Ayton, Bagley III matchup in Suns win recalled their prep roots in Phoenix

Detroit Free Press

The Suns Friday night win over the Pistons at Footprint arena showcased a matchup between two former Phoenix-area prep high school stars now making a name for themselves in the NBA.

The Suns’ Deandre Ayton and Pistons’ Marvin Bagley III have deep roots based in the Phoenix area. They’re longtime friends and former high school teammates at national powerhouse Gilbert Hillcrest Prep.

“I talk to him every now and then when I get a chance,” Bagley told The Republic after the game, a 108-102 Phoenix win. “It’s always good seeing him do his thing and being able to compete at the highest level. It’s always fun. I still think about that. It’s good when we play against each other and compete like that.”

Ayton had a game-high 28 points and 12 rebounds in one of his best shooting performances of this season (11-of-13 FG, 6-of-7 free throws). He added two blocked shots, an assist, and a victory-sealing dunk in the closing seconds.

In Ayton’s view, both players are success stories.

“This is both of our fifth year so we gotta be doing good if we still in the league. We gotta be doing something,” Ayton said. “Hat offs to him, man. Just keep working and keeping his head down and he’s looking good to me. …

“That’s my guy.”

Suns’ coach Monty Williams lauded Ayton’s effort in Friday’s game.

“Well, he got going early, hitting his midrange at the free-throw line and that’s something we feel is a weapon for him,” Williams said after the game.

“We haven’t seen the floater as much this year but he has been able to knock down some of his midrange shots where he faces up and the guy backs up and he just knocks it down or sometimes he knocks down the turnaround but he was, I hate to say aggressive, but I just think he took advantage of the situation.”

Bagley III had 13 points (6-of-12 FG) and tied with Ayton’s 12 rebounds, including Bagley III’s team-high seven offensive rebounds snared as the Pistons got more second-chance possessions on 19 to the Suns’ 11.

“Bags played well, that’s why we left him in there,” Pistons coach Dwayne Casey said. “He really performed at a high level against Ayton. He gave him some resistance. Again, everybody who played tonight did an excellent job. From Rodney Magruder on down the line. They came in and did their job. You know, being one point guard really, really hurt us executing defensively to offensively but Bags did a heck of a job on the boards. …

“I’m really proud of the way Marvin played.”

Ayton and Bagley played their ninth total matchup against each other in the league, and Friday’s game was Bagley’s first in Phoenix since the 2019-20 regular season opener, when he was in his second year with Sacramento, the team that drafted him. Bagley III has only played in three games at Phoenix during his five-year career.

Ayton’s and Bagley III’s career trajectories have seemingly gone in opposite directions after they became pros.

They were the 2018 NBA draft’s Nos. 1 and 2 overall draft picks out of Arizona and Duke, respectively. When Ayton and Bagley III were two of the nation’s top recruits, they helped put Hillcrest Prep on the map when they were briefly teammates in late 2015.

Before the Tempe native Bagley III played for his hometown high school Corona del Sol, then left for Hillcrest in August 2015 and then transferred to Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth, California.) three months later.

Ayton has averaged 16.2 points on nearly 60% shooting and 10.4 rebounds in his career. He helped lead the Suns to their first finals berth in nearly 30 years in 2021, and to their franchise-best 64 regular season wins and the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs last season. But in his second year, he only played 38 games, largely because he was suspended for 25 games after he tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug during that season’s second week.

Bagley III had a solid rookie campaign appearing in 62 games and averaged 14.5 points on 50.4% shooting and 7.6 rebounds. However, he was hampered by injuries through his first four seasons.

In his second year, Bagley III played in just 13 games because of a right thumb injury, but his averages didn’t drop much (14.2 points, 7.5 rebounds). When the Kings were among the league’s top 22 invited teams to the Orlando bubble in July 2020, Bagley suffered a foot injury during practice that same month.

After the team exercised his option to keep on their roster in December 2020 at the start of the next season, Bagley III appeared in 43 games, and then just 30 in last season after he didn’t get offered a rookie extension. They told him he wouldn’t be part of their rotation, which was partially why Bagley’s scoring production fell to 9.3 points, and his minutes were down to 21.9 compared to 25.3 when he was in his first year.

That caused acrimony between Bagley III’s and his father Marvin Bagley Jr., who set off a social media frenzy when he demanded his son to be traded “ASAP” in January 2021. Detroit acquired him at the trade deadline in February, and the Pistons gave him a three-year extension worth $37.5 million in July.

But there are two things Ayton and Bagley had in common last season.

Similar to Bagley III, Ayton wasn’t offered a rookie max extension last season, and faced an uncertain future to continue his career with the team that drafted him. Second, the ongoing “what if” narrative among those teams’ fans and the media regarding why didn’t the Suns or Kings take three-time All-NBA First Team selection Luka Doncic in the 2018 draft instead.

Ayton was one of the biggest free agent stories last summer. He agreed to Indiana’s four-year, $133 million rookie max offer sheet, the largest in league history, in July. But Ayton stayed in Phoenix after he signed the Suns’ matched deal to retain him as a restricted agent.

That was the same month Bagley signed a three-year, $37.5 million extension with the Pistons.

Have tips for us? Reach the reporter at dana.scott@azcentral.com or at 480-486-4721. Follow his Twitter @iam_DanaScott.

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