We’ve known for a month now that Puma was planning to re-enter the basketball sneaker business this season, aiming to sign up some of the 2018 NBA draft’s top talent to make a big splash in its return after nearly two decades away from the game. Now, four days after learning that the brand had inked potential top-five pick Marvin Bagley III, and three days before Thursday’s draft at Barclays Center, Puma revealed their next big addition … and we do mean “big.”
Master Tesfatsion of Bleacher Report and Nick De Paula of ESPN reported Monday that former Arizona center Deandre Ayton, expected by many to be the No. 1 overall pick in Thursday’s draft, has joined Bagley in signing with Puma, giving the resurrected apparel brand its first NBA athletes since it signed Vince Carter all the way back in 1998.
Jay-Z joins Puma as president of basketball ops
In addition to the Ayton and Bagley announcements, a Puma spokesperson told Complex on Monday that hip-hop legend and Roc Nation Sports founder Jay-Z will be on board to run the imprint as Puma’s president of basketball operations.
Whether the NBA or National Basketball Players Union would have any concern about potential conflicts of interest arising from the head of a sports agency acting as a president of an apparel brand with “a hand in the players selected to join [that brand’s] basketball division” remains unclear. But according to Puma global director of brand and marketing Adam Petrick, the fact that Puma put itself in position to land high-profile incoming NBA talent — including the potential No. 1 overall pick — demonstrated to Jay-Z that after two dormant decades, the brand is “making a serious push.”
“We’re making a serious statement about the entry of the category, that we want to be a performance brand, but then also very culturally focused,” Petrick told Complex. “It’s clear that we’re looking at basketball through the lens of culture, and thinking about the fashion of basketball, the music of basketball, all the aspects of culture around basketball, as much as the on-court presence that we will have.”
Puma has now nabbed three of the 2018 draft’s top prospects
Ayton and Bagley will be joined by explosive ex-Texas Tech guard Zhaire Smith, whom De Paula reported Sunday night had agreed to a multi-year deal with Puma, giving the company three of the top dozen or so prospects in this year’s draft class. (They might not be alone. De Paula reports that Puma has offered multi-year deals “to at least six projected first-round picks.”) In his latest mock draft, Yahoo Sports’ Jordan Schultz has Ayton going first overall to the Phoenix Suns, Bagley landing with the Dallas Mavericks at No. 5, and Smith heading to D.C. with the Washington Wizards at No. 15.
Both Ayton and Bagley told Bleacher Report that the chance to be part of building a brand from the ground up appealed to them more than than joining a more established giant like Nike, Adidas or Under Armour, where they’d be comparatively small lower-wattage lights on a star-studded roster.
Deandre Ayton is here for pay, not product
As wonderful as originality and trail-blazing can be, though, Ayton also made it very clear that, as he moves from amateur to professional, the deal was the thing:
Nike is Nike. Adidas is Adidas. I’ve played in their circuits and stuff like that, but now it’s a business. You don’t want just product. You’re not a kid anymore. You’re really trying to get bank. That’s about it. […]
I want to try to be the rookie coming in with his first signature shoe as early as possible. That’s one of the goals I’ll try to set. That’s about it. That’s just about me making my first shoe. I’m trying to work hard and get my first signature shoe out there.
And this particular deal, evidently, is a big thing, according to Michael Scotto of The Athletic:
Deandre Ayton, the projected No. 1 pick of the 2018 NBA Draft, will be the highest paid player annually by a shoe brand in this draft class after signing a multi-year deal with Puma, a source told The Athletic. ESPN first reported the multi-year deal between Ayton and Puma.
— Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto) June 18, 2018
Can Puma make Ayton, Bagley and company stars off the court?
While Puma’s ties to the NBA game go all the way back to the early ’70s, when they linked up with New York Knicks point guard Walt Frazier for the iconic “Clyde,” things fell apart for the brand when the Carter deal went south, which is why the brand’s been out of the basketball business for virtually the entire lifetime of the athletes Puma is now signing. But the company has remained viable away from the hardwood over the years, inking endorsement deals with high-profile athletes from other sports (legendary sprinter Usain Bolt, soccer stars Sergio Aguero, Antoine Griezmann and Mario Balotelli) and a slew of celebrities, including Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Big Sean, The Weeknd, Kylie Jenner … and, of course, Rihanna, whose presence on the roster seems to have mattered a great deal to Ayton, a native of the Bahamas with a personality to match his 7-foot, 240-pound frame.
From De Paula:
“I’m an entertainer,” Ayton said. “Puma knows entertainers and the way we move. I like color — expect to see that. Anything different and new — expect to see that.”
And from B/R’s Tesfatsion:
B/R: So when will Puma link you guys up with Rihanna?
Bagley: I don’t know, man. Eventually. Just not right now. It’s about hooping and getting better.
Ayton: Shoot, when is Rihanna gonna link up with me? I need to see Rihanna. I need to talk to her for a little bit and do a little collab. But yeah, that’s gonna be litty. That’s gonna be real lit.
And now, we wait for the ad campaign featuring Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Deandre Ayton in matching tiger-fur suits down to the kicks, with Clyde working overtime on things that rhyme with “litty” that he can say on camera without a corresponding FCC violation. Be still our hearts!
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