NOTE: This story was originally published in March of 2016.
Fans of the Arizona Wildcats, Kansas Jayhawks and Michigan State Spartans are waiting anxiously to learn whether the nation’s No. 1 basketball recruit of the Class of 2016, shooting guard Josh Jackson, will play for their team.
But while Jackson continues to wait to make his decision, Phoenix Hillcrest Prep's DeAndre Ayton, the unanimous No. 1 national recruit of the Class of 2017, continues to get bigger and taller — and when all is said and done, he just might prove to be even better than Jackson.
“He’s still 17 years old. He’s still got room to grow. He’s a junior in high school; (Jackson is) a senior,” said Kyle Weaver, Ayton’s coach at Hillcrest.
"What doesn’t he do well? He’s a leader, competitor. When you’re (ranked) that high — the No. 1 player in the country -- you do everything well."
Hillcrest isn’t a your average high-school basketball team; its season consists of traveling throughout the country to face the nation’s other top basketball programs. This season, Ayton faced off with Jackson, who plays for California’s Prolific Prep, and matched him step for step.
When asked what he enjoys most about the game, Ayton summed it up in one word: Competing.
"I want to be the better guy every time I play my opponents -- showing a lot of heart, showing who’s got the most guts to do what they’ve got to do and get the job done,” he said.
Ayton was born in the Bahamas and previously played for Balboa City Prep in San Diego before transferring to Hillcrest for his junior year. This season, he has averaged a ridiculous 22 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks per game.
A week ago, Ayton was named to the World Select Team, which will compete against the USA Basketball Junior National Select Team at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland on April 9.
Naturally, Ayton will have his pick of just about any college in the country. He has already received offers from some of the nation's top programs, including Duke, Kansas and Kentucky.
"I just want to be able to play my game, you know?” Ayton said when asked about what will influence his college decision.
"My goal is to win a national championship. That’s it: Win a national championship and go to the next level."
Ayton is already over 7 feet tall and weighs 250 pounds, and he’ll likely continue to grow. Weaver is OK with that.
“He can grow to 7-5 if he wants to,” he joked.
But beyond his size and ability, Weaver said Ayton’s maturity and leadership make him a special player.
"It’s not even about the basketball talent; everyone can see that,” he said. “The kid listens. He’s a hard worker, competitive, has been through so much and he still continues to trust. He’s an amazing kid.
"I’m 25. I’m not the oldest guy, I’m not the wisest guy, I’m not the best coach in the country, and he listens and respects me. That’s all I ask out of a player, especially of that high of a ranking.”
In many ways, Ayton is a normal teenager. He carves out time in between games and practices to keep up with his homework. He loves playing NBA 2K — his favorite teams are the Warriors and Clippers. And he has a tight-knit relationship with his parents, especially his mother.
“My mom and I are very close,” he said. “Whatever happens, I always go to her and ask her questions on how to handle things.”
Ayton said his move to Arizona from California has helped him to focus on what’s important, both on and off the court.
"I like Arizona because it’s pretty laid-back; not too much around me,” he said. "When I was in San Diego, there was a lot going on. Living in Arizona just keeps me grounded now and not worried about what everybody’s doing like how I did in San Diego."
As long as Ayton continues to keep his head on straight and remain as humble and coachable as he is today, Weaver says there’s nothing the cream of the Class of 2017 crop can’t do — including surpass the No. 1 player of the 2016 class.
"He’s a great kid. He’ll run through a wall for you,” Weaver said. "If you tell him to do something, he’ll do it."