Coming into this season, the question mark of who would fill the point was such a large and looming shadow that it was enough to cast a bit of doubt on the whole season. Great teams need more-than-capable point guards, that is just the state of basketball. When Ryan Woolridge announced he was transferring, that helped smooth things over a bit, but the biggest x-factor was the myth of Joel Ayayi.
As he has proved throughout the beginning of the season, we don’t have to wonder about Ayayi anymore.
His overall state line is everything you could want from a back-up point guard: 23 minutes, 6.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 turnovers. He shoots a respectable 35 percent from long range, a necessity on this team to keep opposing defenses from packing it into the post. His free throw percentage leaves a bit to be desired at the moment, but it is also heavily skewed by his blah 2-of-6 effort from the line last night.
Most importantly, Ayayi is an incredibly steady hand. There are only 32 players playing over 10 minutes per game averaging at least three assists and turning over the ball less than once a night. Guess who is one of those players?
Perhaps, his biggest contributions have come on the defensive end. Both Woolridge and Admon Gilder have looked to be fantastic defenders to open the year, and Ayayi might be better than both. Stats are incredibly limited in what they can tell, especially early in the season, but Ayayi has the lowest defensive rating (76.5) and the highest defensive box plus/minus (4.7) on the team. His steal percentage ranks as a top 100 player in the nation.
Overall, this defense boosts his value on the court, and Ayayi’s propensity for being a pass first guard helps buoy his offensive numbers. Using overall box plus/minus is one of the cheapest ways to look at a players overall contributions to the game, and Ayayi comes in second on the team, behind Killian Tillie.
Much of this success should not have been a surprise to us. Ayayi arrived at Gonzaga very young and raw, but this past summer on the FIBA circuit he demonstrated he was ready to play against some of Europe’s best players his age. FIBA success does not directly translate to success in college basketball, but Ayayi’s performance to start the year has definitely relieved the post-Josh Perkins era of Gonzaga basketball.
This season will be an important building block for Ayayi. Going into next year, the Zags as of now have four-star guard Dominick Harris inked and potentially will add five-star guard Jalen Suggs to the mix. Ayayi’s ball control abilities combined with his experience will allow Mark Few and the coaching staff to ease Harris (and maybe Suggs) into the offense, not requiring them to run it from day one.
Using the 2016-17 squad as an example, one of the major reasons why the offense was the best in college basketball was because Few was able to start two true point guards in Perkins and Nigel Williams-Goss. Try and harass one to upset the offense, and they could just hand it off to the other to run the point. There really isn’t a defensive game plan, outside of a straight up zone, that will slow that style of play down.
Like all things Bulldogs this season, the Zags haven’t seen enough good competition to come away with any super solid takeaways. Feast Week will really provide the first and best window into how this team operates against tough competition, on short notice, in back-to-back succession. Ayayi, so far, hasn’t done anything to give us a cause for worry. Answering that question mark at point guard is going to go a long way this season in determining how far this squad can go come March.