Why Deandre Ayton is worth all the tanking for NBA teams: 'He's the anomaly'

Pete Thamel

NEW YORK – The NBA scout lives an anonymous, omnipresent and thankless existence, pinballing from concierge lounges to aisle seats to rental car counters in search of the next great prospect. Often, the only validation of their itinerant lifestyles comes from checking their Marriott point balance. Many seasons, the entire scouting process is viewed with skeptical resignation by those involved. The scouts wake up predawn, sprint for connections and plod through traffic only to find a morass of mediocre talent.

But it’s years like the 2018 NBA draft that make the slog worthwhile even for the most jaded scouts, especially for those franchises attempting to out-tank each other. This NBA draft class offers the most promising collection of elite big-man prospects in the past decade, an unusual collection both in quality and quantity.

Arizona’s Deandre Ayton, Duke’s Marvin Bagley III, Texas’ Mohamed Bamba and Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. make up the best collection of high-end centers and power-forward prospects in a draft class in some time. That grouping doesn’t include another high-end talent, Missouri’s 6-foot-10 freshman forward Michael Porter Jr., who scouts expect to play more on the wing and perimeter in the NBA. The only recent draft class with a cluster of comparable big men came in 2007, with Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Spencer Hawes as top-10 prospects.

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In the mock-draft universe, there’s not a ton of consensus on who’ll go No. 1. There are infatuations with Luka Doncic, a Slovenian guard who may be the most accomplished young European prospect to ever enter the NBA. But the reality is that few around the NBA can conceive anyone other than Arizona’s Ayton being picked No. 1. Yahoo Sports checked in with a half-dozen scouts this week, and all of them saw him as the draft’s No. 1 pick. One scout said the chances of him going No. 1 are 95 percent. Another chuckled at the notion of anyone else going No. 1. “He’s the anomaly,” said a veteran NBA scout. “The guys in our league would get a chuckle out of [there being no consensus in the mock drafts]. Deandre Ayton is the freakiest of them all.”

Deandre Ayton and the Wildcats are poised to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. (AP)
Deandre Ayton and the Wildcats are poised to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. (AP)

Ayton is 7-foot-1 and his body is already a chiseled 261 pounds. The most frequently used comparison is Philadelphia big man Joel Embiid, a 7-footer with uncommon versatility, shooting range and footwork.

“He’s different,” said Washington coach Mike Hopkins. “You occasionally see someone and say, ‘That’s different.’ When I saw Ray Allen and Allen Iverson for the first time, I said, ‘That’s just different.’ The way [Ayton] moves, blocks shots and dunks angry. And then goes and hits threes. It’s scary.”

Arizona coach Sean Miller said the most consistent feedback he’s gotten about Ayton is the rare confluence of his raw athleticism, soft touch and versatility. “It’s the combination that’s striking,” Miller said. “There’s a uniqueness to him.”

And that’s why NBA scouts predict it will be impossible for whatever forlorn franchise lands the No. 1 pick to not take him. Pass on a basketball unicorn, and it could end with a generation of regret. “When there’s a guy like Joel Embiid available, that’s still viewed as the rarest thing out there,” said one scout. “The most special thing.”

Here’s a look at how the rest of this rarest of NBA big-man draft classes compares and stacks up.

School: Duke
Size: 6-foot-11, 234 pounds
NBA scout comparison: Chris Bosh
Statistics: 20.7 ppg, 11.2 rpg

Strengths: The draft glitterati cooled on Bagley at times this season, but it will still be a surprise if he doesn’t end up as one of the top three picks in the draft. (Especially with Duke looking poised for a deep tournament run, as it is clearly the most talented team.) One scout points out an important nuance of Bagley’s athleticism is that he can already likely run faster than virtually every other power forward in the NBA. Bagley’s agility, combined with his motor for his size, make him intriguing. Scouts love his second jump, ability to score on putbacks and toughness on the interior. “His body is good, but has the capacity to get better,” said a scout. “That’s what people see in him.”

Weaknesses: Bagley is shooting 18-for-50 from 3-point range, a solid-but-unspectacular 36 percent. He’s a woeful 62 percent from the free-throw line. “The shot is a little shaky,” one scout said. “There are probably various opinions in the NBA on whether teams think he has legitimate stretch-4 potential.” But the real glaring, florescent and scary weakness is defense. (See below).

ACC assistant: “He doesn’t have a defined position and he’s not a defender right now. They play zone because he can’t guard. That’s how vulnerable they are. The last time they had a superstar who was a horrific defender [Jahlil Okafor], they didn’t even try and play man and they won the national championship.”

School: Michigan State
Size: 6-foot-11, 242 pounds
NBA scout comparison: Kevin Garnett (lite)
Statistics: 11.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg

Strengths: The arc of Jackson’s trajectory can be considered ideal for draft prospects. He wasn’t overhyped, which would have meant anything other than averaging 20 and 10 would be disappointing. He wasn’t considered the best NBA prospect on his team, so he had the ability to rise and be a pleasant surprise. “This is what separates him from everyone in that group,” said a scout. “You watch him play and you think he’s left-handed. He’s so good with both hands it looks completely natural when he goes to his off-hand.” That underscores the most appealing part of Jackson’s game, his vast upside. “He’s a baby,” said a scout. “He’s going to get so much better. He’ll be able to start in a year or two on a good team. He’s got so much natural ability, he’s graceful and fluid. He doesn’t plod.”

Weakness: Jackson’s shot offers a class-development conundrum. It’s unrefined but effective, as he’s hit just under 40 percent from 3-point range this season. (He’s 52 percent overall from the field). “His shot is so awkward,” said a scout. “He’s got a low push shot when he steps out.”

Big Ten assistant: “Everyone knew he’d be good, but he became the best prospect on that team. In eight to 10 years, he could be the best one [in this draft class]. He can do more on the perimeter. I think his versatility on both ends is very unique. What he can become is very special.”

School: Texas
Size: 6-foot-11, 225 pounds
NBA scout comparison: Rudy Gobert
Statistics: 13.0 ppg, 10.3 rpg

Strengths: Bamba’s length is what has prompted the Gobert comparisons, as Bamba has been measured with a 7-foot-9 wingspan. He doesn’t have the rim-protection chops of Gobert yet, but NBA teams have taken notice. “It’s just abnormal,” a scout said. “He can grab the rim without jumping. Stuff you can’t teach.” He’s shown a knack to score instinctively in the post, but his offensive game is still mostly unrefined. His shot is good enough that Big 12 opponents respect him, but it’s the general upside of someone this big and long that has teams most intrigued. He’ll be drafted highly for what he can become, not what he’s done. He’s guaranteed to be a high-end defender in the NBA once he fills out.

Weaknesses: When he enters the NBA, he’ll be a vulnerable as a post defender. He’s so skinny that veteran big men will back him down and exploit him there. He hasn’t been showcased much offensively at Texas, as his post touches have been sporadic and he’s shooting just 27 percent from 3-point range. He’s so raw that there’s an intriguing risk-reward to Bamba.

Big 12 assistant: “I think he’s the best shot blocker I’ve ever seen. He’ll be able to protect the rim like very few have in the NBA. He can control a whole portion of the court. I think he has to get better footwork to guard ball screens. He’s very capable. His length, once he gets the footwork down, is going to allow him to be a real presence.”

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