LAS VEGAS – For Joel Ayayi, this summer is about embracing a new role, taking every day as it comes and learning from his mistakes. The next chapter of his life demands early mornings and late nights, hours of practice and lots of sacrifice – possibly more than Ayayi can comprehend at this point.
Preparing for fatherhood is one thing. Then there’s the other challenge Ayayi faces: trying to clamp down a roster spot with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.
Ayayi is dealing with one undertaking at a time – the looming birth of his first child and proving to an NBA franchise he’s deserving of a 15-man roster spot after two of them cut the former Gonzaga guard in his first year as a pro.
“It’s great, to be honest, I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s not overwhelming at all,” Ayayi said of his dual responsibilities following Atlanta’s July 9 summer league opener against the Utah Jazz. “I just feel like it’s a blessing and I’m really thankful.”
Coming off a 12-day trip to Las Vegas where he poured all of his efforts into scoring, defending, rebounding and showcasing the intangibles that made him a first-team All-West Coast Conference player at Gonzaga, Ayayi is redirecting his energy toward the other part of his impressive juggling act.
He and his wife of less than a year, Yustina, are expecting the birth of their baby boy any day. From a basement media scrum area at Vegas’ Cox Pavilion, Ayayi provided a series of potential due dates ranging from now until Tuesday – nearly “right after” his stay at summer league. Ayayi’s done all the prep work, but it’s hard to know how a game plays out until the ball’s tipped.
“I feel like you’re never ready until the baby’s actually here and you have to do all this stuff,” he said.
Since leaving Gonzaga last spring, Ayayi’s spent the better part of the past 14 months toggling between major life events and significant developments in his NBA career. On Aug. 3, the Frenchman signed a two-way contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. On Aug. 19, two days after his summer league finale with the Lakers, he was married in Malibu, California. On Oct. 15, after a spotty NBA preseason, he was waived by Los Angeles. Two days later, Ayayi got another two-way opportunity with the Washington Wizards, the same organization that drafted former Zags Corey Kispert and Rui Hachimura.
Asked what he’s taken away from his first year as a pro, Ayayi said, “Just how competitive it is.”
“Every year it’s like 60 new guys, so somebody’s got to go,” he added. “Some spots have to open up and I learned it the hard way, I got cut twice already. But I think it’s a good thing it happened early, because it definitely made me stronger and I learned a whole bunch.”
Ayayi did a little bit of everything in his 29 games with Washington’s G League team, Capital City Go-Go, averaging 10.7 points on 48% shooting and 33% from 3-point range while dishing out 6.6 assists to go with 5.7 rebounds in just over 30 minutes per game. Splitting time between clubs per the terms of his two-way deal, Ayayi also logged 24 total minutes in seven appearances for the Wizards.
During his two-way stint in Washington, D.C., Ayayi learned his wife was pregnant. Months later, another emotional swing. On March 9, Ayayi was waived for the second time as the Wizards cleared roster space for another guard, Jordan Schakel. Two days later, Ayayi was reacquired by Capital City and finished out the year with Washington’s G League affiliate.
“Nobody’s safe unless you’re one of those top-50 guys,” Ayayi said. “Every year, like I said, it’s 60 new guys. No matter what, no matter who you are, at some point you’re going to be a free agent so you always have to get better, always have to build year after year.”
In early June, Ayayi fielded a call from the Hawks, who’d been bullish on the versatile Gonzaga guard since he tested the NBA draft waters following his junior year in Spokane. The call ended with another summer league invitation, another opportunity to showcase his skills to coaches and general managers, another emotional swing Ayayi hopes he can parlay into a permanent NBA job.
“It was really good for me. It was a bunch of familiar faces, and it’s just great to see a team that’s been following you for a while now still values what you do,” Ayayi said. “It’s just a great opportunity for me. Really blessed and thankful.”
Ayayi brought more maturity and experience to Vegas this summer, not to mention a better understanding of what teams are looking for from more expendable, undrafted players – many of whom are brought in for the sole purpose of filling out a summer league roster.
“Guys like me, it’s all about defense. Defense and bringing the energy. What can you do to complement the other players on the roster?” Ayayi said. “Then obviously, making open shots. That’s what the NBA is today. Everybody has to be able to make shots. So I just try to bring energy and if I can, score the ball and be a great defender. You’re for sure going to have a place somewhere.”
Ayayi’s confidence, which be may more crucial than his jump shot at this stage of his career, doesn’t seem to be misplaced.
The 6-foot-4 guard played in all five of Atlanta’s summer league games, starting in the final three while averaging approximately 21 minutes. Ayayi, playing primarily as a two-guard alongside former second-round pick Sharife Cooper, averaged 5.4 points on 11-of-27 (40%) shooting, but he was excellent on the glass. Ayayi hauled down 5.8 rebounds per game – including 11 against San Antonio – while adding 2.4 assists.
“He’s just a smart player,” said Nick Van Exel, the former NBA journeyman guard who coached Atlanta’s summer league squad. “Joel is a really, really smart player, knows how to cut, gets after it defensively. He’s one of those utility guys. Does about 20 things. Doesn’t do anything great or special, but when he gets in the game things happen.”
Ayayi’s working diligently and prudently to guarantee he’s in the NBA this fall, but he’s also keeping late hours to make sure he’s ready for the full-time job he’ll be assuming any day. Before summer league, Ayayi got some hands-on training while visiting with his infant niece, and he’s spent hours browsing through books. Apparently, prepping for fatherhood takes thousands of practice shots, too.
“I just thank God every day for the health of the baby so far, for my wife’s health and just my health,” Ayayi said. “Being able to be here and not having to worry too much about her, because I can focus on basketball, and then as soon as I’m done, all my eyes will be on her. So it’s just exciting. I’m really excited. It’s like me maturing a little faster, but I’m really, really excited and really blessed.”
Ayayi and his wife still haven’t nailed down a name .
“That’s probably the one thing I’m nervous about is finding a name, because the clock’s ticking,” Ayayi said. “We’ll find it, under pressure maybe.”
Joel Jr.? Joel II?
“Nah, nah, I can’t go with junior,” Ayayi said. “I’ll have to be a little more creative.”
With his latest summer league audition finished, Ayayi will have to wait to see where the NBA chips fall. Any other year, it might be a tense time. If the former Gonzaga guard doesn’t find his way back into the NBA this year, it’ll be inevitably harder to do so next summer, 23 years old and two full years removed from his college career. Fortunately, Ayayi has something to bide the time as he waits for the next phone call.
“It’s going to be a learning process,” Ayayi said of fatherhood. “It’s going to be part of it and hopefully by Week 2, Week 3, I should be good with everything.
“But I’m just happy. I’m really excited and it’s been a long nine months.”
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