The latest bombshell report related to the federal investigation into college basketball dropped late Friday night.
Sources told ESPN that FBI wiretaps used in the investigation intercepted telephone conversations between Arizona Coach Sean Miller and Christian Dawkins, an aspiring agent and central figure in the corruption case. The conversations, according to ESPN, detail Miller discussing the payment of $100,000 to ensure star freshman Deandre Ayton signed with the Wildcats.
Ayton, now a freshman at Arizona, is considered a possibility to be selected with the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft.
While he was in high school, Ayton — a native of the Bahamas — had one of the stranger high-profile recruitments in recent years.
Before his sophomore season of high school had even been completed, Ayton was named by Scout.com as the best prospect in the country, regardless of class. The 7-footer, who at the time was living in California, told the Herald-Leader in June 2015 that he had received a call from UK Coach John Calipari, who made the rare, for him, decision to extend a UK scholarship offer to a player who was not yet a junior in high school.
“He just said he would love to have me at his school and he’s giving me an official offer to the University of Kentucky,” Ayton said at the time. “It was a good feeling.”
Though his skills only improved — and he was continually ranked by the major recruiting services as the No. 1 player in his class — Ayton’s recruitment got strangely quiet.
He transferred to Hillcrest Prep in Arizona for his junior season. There were rumors that he had fallen behind academically and that he might not even play college basketball at all, instead opting for a lucrative one-year contract overseas before jumping to the NBA.
In the spring of 2016, Ayton, still considered the best prospect in high school basketball, told the Herald-Leader that Kansas was the only school recruiting him.
“They think I’m not going (to college),” he said in April 2016. “But I have to go to college. My mom wants me to go to college, and that’s what I’m looking for. … No eligibility concerns. I’m NCAA eligible, so I don’t know what the problem is.”
Ayton had previously listed Kentucky and Duke as two of his top three schools — along with Kansas — but he said that night that he hadn’t heard from either of those two in a while.
“I really don’t care who’s not recruiting me,” Ayton said. “I’m just going to stay on top of my game and try to be better.”
A few days later, the Herald-Leader was told that UK had received Ayton’s high school transcript and the program was monitoring his recruitment.
About three months after that — at Nike’s annual Peach Jam event — Ayton acknowledged missing some classes when he moved from California to Hillcrest Prep in Arizona, but he said he had been taking online classes that spring and summer to make up for the missed schoolwork.
He said he’d been in contact with NCAA officials regarding his academic status, and they told him that he was on track to be eligible academically.
Ayton also said then that Kentucky and Arizona had jumped back into his recruitment, joining Kansas in his top three. He had visited Arizona’s campus the month before, and the Pac-12 Wildcats were selling him on becoming the school’s first No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft.
“I like to hear stuff like that,” Ayton said with a smile.
He said then that UK’s coaches had recently told him they wanted to start building a relationship moving forward. At the time — July 2016 — Ayton said he wasn’t focused much on his recruitment or making a college decision.
Calipari watched Ayton play at Peach Jam that summer, but the star recruit never visited UK and Calipari never appeared to make him much of a priority in the weeks that followed.
Less than two months after that Peach Jam event — on Sept. 6, 2016 — Ayton, seemingly out of nowhere, announced that he would be revealing his college decision later that day.
Kansas went into that day with 100 percent of the predictions on Ayton’s 247Sports Crystal Ball page. Kentucky was listed in his final three, but there were no indications that UK had had any contact with the No. 1-ranked recruit in weeks.
He ended up choosing Arizona.
“I made Arizona home,” Ayton said when announcing his decision. “My family can benefit from it by coming to my games. … We really trust those guys. We really trust their program. And I know they can help me get to the next level.”
ESPN’s report Friday night said that, according to people with knowledge of the FBI investigation, Miller and Dawkins had multiple conversations about Ayton.
“When Dawkins asked Miller if he should work with assistant coach Emanuel ‘Book’ Richardson to finalize their agreement, Miller told Dawkins he should deal directly with him when it came to money, the sources said,” according to ESPN’s report.
Richardson was one of the assistant coaches arrested last fall as a result of the federal investigation.
Ayton is averaging 19.6 points and 10.9 rebounds per game this season.
Arizona announced Saturday that Ayton would play against Oregon later that night but Miller would not be coaching the team in Saturday’s game.