Grand pronouncements after one practice can be the equivalent of fool’s gold, but reasoned first impressions are always welcome.
For the latter, we turn to Joel Ayayi, all of 20 years old and something of a Gonzaga graybeard as he goes through his fourth preseason in a Zags uniform. He knows what to expect at practice and understands the grind of a five-month season and the soaring expectations that accompany each GU squad.
“It’s kind of like the first day of school,” Ayayi said following Friday’s first preseason practice. “It was great to be out there for the fact that now it becomes official and it’s one step closer to the season. It brings out a little more intensity and enthusiasm.
“Everyone is here now and ready to give their best for the team. Right now kind of starts us against the world.”
A lot of folks like Gonzaga’s odds in that matchup, even after perhaps the most unusual offseason in college basketball history. Ayayi, though, is focused on the process and the incremental improvement that needs to be made in the coming weeks before games – big games – begin arriving in late November.
He’s getting an early read on several new teammates, the progress made by fellow returners and how the pieces might fit together on a team that’s a candidate for No. 1 in preseason polls.
The redshirt junior likes what he’s seen thus far.
“Just the camaraderie,” said Ayayi, who pulled his name from the NBA draft in August. “We’re already getting along really well. We’ve spent a bunch of time together.”
That includes during the team’s seemingly annual zipline trip, but the camping adventures in North Idaho took this preseason off. The 17-man roster, with five walk-ons and highly touted freshmen Jalen Suggs, Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther, features eight newcomers.
“I think it’s great to see the progress of Pavel (Zakharov) and Oumar (Ballo),” said Ayayi, who averaged 10.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists last season. “I really think they’re understanding the game and getting the team principles.”
The 7-foot Zakharov saw limited time as a freshman while the 7-foot Ballo is coming off an NCAA-mandated academic redshirt year. They’re competing for playing time behind projected starter Drew Timme, who was highly productive backing up West Coast Conference Player of the Year Filip Petrusev, now earning paycheck with a pro team in Serbia.
The 6-4 Suggs is the probable starter at point guard while the 6-3 Harris and 6-7 Strawther should factor into the rotation.
“Jalen has tremendous potential. You’d be blind if you can’t see that, and he’s a guy ready to learn, eager to learn. Those are really good traits,” Ayayi said. “Same thing for (Harris and Strawther), a lot of potential. Dom is going to be one of the best defenders when he gets dialed in and he’s a better shooter than people give him credit for. (Strawther) is versatile, super talented. I don’t think there’s one thing he can’t do on the floor.”
The backcourt newcomers join 6-1 combo guard Aaron Cook, a graduate transfer from Southern Illinois with 103 career games and scoring averages of 10.5 in 2019 and 15.0 in an injury-shortened 2020 season.
“He’s super smart, willing to contribute to this team and do whatever it takes,” Ayayi said. “Great point guard, he’s going to be really good defensively and he’ll have a good amount of things to do in the offense.”
Ayayi doesn’t anticipate major changes to his role. He put in offseason time working on his body and perimeter shot, based on feedback from NBA evaluators.
The 6-5 native of France ranks second only to senior wing Corey Kispert in terms of GU game experience. Both will be counted on to guide a young but talented roster.
“It feels good,” laughed Ayayi, when asked how it feels to be an elder statesman on the team. “It’s nice to have seen things before and go through them again with a deeper understanding and be a guy that helps younger guys and gives advice.”
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