PHOENIX – Within minutes of each other Thursday, Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley walked across the NBA Draft stage in Brooklyn, New York, and into the lives they have long imagined, the lives they’ve prepared for, the lives those around them expected.
Matt Allen and Nick Weaver surely watched closely as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called out their names.
Beyond the happiness, Allen and Weaver, the athletic director and recruiting coordinator, respectively, at basketball-centric Hillcrest Prep, will likely think about the question many have asked: What if Ayton and Bagley stayed together at Hillcrest beyond the month they were there in 2015?
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” Allen told Cronkite News before the draft. “If they jelled and everything and worked together through the whole season, it could have easily been the best high-school team.”
It was a fascinating run for two players who went No. 1 and No. 2, to the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings, respectively, Thursday in the NBA draft.
Uniting at Hillcrest
A little more than five months after leading Tempe’s Corona Del Sol High School to a state championship, and four months after he became the first freshman to be named an All-American by CBS MaxPreps, Bagley, who was ranked as the No. 1 2018 recruit in the country, left Corona.
In August 2015, he announced he was headed west to Hillcrest, an upstart basketball prep school in Phoenix. The move, though, wasn’t a complete surprise. It came just two days after Richard Obert of azcentral reported that Bagley’s dad, Marvin Jr., had been given an associate head coaching role with the team and his brother, Marcus, would be part of the national high-school team.
“That’s a really, really big deal to get the No. 1 player in the country – especially when you’re not necessarily an established organization,” said Michael Clark, creator of the highlight-laden Arizona basketball website and YouTube channel AZ Finest Mixtape.
Hillcrest landing Bagley, a move Weaver told azcentral gave the program national exposure and “knocked the door down” for it to get a Nike sponsorship, was a triumph.
“But once you get the second guy,” Clark said, “that really shows the shoe companies that you’ve got something serious.”
That second guy was Ayton.
At that time, Ayton, who was ranked the No. 1 prospect for the Class of 2017, was in San Diego. He already had a year of high-level prep basketball under his belt at Balboa City School, and his sophomore season was fast-approaching. But all signs indicated it would leave Balboa.
Weaver said Ayton “was in a very bad situation where he was at with school and just living.” He said that the 7-foot-1, 260-pound center had already visited Findlay Prep in Las Vegas (one of the most elite basketball academies in the country), and didn’t like it. And the Nassau, Bahamas, native didn’t want to go to a cold climate, Weaver said.
Weaver acknowledged that Bagley’s presence lured Ayton to Hillcrest but said, “I do think we get Deandre without Marvin.” Ayton officially enrolled at Hillcrest on Oct. 6, about two months after Bagley did.
It was set. No. 1 teaming up with No. 1.
It wasn’t a smooth transition for Ayton, however.
Clark, who a fixture around the Hillcrest program, said the school assigned Ayton a tutor because “he was very far behind from his stuff at Balboa Prep. I believe a year behind.”
However, when he stepped foot on the campus of Starshine Academy in Phoenix, a charter school that houses Hillcrest’s classrooms, gym and dorms, Weaver said Ayton took to Bagley quickly.
“They had a connection from the beginning,” Weaver said. “They’re just both so outstanding that they both complemented each other in so many ways.”
Practicing against each other
For possibly the first time ever, two No. 1-ranked recruits were on the same high school team. It seemed the ideal setting for news-media coverage, for the gym to be strewn with cameras tracking every move of an elite high-school basketball duo.
Instead, Clark often was the only one who seemed to notice.
“I feel like I was the absolute only one who cared,” he said. “I think because of the fact that this is not a traditional way to do things back then, because prep was really just emerging, everyone was looking for the negatives, not necessarily the truth.”
From the moment he first watched Bagley play in seventh grade, Clark believed he was a sure-thing NBA player. He recalled the future Duke forward getting bored during a middle-school game because the competition was no challenge.
“He just decided to act like he was going to go for a dunk and came around and shot a 3 and made it,” he said. “It’s not just like, ‘OK there’s a seventh-grader dunking.’ It’s like he’s bored of dunking.”
In Ayton, Bagley finally was able to play with, and practice against, someone with a similar skill level.
When the team switched to guard or shooting drills, the duo would head to the south end of the gym.
“Those were some of the most epic battles I’ve ever seen in my life,” Weaver said. “They would push each other to be great.”
The battles, too, often would rage into the night.
Weaver said he would frequently walk into the Starshine gym about 10 or 11 p.m. and Bagley and Ayton would be there shooting or scrimmaging. (He also recalled a few 2 a.m. pickup games.) Weaver said he often had to kick Ayton out of the gym and send him back to his apartment, which was right next to the school, because he had practice or classes the next day.
“Deandre was on that (shooting) gun, expanding his 3-point shooting every night,” Weaver said. “Deandre was shooting 500 makes a day from the 3-point line. When we got Deandre his sophomore year … he didn’t step out much and shoot beyond 15-feet.”
Bagley’s SUV became a mainstay late at night in the parking lot beside the gym, Weaver said. Bagley would often go with his dad and brothers to work on ball-handling and shooting and just “getting it.” He said his dad, Marvin Jr., did a “phenomenal” job preparing Bagley, or “Little Marvin,” as Weaver called him, for the next level.
Marvin Jr. has seemingly been a part of every step of Bagley’s basketball life. The family has grown into a brand, marketing itself as Team Bagley, and has shown it will transition schools and states to give Bagley a better chance at NBA success.The journey is dominated about late nights in the gym and what hard work can do.
