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When the 2021 NBA draft concluded, two former Gonzaga Bulldogs – Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert – heard their name called and began preparing for their new careers in Orlando and DC, respectively.
Somewhat surprisingly, fellow guard Joel Ayayi was not among the 60 selected players, thus beginning his journey as an undrafted free agent. Ayayi quickly inked a deal with Los Angeles, but a very quiet performance in the NBA summer league, and a flurry of veteran signings by the ring-chasing Lakers, led to his release and a new opportunity across the country on a two-way contract with Washington.
Ayayi only appeared in seven games as rookie, scoring two points with four assists and three boards in 20 minutes of action, although he was a big-time contributor to Washington’s G-League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go’s.
With the Go-Go’s Ayayi averaged 10.6 points, 6.2 assists, and 5.8 rebounds while playing 31 minutes and leading the team to a 19-10 record in his 29 appearances.
Still, Washington released Ayayi from his two-way contract in March, and he spent summer league this year with the Atlanta Hawks – averaging 5.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.4 steals across five games while shooting 40.7% from the field and 22.8% from deep.
Ayayi continues to work toward securing a guaranteed NBA contract while balancing the duties of fatherhood for the first time, as shared by Theo Lawson of the Spokesman-Review.
The NBA has a finite amount of roster spots available, and the gap between “very good numbers in the G-League” and “NBA rotation player” is filled with literally 100’s of qualified hoopers – making it all the more difficult for deserving players like Ayayi to get, and keep, a foot in the door.
However, Ayayi’s diverse skill-set on both ends of the floor is enough that a savvy team in need of guard depth (cough, Portland, cough) should give him a call.
Below are six video clips – all from this year’s summer league – that capture a glimpse of what he is capable of bringing to an NBA team this winter if he gets the opportunity:
Crashing the Glass
This clip highlights one of Ayayi’s greatest strengths while at Gonzaga: his relentless energy on the offensive glass. Sure, this clip could also be used to show what not to do when trying to make an NBA roster, as the New Orleans player who was supposed to be boxing out Ayayi did a terrible job, but that’s what makes Joel so special: he doesn’t take plays off.
Even on an off-night, Ayayi still makes an impact every single game because of plays like this, and NBA teams would be lucky to have a smaller guard with his rebounding instincts and motor helping to clean up mistakes and stealing a few cheap points with just pure hustle.
Attacking the Basket
Ayayi is definitely a system player. He thrived at Gonzaga in more of an off-ball role, getting to his spots and contributing without a particularly high usage rate. That worked great for the Zags, and would work for him well in basically every basketball situation, but it doesn’t work well in the traditionally ball-dominant, show-me-what-you-got style of the summer league.
Still, Ayayi did his best to give a few glimpses of his ability with the ball in his hands, here setting a nice slip screen to get an open look on the perimeter. When the closeout came quickly, Ayayi put the ball on the deck, went to his off-hand, and got a look in the middle of the lane.
It wasn’t the prettiest shot, but two points is two points and more importantly it showed that Ayayi is willing to put the ball on the ground and go get a bucket, or at least get contact and get to the free throw line where he has always been a strong finisher.
Cutting to the Rim
Perhaps the individual skill most associated with Ayayi while at Gonzaga was his ability to cut to the rim – a skill he demonstrated so often that video of him cutting was shown to Hunter Sallis to help him work on that area of his game last season.
This clips shows not only his offensive rebounding prowess (again) but his ability to detect a defender who is ball-watching, slip into a soft spot in the defense, make sure the ball-handler sees him, catch a tough pass and finish at the rim.
Better defenders aren’t going to let this happen all that often, but if/when Ayayi ends up in an offensive system he’s comfortable with he will be great at finding these soft spots and stealing buckets this way – something Zag fans have seen a lot from him over the years.
One thing that is definitely hurting Ayayi is his lack of positional flexibility. He’s not big enough to play the three and he doesn’t possess or display many true point guard skills, limiting him to just being a two-guard in the NBA.
However, when given opportunities we see Ayayi posses the floor vision, decision-making, and ball-handling skills to run offensive sets in a point guard role. Here he runs a two-man game with the big, who sets a high screen at the top of the key. Ayayi fakes out his defender and goes left against the screen, getting past his defender just enough to bring the big man over as a help defender. Once that happens, Ayayi quickly drops a perfect pocket pass to the roll-man, who scores an easy two at the basket.
Ayayi isn’t going to get much run as a true point guard, but his ability to make the right read and perfectly place a pocket pass definitely won’t hurt his odds of sticking in the NBA.
On Ball Defense
Despite being a little undersized in the height department, Ayayi is a big, physical guard who has learned to use his size to his advantage. He was one of Gonzaga’s better perimeter defensive players, and again he often succeeds simply by outworking his opponent.
Here we see Ayayi fight through an (illegal) screen, stick with his defender despite missing his attempt to knock away the pass, and manage to strip the ball away on the gather. It’s another great example of Ayayi using his high basketball IQ and instincts to stick with a play despite things initially going poorly, and still resulting in a strip and two points on the other end for his team.
Who wouldn’t want that kind of energy in a bench role?
Saved the most important for last. This one is simple: Joel’s likelihood of sticking on an NBA roster is almost exclusively tied to his ability to consistently knock down outside shots. His other skills are important – no doubt – but at the end of the day outside shooting will be what makes or breaks his NBA career.
Ayayi’s three point shot improved significantly while at Gonzaga, going from 27.3% in a small role in 18-19, to 34.5% in 19-20 as a starter, and up to 38.9% in his final season in Spokane.
However, he shot really poorly in summer league with the Lakers and only shot 32.5% in the G-League last season. He also shot just 22.8% in summer league this year with Atlanta, once again casting doubt on what is unquestionably the most important skill for him to showcase when trying to land an NBA job.
Ayayi was a great spot-up shooter for Gonzaga, although he rarely got opportunities to shoot pull-up threes because of the nature of Mark Few’s offense.
While the cutting, offensive rebounding, passing, and defensive skills point to a player capable of contributing right now on an NBA roster, Ayayi will need to show that consistent outside shot if he wants a guaranteed contract at the NBA level.
Host – Locked on Zags Podcast
Writer – Ducks Wire
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