FRISCO, Texas – Even before playing at Gonzaga from 2018 through 2021, Joel Ayayi has received plenty of labels like athletic, versatile and playmaker.
Joe Barrer, his head coach with Lakeland of the NBA G League, where Ayayi is averaging 12.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 1.6 steals per game, has a new moniker for the ex-Bulldog.
“He’s a connector. He can connect with guys with different personalities,” said Barrer, who has had Ayayi in his starting five for the first seven games of the season. “He has a strong voice when he needs to have a strong voice, but he also allows others to lead. On offense and defense, he reads what the team needs at that time and then tries to provide it. His smarts and his unselfishness allow him to be that connector on both ends.”
Of course, the G League is not a new destination for Ayayi after playing 12 games for Capital City, Washington’s G League affiliate, last season and averaged 12.6 points, 6.5 assists, 6.1 rebounds, and one steal per game for the Go-Go.
Last season, his first as a professional, was also when the 22-year-old got his first taste of life in the NBA through a seven-game stint with the Wizards when he averaged 2.9 points per game.
“Every time you’re so close to your lifelong dream and when you get a taste, you want some more,” Ayayi said. “I’m just excited to put the work in and wait for the (next) opportunity.”
His time with Washington also allowed him to again be teammates with fellow Zags Rui Hachimura and Corey Kispert.
“That’s what Gonzaga is all about,” Ayayi said. “Every time we play against each other, every time we have the opportunity to be around each other, we do so. We have a really tight brotherhood. It’s really dope to see each other succeed.”
Ayayi calls last season a blessing, realizing that few undrafted free agents get a taste of the NBA as rookies. He also relished the chance to get acclimated to life in the G League, where a return trip to the NBA can often arise at a moment’s notice.
He considers the Magic’s G League affiliate a great fit.
“Yeah, we live and practice in Orlando,” he said. “It’s really good to use an NBA facility, be around an NBA facility, be around NBA people, players. Again, it makes you want it really even more because you get that everyday taste of it.”
He’s still less than a full year removed from his time with the Zags, so his Spokane tenure remains fresh in his mind for the great memories he and his teammates forged on the court, the friendships that continue to this day and the countless life lessons he learned from longtime Bulldogs head coach Mark Few.
“I loved every bit of it,” Ayayi said. … “I love the connections that I made because they’re still there and every time I come back during the summer, there’s always a lot of joy and good times. Really four great years for sure. (Few helped me with) just the ability and willingness to be a winning player, to make winning plays and the attention to detail, understanding that at this level everything matters.”
Many Bulldogs fans still remember Ayayi mostly for his 12-point, 13-rebound, 14-assist triple-double in a 116-88 win against Portland on Jan. 8, 2021, the first in school history.
“For sure, it’s dope, it’s fun,” he said. “To get a triple-double, you need your teammates to make shots, so props to them for sure.
“Obviously, it’s a great accomplishment, something that I’m really proud of. It came that one time, but I’m excited for whoever’s going to be second one in our history. It will happen to this team for sure.”
Like he’s done everywhere else he’s played, Ayayi has made a favorable first impression on his new coach and teammates.
“(He’s) just a great person,” Barrer said. “ … He’s one of the most intelligent players we’ve had in our program. We knew that about him coming in and he’s been everything as advertised, not only a good player but a good person and is extremely intelligent with how he plays.”
Ayayi also takes great pride in being one of three pro players in his family. His sister, Valeriane Vukosavijevic, who once played in the WNBA, is now playing in Prague of the Czech Republic. His brother, Gerald Ayayi, is playing in France’s top division.
“It’s dope (to have siblings in the pros). Everybody relates,” Ayayi said. “There’s a lot of sharing and helping each other out.”
Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.
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