Shortly before the 1997 NBA draft, Wake Forest coach Dave Odom told me Tim Duncan would be a far more accomplished pro than he was a college player.
Odom said Duncan’s teammates at Wake lacked the talent to exploit the extreme measures opponents took to contain Duncan. So Duncan’s court vision and playmaking were muted at the college level.
Duncan finished with five NBA championships and two MVP awards, so obviously Odom knew. His observation resonated again late Thursday night, as I watched Arizona center Deandre Ayton’s single college season end prematurely against Buffalo.
Buffalo sent constant double- and triple-teams at Ayton, who looks like a prohibitive favorite to be the No. 1 pick in June, regardless of which team wins the draft lottery. Buffalo’s guards raked at the ball, and its big men fronted Ayton looking to deny him passes.
Ayton’s numbers were still solid: 14 points and 13 rebounds. But does Arizona’s first-round NCAA tournament exit, by a shocking 89-68 margin, raise questions about Ayton’s projected value?
I’d say no, aside from this quibble: I thought Ayton surrendered emotionally somewhat to the extreme measures Buffalo took to contain him. Quit would be far too harsh a word, but he didn’t fight back to the extent you’d expect.
I spent about 20 minutes postgame in the media scrum around Ayton’s locker. He’s a bright, engaging guy, not unlike the worldly-wise vibe Duncan already had at Wake. Ayton answered questions directly and was accountable.
He didn’t engage in the charade many other elite athletes do regarding his intentions. Ayton said he and his family decided last summer he’d turn pro after one college season. He’s in the draft.
Ayton sounded baffled in describing what Buffalo did to blunt his impact. He’d scored 32 points in each of his previous two games (leading Arizona to the Pac-12 championship in Las Vegas). In those same two games, he made 27 of 36 shots and averaged 16 rebounds.
“We couldn’t get the ball inside,” Ayton said. “From the jump, those guys were on us. Their guard play on the defensive end was crazy.”
Frustrated not to get the ball more?
“A little bit. But my guys were telling me their guards were behind me. Somebody was always under me. So my guys were hesitant to pass me the ball from the top.
“I don’t think we were tired, but we weren’t playing hard at all. Once those guys threw the first punch at us, it was curtains.”
Ayton has to learn how better to present himself as a target for teammates, versus exotic defenses. The next time he plays competitive basketball, it will be against grown men as much as a decade his senior; big men more used to dealing with Ayton’s 7-1, 250-pound frame.
Ayton’s abilities are striking. You do not expect players of his size to be so adept as a dribbler, or to make 36 percent from the college 3-point line. But he has holes in his game. An NBA scout told me he needs a much better midrange game, because he won’t just physically overwhelm in the lane in the NBA the way he easily could at lower levels of basketball.
Ayton says he’s definitely better for a season of college ball.
“Playing harder,” Ayton said. “Really running the floor more. And early post-ups in transition.”
Arizona coach Sean Miller said Ayton exceeded every expectation:
“Deandre is as fine of a kid as we’ve had,” Miller said, “and an extraordinary player.”
That sounds an awful lot like Duncan. Look how well that turned out.