If you paid attention to the FIBA U18 Euro Championships this summer, it would have been impossible to miss a string of strong performances from redshirt freshman Joel Ayayi as he led France to a third-place finish while earning a place on the All-Tournament team.
For the dynamic point guard, getting a taste of success under the pressure of performing for his national team validates the developmental efforts he made while redshirting last season. That success should also give him confidence entering a season where the biggest question mark on the roster is one he could play a part in addressing.
Josh Perkins played over 80% of the minutes available at the point guard position last year, as Gonzaga lacked a true backup point to spell him when he tired or was ineffective. Perkins will likely reprise that workload, though it sounds like Geno Crandall may in fact be available when the season tips off (definitely, maybe?) which would alleviate much of the concern regarding the back-up point guard position.
But what’s the plan if Crandall’s tenuous transfer falls through at the 11th hour? Ayayi would suddenly be expected to carry the water as the second point guard. Sure, Mark Few could probably cobble together a committee approach with Zach Norvell soaking up some minutes at the “1,” but that situation is not ideal and understates how important it is in mark Few’s system to have a quarterback on the floor to keep everything humming. This isn’t simply a case of needing someone to bring the ball up the floor.
If the worst case happens and Perkins suffers a serious injury—he’s already entering the season on the mend from off-season shoulder surgery mind you—can Ayayi (and hopefully Crandall), keep the train on the tracks?
No offense to the young French guard, but if Ayayi has to play 20-25 minutes a game this season, then something has gone terribly awry and the season we’re all hoping Gonzaga will have is probably going to look drastically different. But, I do think Ayayi is capable of spelling Perkins for a few minutes at a time without there being any drastic drop off which would also allow him to get his feet wet and gather valuable experience on his path to being Gonzaga’s next lead guard.
The key for Ayayi will be to prove to the coaching staff that he can be consistent and steady. Though he may not have elite explosion, he has tantalizing physical tools and plays with an aggressive mindset on both ends of the floor. He demonstrated over the summer that he can finish in various ways around the basket, but still needs to make strides with protecting the ball and hoisting a consistent jumper. He may not be quite ready for a role against the likes of UNC, Duke (hopefully), or Tennessee, but this shouldn’t be a lost season for him either.
Huge game for Gonzaga redshirt freshman Joel Ayayi in France's 86-81 quarterfinal win vs. Greece at #FIBAU18Europe— Austin Green (@LosCrossovers) August 2, 2018
Ayayi had 31 (11/16 2FG, 2/5 3FG, 3/3 FT), 5 reb, 5 stl, 2 ast, 3 TOs in 29:18. Aggressive defender with disruptive length, smart cutter, made 4 floaters in a row pic.twitter.com/wgtsFXIFXK
If Geno Crandall’s transfer goes through, then he’ll almost certainly slide into a three-man backcourt rotation with Perkins and Norvell. But that doesn’t mean Ayayi should be ignored. He’s a key part of Gonzaga’s future, but may also have a part to play in its present.