When Sean Miller first spoke publicly about Deandre Ayton, he set the bar astronomically high for the Bahamian big man.
“I’m not gonna sugarcoat it,” the Arizona Wildcats coach said after Ayton signed his National Letter of Intent in November 2016, “he’s one of these once-in-a-generation types of players.
“Whoever the experts are that have him potentially as the number one player in his class, that’s how we look at him. That’s how I look at him.”
Fast forward 15 months and Ayton has been even better than Miller expected. Yeah, somehow that’s possible.
Ayton is averaging 19.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, and even 1.5 assists as a freshman, while shooting 61 percent from the field.
Not surprisingly, the wunderkind is one of 30 finalists for the Naismith Award and currently the frontrunner to be Pac-12 Player of the Year, per KenPom.
“He has surpassed my expectations, really,” Miller said. “We knew that he was a talented player but you don’t know guys until they’re with you everyday. Now, here we are coming down the home stretch of our regular season, and he’s just been very consistent. That’s not easy to do for a freshman. I don’t care how talented you are or how physically imposing you are.
“For a guy to do it day in and day out, game in and game out, he’s been remarkably consistent with his attitude, his effort, and his preparation. As a matter of fact, what you hope to see in young players, especially freshmen, is they improve those things as the year goes on. I believe that’s happened with him as well.
“I believe he’s more focused, and he’s more prepared, pays more attention to detail now than he ever did, and he’s been with us everyday. I think he’s missed one practice maybe since he showed up here. So he’s worked hard, and he’s done a great job performing in the games.”
Ayton, widely projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in June’s NBA Draft, has been clear that he only plans to be at Arizona for one season. But that doesn’t mean he is counting down the days until he’s out of school, or is just going through the motions.
“His work ethic has continued to improve. He takes care of business off the court, on the court. He’s focused, he’s fun to be around. He’s not a moody guy. He brings a smile to your face,” Miller said. “I think he’s really enjoyed his time in college and with us at Arizona. But he’s learned a lot about the game. He plays both ends, and I think that will serve him well when he leaves here.
“But the thing I appreciate the most about Deandre is he’s never really used us as a pit stop. He’s done everything we’ve asked, he’s worked hard, he’s entirely focused on playing well, and leading his team and having his team win. I don’t know if anyone was more disappointed after the UCLA loss than him. He’s a great kid and we have a lot of really good kids, but because of who he is, his stature, it’s nice when you can coach him.”
Arizona is 21-6 and 11-3 in the Pac-12, holding a two-game lead atop the conference standings with four to play.
How the Wildcats fare in March will largely depend on how Ayton performs. Miller recently called the big man the team’s X-factor, especially on defense where his size, length, and athleticism can mask Arizona’s problems on that end of the floor.
The Wildcats currently rank 96th in defensive efficiency, but have turned in two straight solid performances in wins against USC and ASU.
“Deandre has a lot to do with that,” Miller said. “He’s improving on defense. He has a lot of ability, and it takes a while to figure a team out sometimes. We pretty much know the personalities of our team and our defense and what brings out the best in us, and we just have to keep reinforcing that.”
Sean Elliott is widely considered the best player to ever put on an Arizona uniform, but Ayton could take that title when all is said and done, especially if he does lead the Wildcats to their first Final Four since 2001.
Ayton’s numbers as a freshman are arguably as good, if not better, as Elliott’s were as a senior. Elliott averaged 22.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 1988-89, which earned him AP Player of the Year and Wooden Award honors.
Ayton is a better rebounder, a more efficient scorer and, let’s face it, there is a reason why he might be the first Wildcat to be selected No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft.
As Miller said, Ayton is a once-in-a-generation talent. And maybe even the best talent the program has ever seen?
“It’s hard to really compare anybody to [Elliott],” Miller said. “He was so good, and maybe that’s when you saw him at his best (when he was a senior). But if you look at Sean Elliott and guys like him, just their freshman year and nothing else, that’s what you really have to do when you ask the question.
“All I will say is if you’re looking at a freshman, somebody who has impacted this program, his team (the most)… it would be hard to beat [Ayton]. It really would.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire