Next man up. It’s a mantra that is preached ad nauseam by coaches and athletes in every sport when faced with departures and injuries. It’s one thing to say it. It’s another to deliver. The backcourt was a big question mark entering the season. But for Joel Ayayi, it was an opportunity for the French guard to take his moment and shine—an opportunity he seized with both hands.
Coming off a redshirt freshman campaign that essentially saw him only take the floor in mop-up duty, casual observers might have been stunned to see Ayayi increase his scoring output more than six-fold from 1.7 ppg to 10.6 ppg.
It wasn’t just his scoring prowess in the early part of the season that impressed, however, as the totality of his skillset was on full display. Ayayi embodies the ideal of a walking triple-double. Though he didn’t actually have one, he always seemed to be a threat to pick one up. He showcased a knack for crashing the boards, scooping up rebounds at both ends of the floor to create second-shot opportunities or ignite a transition opportunity the other way. And while he wasn’t the primary ball handler for the offense, he showed he had an eye for the assist as well.
Consistently strong performances throughout the month of November—highlighted by a 21-points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists outing against Southern Miss in the Bahamas—earned Ayayi a permanent place in the starting lineup once the calendar flipped to December with Admon Gilder slowed by a lower body injury.
Ayayi proved to be a valuable defensive disruptor too, utilizing his length and acumen to wreak havoc in opponent’s passing lanes on top of the rebounding help he provided from the backcourt.
The sophomore guard played so well throughout the non-conference portion of the schedule that the possibility of an early departure to the professional ranks began to materialize. While an inconsistent stretch during WCC play may have quieted those talks, Ayayi rebounded with strong performances during the conference postseason which earned him the WCC Tournament MVP award.
While Ayayi didn’t get the chance to burnish his reputation on a national stage during the NCAA Tournament, his (hopeful, anticipated) return to a squad poised for another deep run might ease some of that disappointment.
Ayayi showed he made the most of his first two years on campus, one of which was spent in the redshirt clinic improving his body to withstand the rigors of high level basketball and learning the nuances required to function in Gonzaga’s scheme. The 6’5” guard has always had the tantalizing tools to be a game changer, but it was his work and patience while out of the spotlight over the last two years that set the stage for his breakout sophomore campaign. The secret is out now, and Ayayi won’t catch any opponents by surprise this fall. Something tells me that won’t matter one bit.