As the unabashed and self-appointed conductor of the Ayayi Express, saying farewell to our French guard is a particularly bittersweet exercise for me.
It has been almost exactly four years since Joel Ayayi announced his commitment to Gonzaga on April 27, 2017.
Since that time, we’ve had a front row seat to Ayayi’s ascendence from a relatively unknown, raw and scrawny guard who transformed himself into a complete basketball player whose highlights should be played at youth basketball camps for years to come.
Ayayi has been the poster child for patience and development. He took a redshirt his first year in Spokane during the 2017-18 season and toiled behind the scenes with new transfer arrival Brandon Clarke while their recruiting classmate in Corey Kispert claimed a spot in the starting lineup as a freshman (what a recruiting class that was). Ayayi played only sparingly during the following campaign (128 minutes total) as Clarke helped take the Zags to the Elite 8 before departing early as a first round pick in the NBA Draft. But Ayayi’s time was coming.
With a completely revamped backcourt at the start of the 2019-20 season, highlighted by a pair of transfers in Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder who were still transitioning into Gonzaga’s scheme, Ayayi came up big for the coaching staff and announced his arrival to the college basketball world with eye-catching performances (highlighted by the 21 point, 12 rebound performance against Southern Miss at the Battle 4 Atlantis) underscored by an incredible knack for always being in the right place at the right time.
After Mark Few moved Ayayi into the starting lineup on December 4, 2019 following the first month of that season, Gonzaga only lost two games (@BYU and last week’s national championship) during his tenure as a starter. In his second career start, Ayayi drained a three in the dying seconds to seal a win on the road against rival Washington.
Ayayi just always seems to make the right play at the right time. That Ayayi and winning go hand in hand is no coincidence—Josh Perkins recently commented that Ayayi’s squad had a knack for winning more often than not when the coaches split up the team for scrimmages—as he excelled in all the little details that turn good teams into great ones.
I have not come across many athletes in college basketball who were able to affect the game in so many ways while doing most of their damage without dominating the ball. His off-ball movement and reading of the game consistently jump off the screen when you turn on a GU game, but what often goes unnoticed is how much easier Ayayi makes the game for everyone else on his team. That’s a rare and invaluable gift.
Ayayi’s unselfish and do-everything approach to basketball seems to have been tailor made to playing at Gonzaga. To watch the Zags is to watch beautiful, free-flowing basketball where the ball is shared and no one cares who gets credit. In so many ways, those principles are the foundation of Ayayi’s game, and in retrospect, it is wholly unsurprising that he thrived in a Gonzaga uniform.
In a program that has claimed countless successes over the years with its player development machine, it’s no small compliment for Mark Few to name Ayayi as one of Gonzaga’s greatest development stories. That Ayayi earned that recognition after both he and Few had their doubts about whether he would ever be good enough to play for Gonzaga during his early days with the program is a testament to the countless hours of work he put in behind the scenes during the two seasons when he was mostly a name on the team roster, and the enduring self-belief required to make it at a program that has risen to the elite of college basketball.
Because of that belief, we had the privilege of watching Joel Ayayi play some truly wonderful basketball at Gonzaga. It was a great four years, and when we look back on his time in Spokane, Ayayi should always be remembered as the consummate Zag and the ultimate winner.