In basketball terms, DeAndre Ayton is a unicorn.
The 7-foot-1 center, whom the Phoenix Suns recently selected with the No.1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, throws down thunderous slam dunks and swats opponent's shots with ease. But it's his incredible agility and athleticism that makes him a potential generational talent. You simply don't see players this big move this well very often.
Not bad for a kid who didn't begin playing basketball until he was 12 years old. Yes, the most recent No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick didn't start playing the sport until he was nearly a teenager. This fact stands in stark contrast with the growing number of sports parents who believe they need to make their 8- or 9-year-old son a superstar in a given sport if they want any chance of playing division one or pro sports.
Standing over 7-feet tall, Ayton has an undeniable advantage on the basketball court. However, if we trace his journey to the NBA, we can see a couple key factors that helped him develop into an incredibly talented player.
Growing up in the Bahamas, Ayton's sport of choice was soccer. He loved the game, and he's described scoring a goal as "the best feeling in the world." But by the time he was 12 years old, Ayton's frame had already stretched to 6-foot-8. His father had long tried to convince him to give basketball a shot, and after his early growth spurt, Ayton finally relented.
When he first began attending basketball practice, his coaches had him go through post drills with the other tall kids. But Ayton watched the guards with envy. "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,'" Ayton told ESPN. "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."
As Ayton began practicing a wider array of basketball skills, it quickly became clear he was no plodding big man. The footwork and athleticism he'd built via soccer were instantly evident on the basketball court. "I was fortunate that soccer helped me not be a clumsy guy and be pretty nimble on the court," Ayton recently told Tucson.com. Having spent years learning how to defend ball-handlers in soccer helped him build the lateral quickness needed to stay in front of forwards and guards, for example.
Ayton's athleticism—along with the desire to learn all aspects of the sport rather than be pigeonholed into the responsibilities and role of a traditional center—formed the fabric of the dominant athlete we now know today.
While Ayton's size is purely genetic, the building blocks of his transformational talent came via an early focus on overall athleticism and versatility. It's an important lesson to keep in mind as more and more sports parents believe early specialization is the best way to help their child develop into a standout athlete.
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