Bagley is a genuinely nice person but very serious, Allen said. A far cry from Ayton.
When Ayton meets someone, Allen said, he puts his guard up, skeptical of people and what they want from him. For good reason. As Yahoo Sports reported, people have tried to get a piece of him for most of his life. Hillcrest’s athletic director said, though, “once you’re in with him, he’s a goofball, doing dances and all kinds of stuff.”
Personality-wise, Ayton and Bagley are polar opposites. Still, they were often together, said Elijah Ifejeh, a teammate at Hillcrest. Weaver noted that the pair were just like normal teenagers who hung out and played video games.
Their first game
Ayton arrived at Hillcrest on Oct. 6; its first exhibition game was against Phoenix College three days later. Hillcrest was forced to acclimate Ayton as quick as possible.
“During those three days, (Deandre) was at practice, at least two hour practices each one of those days,” Allen said. “(We) just worked him in right away and went from there.”
The results were impressive.
Hillcrest won 85-82 and both Ayton and Bagley had a 30-point double-doubles, according to azcentral. After the game, Ayton told azcentral that he felt “free as a player” and that the two were able to play off each other.
Bagley added, “It was great. I love playing with Deandre. I know where he’s at, I’m starting to get to know him real quick. It’ll be a fun year.”
That game will be remembered for the first of what ended up to be about a dozen that Bagley and Ayton played together, but everyone seemed to remember it for another reason.
“We were playing against men,” Allen recalled. “There was one guy I knew that was like 24 years old because he had been in some trouble. At the time, Marvin was 16 and Deandre was 17. They pretty much beat all of the junior colleges we played … except for maybe Eastern Arizona.”
Ifejeh added: “There were high-school players against older men dominating.”
Hillcrest would often employ Bagley at all five positions over the course of its game, Weaver said. He could play point and bring the ball up the court one play and back down a forward in the post on the next.
It allowed Hillcrest to spread the floor, Weaver said, and when it’s being run by two “next-generational talents,” it’s nearly a can’t-miss formula. People have thrown out numerous comparisons for each, but Weaver said you can’t compare either to anyone.
“They’re both future NBA five-, six-, seven-, eight-, nine-, 10-time all-stars,” he said. “I really do think we’ll look back in 20 years from now and say how crazy it was they played together.”
If only it lasted longer.
Exactly one month after the high-schoolers beat Phoenix College’s adults, Bagley had perhaps his most memorable Hillcrest performance. Going up against Just Hoops Prep, the 6-foot-11, 235-pound forward racked up 51 points and 17 rebounds, according to azcentral.
It was his last game for Hillcrest and his last alongside Ayton.
Two days later, on Veterans Day 2011, azcentral reported that Marvin Jr. was taking Bagley and his brother out of Hillcrest because of “the negativity following the program.”
For one, the NCAA had knocked on the door of Starshine Academy about two weeks earlier, according to azcentral.
The article said that the NCAA would not call the visit an investigation and noted that “It is not unusual for the NCAA to show up when a new basketball academy opens to check on academics.” The article also quoted the NCAA’s director of media relations, Emily James, who said that Hillcrest did not have a list of NCAA courses.
(In January 2016, azcentral reported that Hillcrest had changed its academic affiliation for players from Starshine to Arizona Connections Academy “to avoid having coursework denied by the NCAA.)
Just hours before Marvin Jr. made the call to leave Hillcrest, too, the Hoophall Classic announced it had taken Hillcrest out of “ESPN’s national TV coverage against 7-1 senior Thon Maker and Athlete Institute in Canada,” azcentral reported.
That article also stated that Marvin Jr. was no longer an associate head coach at the school.
When asked why Bagley left, Ifejeh responded swiftly: “I don’t know, you’ve got to talk to him.”
Some speculated that Ayton would follow Bagley amid the uncertainty, but he stayed. Allen said he never had to speak with Ayton about it.
“We had a good team and Deandre knew – I never really got into a conversation with him but Deandre knew like, ‘This is my team. I’m the guy.’ I don’t if it was easier or harder or what his thoughts were, but he stayed and it worked out great.”
Indeed it did. In Deandre’s senior season, Hillcrest won a national championship.
Just after the 2016 new year, Bagley packed up and moved west, enrolling at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, California, according to ESPN. Just two weeks later, though, the Los Angeles Times reported that the California Interscholastic Federation had ruled Bagley ineligible for his sophomore season.
He returned his junior season without skipping a beat – taking home the CIF’s Player of the Year Award after averaging nearly 25 points and 10 rebounds a game. During that season, too, Bagley got the wheels rolling on possibly reclassifying into the 2017 class, Ayton’s class.
He took four online classes (Algebra I, Algebra II, Latin and English) in the summer of 2017 to meet the NCAA’s eligibility requirement.
“It was an opportunity that I had ahead of me that not a lot of people are able to do,” Bagley said after participating in the Suns’ predraft workout. “I couldn’t do a lot of stuff because it was ‘work out and do school.’ That was definitely a tough time, but I locked in, got it done. I’m happy I did it.”
Many project that the Suns will take Ayton with the first overall pick and that Bagley will be drafted within the top 5. Although both have moved on from Hillcrest, the school continues to reap the benefits of their time there.
“I’m excited for when the draft is over and Deandre goes No. 1 and Marvin, hopefully goes No. 2,” Allen said. “That’s going to be a big talking point for a long time. A No. 1 draft pick, I’ll be saying that forever.
“We had a No. 1 draft pick.”
All GIFs are courtesy of AZ Finest Mixtape.