TUCSON, Arizona -- On July 31, 2017, Arizona gathered at the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium, the practice court decorated with giant photos of the program's former stars who've made a combined $1.25 billion in the NBA.
Sean Miller's team stood there among the school's immortals and prepared for an exhibition trip to Spain. The games would serve as the first taste of organized competition for a squad that added a collection of young talent, including 7-foot-1, 260-pound freshman center Deandre Ayton, a Wooden Award contender, a projected top-three pick in this summer's NBA draft and a likely All-American.
On the first three-man weave drill of the season, Ayton looked different. Different from every other player on the court. Perhaps different from any other amateur player in America.
He had added 20 pounds of muscle to his frame during his first two months on campus -- he never lifted weights before college -- and he'd reduced his body fat percentage from 13 percent to 7 percent.
"I'd been in the weight room before, but I never touched nothing," he said. "If I look at it, I'm like, 'Dwight Howard can't shoot.' I didn't want to be stiff like him."
In that early practice, he caught an alley-oop from Allonzo Trier that peaked somewhere near the summit of nearby Mount Lemmon. Still, he snatched the ball in midair and dunked with a force that silenced the gym.
He seemed comfortable dribbling on a fast break. He made a couple of 3-pointers, and he spun off the block like a cyclone, swift but powerful. He was a big man with the strides of a triple jumper, moving toward the lane and using his imagination once he arrived.
Some combination of "How'd he do that?" and "What the hell did I just watch?" permeated the room throughout the closed session.
"I'd been in the weight room before, but I never touched nothing. If I look at it, I'm like, 'Dwight Howard can't shoot.' I didn't want to be stiff like him."Arizona's Deandre Ayton
"He almost has a supernatural strength," Miller said. "His mobility is incredible. His love for the game and his intelligence are shocking to me. A lot of times when you're that big, you just have to play basketball. I can't say enough about how smart he is. And I think that's going to serve him well. He's a talent like I haven't seen before."
Ayton left for Spain with the coveted gold jersey packed in his suitcase. It's the honor granted at the end of each week to the Arizona player who demonstrates the best performance in practice. He did not surrender the gold jersey for the next four months, a run of 19 consecutive weeks as Arizona's most impressive performer in practice.
Ayton started his collegiate career with 19 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks in Arizona's 101-67 win over Northern Arizona in November, an "unbelievable" performance, per Lumberjacks coach Jack Murphy.
"I don't know if there is one person that compares to Ayton at this stage," Murphy told reporters after the game in Tucson. "Obviously, there have been some special players that have come through here, but Deandre Ayton is a special player."
Others would echo that sentiment throughout the season.
Ayton opened the year with five consecutive double-doubles. His 22-point (10-for-14), eight-rebound performance in Arizona's 89-64 loss to Purdue on Nov. 24 in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament ended the streak.
In the first week of December, however, Rawle Alkins excelled during his first practices after missing two-plus months of action with a broken right foot.
After the last practice before a game against Alabama at the McKale Center, Miller stood in the circle of his players and announced a surprising change.
Ayton had lost his gold jersey to Alkins.
But the young talent just shook his head and repeated, "No ... no ... no ... no," as his teammates chuckled. Ayton, who idolizes Kevin Garnett, seemed angered and frustrated.
And that's why he has risen to the top of backboards and mock draft boards in his first two months on campus.
In a battle against UNLV and NBA prospect Brandon McCoy last month, Ayton collected 28 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks. He has finished 11 games this season with at least 17 points and eight rebounds.
Per ESPN Stats & Information, he's currently second all time among Arizona freshmen with 11 double-doubles. The record is 12 (Michael Wright and Al Fleming).
He's also 3-for-5 from the 3-point line in his past seven games.
"You know who he is? Physically, he's like Dwight Howard but more developed at that age," said one NBA scout who has watched Ayton multiple times this season. "But he shoots 3-pointers. He's Dwight with a 3-ball. How crazy is that? We haven't seen anybody with that combination. He moves like a 6-5 dude. He's a guy who will make an impact on day one. He's a franchise-changer."
Every moment for Ayton is competitive. And giving up the gold jersey felt like failure to a young man who carries his homeland on his back while he strives to create a legacy at Arizona and add his picture to the rafters of the practice gym.
"Not many people come from the Bahamas," he said. "I'm representing the whole nation, the whole Caribbean. That's just my motivation."
WHENEVER CHURCH WOULD END in Nassau, Bahamas, the mother would wait for her little boy to identify his target. After the Ayton family, devout Seventh-Day Adventists, attended service each week, their spry youngster would entertain friends and family members with his strong sense of humor.
If you had a funny walk, he'd imitate you. If you stumbled on a step, he'd laugh. They'd all crowd around Ayton and giggle.
"Growing up, Deandre would always say he was a star," said Andrea Ayton, the Arizona freshman's mother. "I never thought it would be basketball. I thought he'd be a comedian."
She and Ayton's stepfather, Alvin Ayton, lived in a small, two-bedroom home adjacent to the impoverished communities the cruise ships tend to avoid when they visit. But they sacrificed and picked up odd jobs to send their son and his siblings to private schools.
"Most people say they're in poverty because they've got a little Android [phone]," Ayton said. "Those people [in the Bahamas] don't have phones. No house phones. People live in wood houses, straw houses. No electricity and barely any water, even though we're surrounded by water. My mom and dad, they really did a good job because they did their best to not show us that part of the world."
Before sports began to occupy his time, Ayton had a love for music.
In the Bahamas, he played the drums in church and school. But that became an expensive passion for the family.
