SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah basketball team gained first-person knowledge about why Arizona’s Deandre Ayton is expected to be one of the top picks in the 2018 NBA draft.
They also had to be annoyed that every time it seemed the Huntsman Center roof was about to be launched into orbit, fueled by screaming Ute fans and a scoring surge, the huge freshman made his presence known.
Ayton’s clutch performance included hitting the go-ahead jumper with 3:25 remaining. That came right after Ute forward David Collette tied the game with a pair of free throws and sparked a game-clinching 11-0 run for 14th-ranked Arizona.
“He’s there when we need him,” Arizona guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright said after the Wildcats’ 94-82 win.
Ayton, a 7-foot-1, 250-pound man-child with a 7-foot-5-1/2-inch wing span, finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks. That marked his 11th double-double on the season, putting him second all-time in that category for Arizona freshmen with almost the entire Pac-12 season left.
It’s no wonder why the muscularly sculpted 19-year-old from the Bahamas is expected to be targeted early in the draft lottery this June. As the Utes found out, he already looks and plays like an NBA big.
It’s also why Arizona went to him repeatedly in the second half — or he took it upon himself by crashing the boards or defending — when the team needed a big play after the Utes valiantly turned a 17-point deficit into a tie game.
Ayton only had five points and six rebounds in the first half. He cranked up the clutch meter in the second half with 19 and eight.
“We always know he’ll come alive,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “Whether it’s at the start of the game, the end of the game or the whole game, he’s going to come alive. We need him to push it through, and he did that tonight.”
With free throws. With points in the paint. With a steal here and a block there. And simply by drawing attention, allowing teammates to take advantage of double teams. Guards Rawle Alkins (22 points) and Jackson-Cartwright (19 points) were beneficiaries. It makes life all the tougher for opponents that Ayton is paired up in the frontcourt with 7-footer Dusan Ristic (11 points, nine rebounds).
"If the ball gets into the paint, it’s almost an automatic two points," Alkins said when asked about Ayton. "It’s either a double-team or a bucket. You pick. That’s basically what it is with him."
Utah bigs David Collette and Tyler Rawson combined for 35 points, but Collette only had one rebound and Rawson grabbed just five boards.
Thursday was undoubtedly the one and only time Ute fans will have a chance to see Ayton play in person at the Huntsman Center.
Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report and NBADraft.net all have him projected to be the No. 1 overall selection in this year’s draft. Nine other mock drafts list him as the second- or third-best prospect.
“Ayton’s freakish physical ability, dominant interior play and soft shooting touch give him the highest long-term ceiling in the draft,” SI.com wrote.
Hoophabit.com's description: “Deandre Ayton has too much Joel Embiid in him to pass up.”
Walterfootball.com’s mock draft has him slipping to No. 4 but gave a glowing review: “The best offensive true center in 2018 NBA Draft. Deandre Ayton is a stud prospect.”
Following his 23-point, 19-rebound effort in a win over then-No. 3 Arizona State, Ayton proved that again in this win at Utah.