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Short and sweet: The month Ayton, Bagley spent together at Hillcrest


PHOENIX — Within minutes of each other Thursday, Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley will walk across the NBA Draft stage in Brooklyn and into the lives they have long imagined, the ones they have prepared for, the ones that have been expected by those around them.

Off to the side, Matt Allen and Nick Weaver will watch NBA Commissioner Adam Silver call 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. “If they jelled and everything and worked together through the whole season, it could have easily been the best high school team.”

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,” Michael Clark, the creator of the highlight-laden Arizona basketball website and YouTube channel AZ Finest Mixtape, said.

Hillcrest landing Bagley, a move Weaver told azcentral gave the program national exposure and “knocked the door down” for it to get a “big 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. Already with a year of high-level prep basketball under his belt at Balboa City School, his sophomore season was fast-approaching. But all signs indicated that it would not take place at Balboa.

Weaver said that 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 Weaver mentioned the Nassau, Bahamas, native didn’t want to go to a cold climate.

Weaver admitted that Bagley’s presence in Phoenix definitely lured Ayton to Hillcrest but noted that “I do think we get Deandre without Marvin.” Ayton officially enrolled at Hillcrest on October 6, about two months after Bagley did the same.

It was set. No. 1 teaming up with No. 1.

It wasn’t a smooth transition for Ayton when he arrived, however.

Clark, who’s 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 on the campus of Starshine Academy, a charter school in Phoenix which houses Hillcrest’s classrooms, gym and dorms, Weaver said Ayton took to fellow No. 1 recruit 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 media coverage, for the gym to be littered with cameras tracking every move of possibly the greatest high school basketball duo.

Instead, it was often just Clark.

“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 watched Bagley play for the first time in seventh grade, Clark believed Bagley was a sure-thing NBA player. He recalled the future Duke forward getting bored in the middle of a middle school game because the competition failed to provide a 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.”

While at Hillcrest, Bagley was finally able to play with, and practice against, someone who had a similar skill level in Ayton.

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, would often rage into the night.

Weaver said he would frequently walk into the gym on Starshine’s campus around 10 or 11 p.m. and there they would be — Bagley and Ayton — 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 outside of 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. Quite the far cry from Ayton.

When he first meets someone, Allen said, Ayton 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, the pair 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 October 6. Its first exhibition game came against Phoenix College just three days later. With no time to spare, Hillcrest was forced to get Ayton acclimated 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-double. 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 said. “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.”

Added Ifejeh: “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.

The departure

Exactly one month after the high-schoolers from Hillcrest beat Phoenix College’s grown men, Bagley had perhaps his most memorable Hillcrest performance. Going up against another prep school, Just Hoops Prep, the 6-foot-11, 235-pound forward went for 51 points and 17 rebounds.

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.”

According to reports, a few reasons motivated Marvin Jr. to take his kids out of Hillcrest. First, about two weeks earlier, the NCAA came knocking on the door of Starshine Academy, 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.”

That same 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,” he said.

Some speculated that Ayton would follow Bagley’s path and move on from Hillcrest amid uncertainty. Instead, he stayed. And 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’ pre-draft 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. Both have moved on from Hillcrest, but the school is still reaping the benefits of their enrollment.

“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.”

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