Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Myles Turner and Kristaps Porzingis represent the next generation of NBA big men. Each of these seven-footers offers some sort of combination between traditional big man skills like shot-blocking and rebounding, as well as ball handling, running a break and shooting from outside.
These aren’t the hulking, lumbering seven-footers of the ‘80s and ‘90s. This new breed goes by the term “Stretch Five,” and it’s a position that not only has changed NBA basketball, but also the way up-and-coming prospects prepare themselves for their eventual spot there.
“With the game changing like it is, seven-footers handling the ball and shooting threes, it’s just ridiculous, but this generation of players is a whole different thing,” said DeAndre Ayton, the No. 1 overall prospect for the high school class of 2017. “Guys who used to be centers have to play like guards now. They have to be able to defend every position.”
Ayton is 7-foot-0 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, and he already has the build to be the sort of guy that doesn’t get muscled around on the block, even in the NBA. That’s tall enough and long enough to be effective as a traditional back-to-the-basket player, rebounder and shot-blocker, which is a skillset that Ayton possesses. But like Turner and Towns, he also can step back and hit shots from all over the floor. For every perfectly-executed baby hook, there’s a sweet stroke from 20 feet out to complement it.
“These changes to big men suit me very well. I watch a lot of these dudes who want to start with the ball outside and shoot, but not me,” he said. “I want to work from the inside out. I like going a little old-school, playing on the block, staying inside, but then I also like to step out sometimes and surprise the defense. I’m still working on my three-pointers.”
At the McDonald’s All-American Game this week, Ayton flat-out said his career aspirations are to be the second coming of Anthony Davis. He’s seen what’s possible for a player his size, and even though he had to go about it a little differently than Davis, the end result still very well could be the same.
As a high school junior, Davis was a 6-foot-3 guard struggling to get a scholarship from any school. But within a year he had grown a whopping seven inches, suddenly putting a lifetime’s worth of guard skills into the body of an NBA power forward. He’d win a championship with one of the most respected programs in college basketball just a year later. For him, it was skills, then size.
Ayton, however, got tall and then figured out how to play like a guard.
“I get a little jealous when I see those little guards dribbling the ball, so I’ve worked on my dribbling a lot, especially when I’m being guarded by a more traditional big guy who wants to sag off of me, or if I’m being guarded by a 6-foot-8 guy who wants to pressure me,” Ayton said. “I’ve really worked on my one dribble to the rim, being physical, working inside-out, and it’s working.”
Darn right it is. Ayton is the kind of all-around stud that makes it easy to see a long and rewarding NBA career ahead of him. Once, as a junior, he posted a triple-double that would make Russell Westbrook blush: 52 points, 33 rebounds and 10 blocks. He’s good. Really, really good, which makes the University of Arizona an increasingly interesting team next season.
But we haven’t even finished the current college basketball season yet. We’re still half a year away from Ayton’s NCAA debut, and perhaps 15 months away from him being drafted by an NBA team. Simply put, he’s an elite prospect. Ayton is currently rated as the top prospect in the country by many of the most respected prep rankings, and the way he’s taken on that pressure shows how well he’ll do at the next level, and then the level after that.
“There’s no real pressure in being the No. 1 ranked prospect,” he said. “If you’ve got a good understanding of who you are as a player, and you’re as competitive as me, it doesn’t matter what gets thrown at you on a daily basis. I love the competition.”
DeAndre Ayton is huge, athletically gifted, intelligent and incredibly charismatic, which is a combination that almost always sees big success at higher levels of basketball. This time next year, we’ll all be talking about him as the best player in college hoops.
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