Joel Ayayi isn’t picky about the pronunciation of his name. Good thing, because nearly everybody messes up not only his surname but his first name.
All together now: JOE-el EYE-yigh-YEE. The “yigh” rhymes with sigh. (While we’re at it, here’s the correct pronunciation for freshman forward Filip Petrusev: PHIL-eep PET-true-SEV.)
“It happens really often, especially the first time (someone tries),” said Ayayi, the easygoing guard from France. “It’s not a problem.”
Nor was it a problem for Ayayi to adjust to a world of change at the tender age of 17 – most incoming freshmen are 18 – when he arrived at Gonzaga in the summer of 2017. Ayayi had the option of being in the 2017 or 2018 recruiting class but elected to finish his high school requirements and enroll early.
“I’ve imagined it this way: My son (Liam) is about to turn 17, and Joel went halfway across the world and handled the environment, socially, athletically,” said GU assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, who recruited Ayayi. “I’m pretty impressed with that.”
The food, language, culture, campus, academics and basketball in the U.S. represented significant changes from Ayayi’s daily life in France.
“You have to adapt a lot,” the 6-foot-5 Ayayi said. “It was difficult at the beginning, now it’s really cool. We learn English at school so I had the basics, but it was hard at the beginning because I knew the English from school, not really the English everybody is talking. And it was way harder, because they say it way faster.”
Time seems to be on Ayayi’s side. He won’t turn 19 until March, and has gradually added 12 pounds to reach his current weight of 172. Ayayi figures he’s still growing. His dad, who stands 6-7, played professionally in France and for Benin’s national team. Joel has dual citizenship like his father, but he plays on France’s age-group teams.
Rui Hachimura’s father is also from the West African nation of Benin.
Ayayi is a product of the French sport institute INSEP, which was home to teammate Killian Tillie and former Zags great Ronny Turiaf.
“Last year there were lot of ups and downs, but this year is probably more equivalent to what a true freshman would be,” Lloyd said. “He’s kind of a late bloomer, so he has to add strength, but he’s always been a guy who has competed well and found a way to impact games.”
Basketball is prominent in the Ayayi family. Joel’s older sister, Valeriane, plays for the French national team and has WNBA experience. Younger brother Gerald, 17, plays in France’s third division and is considering the possibility of college basketball in the U.S. Gerald’s twin sister also plays the sport.
Ayayi averaged 15.7 points, leading France to a third-place finish at the FIBA U18 European Championships this past summer. Petrusev’s Serbian team won the tournament.
Ayayi is trying to crack Gonzaga’s rotation after redshirting last season. It won’t be easy with the guard line of Josh Perkins, wings Zach Norvell Jr. and Corey Kispert, and true freshman Greg Foster Jr. North Dakota transfer guard Geno Crandall appears to be on track to join the Zags in the near future.
Ayayi showed off a strong runner/floater game in France. He uses his quickness in the open court and appears to be a capable rebounder. His 3-point shot has shown improvement and he’s working on playing off ball screens, a prominent part of Gonzaga’s offense, but not so much during his youth in France.
“We have a crowded backcourt,” Ayayi said. “I’m just trying to bring all I can, a lot of energy, talking, all of those little things that maybe people don’t see, but it’s a role player’s life. Everybody has been a role player. This is where you start out.”
Or in Ayayi’s case, it’s just another step in his basketball journey.
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