"Every snare drum we'd get, Deandre would burst," Andrea Ayton said. "He hit it too hard. So they gave him a tenor drum. He couldn't burst that."
He played soccer until he was 12. Then basketball became a more serious pursuit.
He was an awkward, lanky kid on the court at first. And he had no interest in going through the post drills with the other tall kids.
"When I started playing basketball, they always would have me at the block, and I'm like, 'Yo, I don't want to play down here,'" he said. "I want to do something else. This is not entertaining to me, and whatever the guards do, I wanted to do. In practice, I'm not doing post work. I want to dribble the ball. I want to shoot, too."
His push to play a more versatile role, combined with his size, led to a rapid ascent and an invitation to the Jeff Rodgers basketball camp, the hub for Bahamian talent, in Nassau.
Word traveled, and Ayton earned a scholarship to attend the Balboa City School in San Diego, an education center with just over 100 students.
"My dad didn't want me to come," Ayton said. "My mom said, 'Hey, we don't have [the money]. But it's a great opportunity.' She just sent me off. She didn't care what he had to say."
He blossomed in basketball once he reached America. The training, resources and guidance all helped Ayton grow while he attended school and lived with a former AAU coach and later, a local host family, even as concerns about his motor haunted him.
"People don't know, I was playing the whole game," said Ayton, refuting past criticism of his in-game effort. "'Oh, his motor is low.' Did you not see me grab 15 rebounds on one possession? I'm tired now, dude."
When he returned home a few years later to help a group of local standouts in their exhibition against a collegiate powerhouse, all could see his strides.
In 2014, Roy Williams took his North Carolina squad to Paradise Island, Bahamas, for an exhibition tour that preceded a Sweet 16 run that season.
Ayton, then just 14 years old, scored 17 points and grabbed 18 rebounds for the local Providence Storm all-star squad that defeated UNC 84-83.
"They were more aggressive than we were, and they made plays down the stretch," Williams said then.
As Ayton matured on the court, however, few understood the pressures he faced.
He was a rising young star living 2,500 miles from home after starting his journey at 12 years old. He began to miss the Bahamas, the place stitched into his heart and the birthplace of his dreams. He knew staying in the United States would help him evolve into an NBA prospect and build a pipeline for other prodigies back home. He couldn't go back.
But he was also aware of everything he'd left behind, such as his mother's jerk chicken and brown rice.
"To me, I don't even think I had a childhood," he said. "From when I was a baby to 12 years old, yes. But as soon as I left the Bahamas, that stuff was over. It was just straight business. I'm on a mission. That's how it's always been."
The distance was too vast for his mother, so Andrea Ayton moved to Phoenix with two of her children a few years ago, and her son enrolled at Hillcrest Prep for his junior and senior seasons.
Although he'd held the title of No. 1 recruit early in his prep career, Duke's Marvin Bagley III and Missouri's Michael Porter Jr. had climbed over him in ESPN.com's rankings by the time he graduated. Kyle Weaver, Ayton's high school coach at Hillcrest Prep, said his former pupil had been overlooked entering the 2017-18 college basketball season as a result.
"People are forgetting who Deandre is," said Weaver, who also coached Bagley in high school. "And I think that's setting up something special."
FRESH OFF A DECEMBER PERFORMANCE that altered any presumptions about the No. 1 spot in the NBA draft, Ayton paused to consider a reporter's question regarding the rare burst and agility his massive frame generates each night for an Arizona team chasing a Pac-12 title and redemption.
Ayton shook his head and rendered the only explanation he's ever had about his unique gifts.
"I don't know," he said with a smile after finishing with 29 points, 18 rebounds and a pair of clutch jumpers that sealed an 88-82 win over Alabama in Tucson.
More than 30 NBA executives and scouts attended the game and left with Ayton high on their wish lists.
"I just have a hard time believing there is anybody better than [Ayton]," Miller said that evening.
After Arizona sullied his homecoming with three losses in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas -- months after assistant Book Richardson was arrested and sidelined for his alleged role in the FBI's bribery probe -- Ayton helped the Wildcats win nine in a row and regain a slot in the top-25 polls.
He has made 66 percent of his shots inside the arc. Per Synergy Sports, he shoots 59.5 percent against man-to-man schemes and 75.9 percent against zone, both categorized as "excellent" marks by the data hub.
He's nearly unstoppable whenever he touches the ball in the paint, proven by his 83.3 percent success rate at the rim (Hoop-Math.com). The Wildcats are also playing better defense in the post this season after adding Ayton, who is averaging 1.6 BPG.
"I will dive on the floor for a loose ball," Ayton said. "That's how I'm trained. I can guard a guard if I want to. That's just that price. I'm not gonna sit here and let you score on me. That's in my blood."
Most opponents send an extra defender or two to help on Ayton. That's why the team shoots 39.2 percent from the 3-point line when he's on the floor and just 34 percent when he's on the bench, according to HoopLens.com.
"He makes the game easier for me, and I try to make it easier for him," said Allonzo Trier after the win over Alabama.
Against Alabama, Ayton had just elevated his draft stock and helped the program recover from a rocky start. He had made his case that he's the best big man in America and maybe the game's greatest NBA prospect.
And still, he wasn't satisfied.
He hadn't forgotten the previous night's practice.
For the first time all season, he'd lost something that represented his commitment to pursuing his potential and making the Bahamas proud.
Alkins had the gold jersey.
"Deandre had it every week until Rawle returned and took ownership for two weeks," said team spokesman Matt Ensor earlier this week. "And then Deandre reclaimed it."
That happened in late December.
He hasn't surrendered it since.