was sitting down, he would still be up shooting jumpers, working on post moves or asking for advice. He'd watch an NBA game and if there was a move he really liked, he'd work until he incorporated it into his own game."

Once Ayton improved his timing as a shot blocker and became more comfortable sinking mid-range jumpers and scoring with his back to the rim, his stock quickly rose. By his freshman year at Balboa City, college coaches were inquiring about him, his YouTube highlight videos were attracting hundreds of thousands of views and many outlets were anointing him the No. 1 prospect in his class.

DeAndre Ayton dunks against North Carolina last summer (courtesy of 10thyearseniors.com)
DeAndre Ayton dunks against North Carolina last summer (courtesy of 10thyearseniors.com)

At about the same time as Ayton began generating nationwide buzz, Manning and Jones had a falling out and their relationship became irreparable. Manning left Balboa City with the intention of remaining Ayton's coach and legal guardian. Ayton instead stayed at Balboa City, essentially severed ties with Manning and moved in with Jones.

"I'm a better person because of it, to be honest," Ayton said. "Two years ago, I was very young, very immature, but when I moved in with Coach Zack, he just sat me down and told me, 'You're not a regular kid. You can't just do anything. You're 7-foot and all eyes are on you. You do one thing wrong, and it's going to be everywhere, viral.' Now I just take my time and think before I speak or before I do."

The transition between mentors certainly didn't alter Ayton's basketball trajectory, which reached its apex last summer when Ayton outplayed many of the top big men in the classes of 2015 and 2016 at Nike's LeBron James Skills Academy and then more than held his own against top college competition. A few days before his brilliant performance against North Carolina, Ayton also put up 15 points and six rebounds in an exhibition loss to Ohio State.

It would be easy for a 16-year-old kid to grow satisfied or complacent after a summer like that, but Jones insists Ayton returned from his visit to the Bahamas as hungry as ever.

Ayton woke up on his own without complaint for daily 6 a.m. workouts until a knee injury sidelined him for three months earlier this year. The layoff only made him more determined to shake the rust off and regain his feel for the game in time to play to his capability on the summer circuit.

"He's a workaholic," Jones said. "If he sets his alarm for a certain time, he's usually up and dressed before it goes off. That tells me he's motivated. Whenever you have a young man who's passionate about what he's doing, it's everything. Parents can be motivated. Coaches can be motivated. But if a kid is not motivated, then it's not going to happen."

It will probably be a while before Ayton selects a college because at this point he isn't knowledgeable enough about his options to even narrow his list. He and Jones have agreed not to give college coaches his phone number until January so that Ayton can focus exclusively on school and basketball until then.

Among the coaches Ayton will likely hear from is one who has already seen the young center at his best. Williams and his staff at North Carolina are still recruiting Ayton even though the last time they saw him in person, he was rejoicing at their expense.

"We celebrated in front of their face," Ayton said with a grin. "The Bahamas went crazy. The whole gym went crazy. While we were dancing around out front, they had to walk through us moping on the way to their bus."

For the Bahamas players, it was an upset to remember. For Ayton, it was also the signature moment of his improbable rise.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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