Sean Miller may have just landed the recruit that could take his University of Arizona basketball team to that coveted berth in the NCAA Final Four that has eluded him for the 12 years he has spent as a college head coach, the last seven of those in Tucson.
The Wildcats’ head coach snatched the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2017 from the jaws of the Kansas Jawhawks and the Kentucky Wildcats, the other two programs that were on DeAndre Ayton‘s final short list.
But now he’s faced with competition that could present one last obstacle to bringing the 7-footer to Tucson.
Ayton, who will play his senior season at Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix and announced his commitment to the Arizona program on Tuesday, might still be considering playing professionally following his prep career.
The big man could decide to bypass college to play a year overseas until he becomes eligible to enter the NBA draft. Some analysts have pegged the 18-year-old as a solid candidate to become the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft.
It would be the second big blow to Arizona’s recent recruiting efforts. Little more than two months ago, another high-profile catch backed out of his commitment to the Wildcat program to play in Australia’s top professional league. Terrance Ferguson was a five-star shooting guard who would have been in this year’s top-five recruiting class.
Ferguson, who had been projected as a first-round draft pick, became the fourth high school player in the last eight years to skip a year of college to play overseas. The first one on that list was Brandon Jennings, who passed over a college career to play professionally in Italy in 2008. He became the 10th overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft.
And where was Jennings supposed to play his college ball? Yep, University of Arizona.
Ayton has to be considered the biggest recruiting coup for Miller, and probably the Arizona program itself. Miller landed two top-five recruits in recent years, Kaleb Tarczewski in 2012 and Aaron Gordon in 2013, but that’s not the same as netting the biggest fish. Both were ranked as No. 4 prospects.
During Ayton’s junior season at Hillcrest he averaged 30 points, 19 rebounds, and 5.7 blocks. Over the summer, he played on the Nike EYBL circuit, averaging 20 points and 12 rebounds while competing against some of the best prep players in the country.
As the youngster finishes out his high school career this season, his future head coach can take some comfort in the fact that his decision to play at least a year of college ball is strongly supported by his family. He wants his family to be able to watch him play, which was likely a big factor in deciding to take his game down the freeway to Tucson.
Ayton told ESPN that he is focused on playing for the Wildcats. He feels Miller can prepare him for pro ball and that he has a good chance to win a national title with that program, which has made three Elite Eight appearances in the last seven years.
“College is a must,” he told ESPN. “My family wants me to go to college. It’s important for me and my mom.”
But perhaps not as important as the money that will come with a high draft pick. Ayton is sure to be a one-and-done after his freshman year.
However, before he departs, he might be able to lead the Wildcats to the Promised Land.