As the only coach who had to game plan for Arizona’s Deandre Ayton three times in the freshman sensation’s only year of college basketball, Colorado’s Tad Boyle is qualified to let the NBA know what’s coming.
“He’s a monster,” Boyle said of the 7-foot-1, 260-pounder with the 7-5 reach. “I played [at Kansas] in the ’80s, and he’s the best player since Hakeem Olajuwon. He’s that kind of talent. He’s not as good a low-block player as Hakeem, but the similarity is that, if he catches it eight feet from the basket, he’s gonna score. There’s nothing you can do about it.
“He doesn’t have Hakeem’s shimmy moves, but facing the basket, he’s certainly better than Hakeem was at the same stage of his career. This kid’s got good footwork, agility, the ability to run the floor, explosiveness, intelligence and skill. He’s special.”
When Boyle shook Ayton’s hand after the third time his Buffaloes played the Wildcats, in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, he told the big man he was happy to see him move on to the NBA, where the Phoenix Suns, having won the lottery, will most likely make him the No. 1 pick in the Draft. Lest the Suns decide they might get better value dealing the pick, well, Boyle can’t imagine that happening.
“This kid’s just scary,” Boyle said. “You see him on tape and how he finishes dunks. It’s like he’s playing with a Nerf ball in the basement. Then you see him in person. If you were going to build the perfect basketball player on a computer screen, you’d want someone who’s 7 feet and cut, who can run and jump and make perimeter shots. You’d build Deandre Ayton.”
Colorado managed to win one game of the three it played against Arizona. That was the first one, where Ayton scored 26 points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked two shots. The Buffs lost the next two, but they whittled down Ayton’s contributions each time. By the third game, Ayton contributed just 10 points, six boards and three blocks.
“He’s a monster ... I played [at Kansas] in the ’80s, and he’s the best player since Hakeem Olajuwon. He’s that kind of talent. "
Boyle’s plan was to front Ayton and try to prevent him from catching the ball anywhere close to the basket. A second defender was always nearby to help and try to turn Ayton into a passer, a skill Boyle thinks Ayton hasn’t mastered — yet.
“I played with Danny Manning,” Boyle said. “Danny was such a good passer. If you brought [a second defender] at him, he’d find somebody on the floor or skip it. Deandre isn’t at that level yet, but I think he’ll figure it out.”
With Ayton, Colorado decided to pick its poison. The consensus first-team All-American, Pac-12 Player of the Year and Karl Malone Award winner shot a solid 34 percent from 3-point range, albeit in limited attempts, and, per Hoop-Math.com, he also made 43 percent of his face-up 2-pointers during the season, solid considering those made up 44 percent of his total attempts.
“We decided if he wanted to pick and pop and beat us with 15-foot jump shots, go right ahead,” Boyle said. “We had to keep him away from the 10- to 15-toot foot area, where if he catches it, he just overpowers you or goes around you. It’s not like he’s not capable of making that 15- to 17-foot jump shot. That’s just what you have to live with.”
Colorado’s strategy of containing Ayton led to one of the biggest upsets in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Arizona drew Buffalo in the first round. Bulls coach Nate Oats replaced Bobby Hurley when the latter moved on to Arizona State and spoke to his old boss as soon as the NCAA bracket was announced. Ayton was a primary topic of the conversation.
“Bobby didn’t think you could front him,” Oats said. “But I said we’re going to front him. Colorado was the only team in the Pac-12 that I saw that actually fronted him. Everybody else played zone, which I could understand because they had another 7-footer in the lineup [Dusan Ristic]. But Ayton’s got great basketball feel. You can’t keep a body on him in the zone. You can’t pressure the ball in the zone.
“We sat Ristic’s man right behind Ayton. Offensively, we didn’t think their spacing was that great. They had two pros, both 7 feet, and you’ve gotta play them. But that also limits how you space the floor.”
Buffalo’s plan worked. Ayton still managed to deliver 14 points and 13 boards, but Arizona shot 11 percent (2 of 18) from 3. The Wildcats couldn’t take advantage when the Bulls sprang the double team on Ayton, who passed for just one assist.
“Limiting his touches and keeping it congested around him,” Oats said. “Daring them to skip the ball to a shooter on the back side. That was our plan.”
At least Boyle and Oats had some time to prepare for Ayton. When SMU played the Wildcats in the Battle 4 Atlantis last November, coach Tim Jankovich and his staff had just a few hours to get ready.
“Our preparation was by the seat of our pants,” Jankovich said. “We went to bed late that night. But we figured out we were going to front him and trap. We double teamed him, but a different way than we’d been doing.”
Jankovich wouldn’t elaborate. “It’s kind of a trade secret,” he said, laughing.
SMU’s double team worked. The Mustangs won. Ayton still piled up 17 points and 15 rebounds, but he took only 11 shots and six free throws. And the Wildcats shot 25 percent (5 of 20) from 3.
Boyle, Oats and Jankovich all figured out a way to deal with Ayton, but their message to his future opponents in the NBA was essentially the same.
“I think he’s going to be a better pro than he was a college player, and he was a great college player,” Oats said. “Sean [Miller] is an unbelievable coach and did a great job with the kid. But in the NBA, the spacing’s better. You can’t double that easily.”
“I can’t fathom him not being impactful, and right away, too,” Jankovich said. “He’s one of those rare players that you can’t help but keep your eye on during the game, because he’s so different than most. Your eye always goes to him. That’s all great players. You don’t mean to focus on him, but when you can’t help but do it, you’re always worried, every possession.”
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