NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — It should have been the most highly-anticipated matchup of the summer.
Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2017 was squaring off with Marvin Bagley III, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2018.
Not only were the potential No. 1 picks in the 2018 and 2019 NBA Drafts playing on the same court at the same time, they spent much of the afternoon guarding each other. At the biggest and best event in July, it was a dream scenario. And yet, in a Riverview Park Activities Center that is typically overflowing with fans, media and coaches yearning to get a peak at the Next Big Thing, the gym on Thursday was … spacious.
Part of that is because there isn’t much drama in the race for No. 1 in either class. Ayton is probably going to remain the consensus No. 1 player in his class regardless of what happens in the next year, and Bagley is so far ahead of the rest of the Class of 2018 that it’s not even a discussion. The race for the top spot matters in recruiting circles, and that race is what generates the hype for the high-profile individual battles.
But the other side of it is that there are no assurances that either Ayton or Bagley will end up playing a second of college basketball.
At the center of the question marks regarding both players is Hillcrest Prep, an institution in Arizona that fields a basketball team while sending the players to their coursework at Starshine Academy. It’s a pretty typical setup for these new-age prep school operations, except that Starshine Academy is not approved by the NCAA. A prospect with core courses coming from Starshine will not be cleared by the NCAA’s Eligibility Center.
That eligibility issue is reportedly the reason that Bagley, who transferred to Hillcrest after spending his freshman season at Corona del Sol, left for Sierra Canyon in the middle of the fall semester and was forced to sit out the 2015-16 season as a transfer. And that eligibility issue is why Ayton — who transferred into Hillcrest from Balboa City HS in San Diego, another school with NCAA question marks — made it a point to tell the media gathered in North Augusta that he is working with the NCAA to make his transcript acceptable.
The first step, he says, was to take his classes online at Arizona Communications instead of with Starshine, and that Arizona Communications has been certified by the NCAA.
“I’ve been in contact with the NCAA,” Ayton said. “They’ve given me my classes. I’m doing summer school right now. They say I’m on track. I just have to finish these classes and I’m good.”
To his credit, Ayton was adamant about the fact that he wants to play a one-and-done year.
“There’s no overseas,” he said, adding that Kentucky and Arizona had joined Kansas as the only three schools currently recruiting him. “I’m going to college.”
“I just want to have the experience. I want to win a national championship, and even though I’m one and done, I would love to be in that atmosphere.”
Bagley’s situation is different. He left Hillcrest at some point when it became clear that he would not be able to play college hoops from that school, but no one seems to know exactly when he left, how long it took for him to get from Hillcrest to Sierra Canyon or what exactly he was doing in the in-between time.
And while he was also non-committal about the prospect of playing in college — “I can’t say I want to skip college or go to college,” he said. “Whatever happens, happens.” — his father told me, very specifically, that there was no way his son would not go to college. “Never,” he said. “I don’t even entertain it. I plan on having him finish college one day.”
The evidence? Bagley cut his list to six schools — Duke, Arizona, Kentucky, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA — to avoid the avalanche of calls he was expecting to get from staffs hoping that they had a shot.
So it’s still possible that we see both of these kids on campus.
But let’s say we don’t.
The prep-to-pros route is where this thing will get interesting, because the situations that both Ayton and Bagley have been directed into make them into prime candidates to follow in the footsteps of Emmanuel Mudiay and Terrance Ferguson.
Or Thon Maker.
And when you then consider that potential first-round picks like Trevon Duval and Billy Preston have eligibility question marks of their own, that’s when things get interesting.
Because Ayton and Bagley don’t need to play in college to be picked No. 1. Duval doesn’t need college to be a lottery pick the same way that Maker and Mudiay didn’t. Ferguson and Preston could get guaranteed money from an NBA contract without cashing a scholarship check.
And if the elite recruits following them see that these decisions don’t effect their chances to be a pro, and that going to college simply puts you at risk of slaloming down NBA Draft boards like Skal Labissiere, that’s when the concern about the reignited prep-to-pros movement becoming a trend gets validated.