Arrow-right Camera

Color Scheme

Subscribe now
Gonzaga Basketball

Through tears, growth spurts and hard work, Michael Ajayi creates unique path to D-I, Gonzaga

Michael Ajayi handles the ball against Gonzaga’s Anton Watson during a game last season. Ajayi had a difficult path to Division I, getting cut from the varsity team his junior year of high school, and only receiving one junior college offer to play in college.  (By Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

When he didn’t make the varsity team at Kentwood (Washington) High School in his junior year, Michael Ajayi sat in his room, tears flowing, wondering if he had a future in basketball.

It was time for the mother of all pep talks.

“I just remember getting cut. They chose the football quarterback over me,” said Ajayi, the Pepperdine transfer who committed to Gonzaga last month and submitted his name into the NBA draft a week ago while maintaining his college eligibility. “Even before that, my dad took me out of AAU ball because if you’re not serious about it (why be on the team.)

“You go to the mirror and look at yourself. You just see the potential you have and you say to yourself, ‘I’m going to work harder than anyone else. I’m going to make varsity and be the best player on the team.’ ”

Ajayi did exactly that. He made a 100% commitment to the game. His dad was convinced enough to put in a concrete full court with two hoops next to the family home in Kent, Washington.

Ajayi was on that court day and night the summer before his senior year, rain or shine. He sprouted a few more inches to 6-foot-5 – he was a 5-7 point guard as a freshman. He fulfilled his pledge to be Kentwood’s best player as a senior and didn’t stop there.

“It gave me confidence and more motivation to keep going if only one summer of work could get me to that point,” said Ajayi, adding that the last people he wanted to let down was his mom and dad, natives of Nigeria who moved to America in the 1990s to start a new life, a family and eventually become U.S. citizens.

The COVID pandemic shortened Ajayi’s senior season to just seven games. He was also dealing with Osgood-Schlatter disease, an overuse condition common during growth spurts that causes a bump and swelling on the shinbone below the knee.

He estimated he averaged 10 points and eight rebounds “despite crazy knee pain,” Ajayi said. “My body had to catch up and grow into my frame.”

His stats didn’t bring much attention from recruiters. His options came down to Pierce Community College near Tacoma or storing his shoes in the closet.

Pierce’s coaching staff received a tip on Ajayi, watched him play and was intrigued enough to bring him on campus for a visit. He went through a workout and it didn’t take long for assistant coach Kenny Hart to notice Ajayi’s physical gifts and devotion to basketball.

“Just the way he approached the game and with his size, you don’t get too many guys that size that have that work ethic,” Hart said. “He was one when he talked about it, he showed it.”

Ajayi joined the team as a forward with guard-like skills. He soon was meeting Hart for early morning workouts during the week, once on the weekend and countless times staying after practice for additional gym time.

Hart works at Heritage Bank during the day, coaches at night and also runs a player development business. He started doing early morning workouts with his son, Trevante Anderson, who played at San Francisco, Idaho and University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) and now plays professionally in Croatia.

“Woke up at 4:45 a.m., drove to Tacoma, about 40-45 minutes,” Ajayi said. “Get there at 5:30, 5:45, start working out.”

Day after day. Sometimes Pierce’s coaching staff would be there and perhaps a few other players, but Ajayi and Hart were regulars, honing in on skill development and film study. There was an emphasis on weights and conditioning in Ajayi’s sophomore season to prepare for, he hoped, Division I, which seemed to be a fanciful dream just a few years before.

“A lot of people aren’t up for it, that type of grind,” Ajayi said. “They’ll come for a couple days. I was the one that was consistent in going every day. You sacrifice a lot, not going out, not partying. It was just me walking in and trying to achieve my goals.”

Ajayi played in the post his first season and wing as a sophomore. He remembers facing Wenatchee Valley‘s Isaac Jones, another late bloomer who became a standout at Idaho and helped Washington State reach the NCAA Tournament last season.

Michael Ajayi blocks Gonzaga’s Ryan Nembhard last season. Ajayi hit a large growth spurt in high school, going from a 5-foot-7 freshman, to 6-foot-5 as a senior.  (By Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Michael Ajayi blocks Gonzaga’s Ryan Nembhard last season. Ajayi hit a large growth spurt in high school, going from a 5-foot-7 freshman, to 6-foot-5 as a senior. (By Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

“The great thing about us, sometimes it’s a good and a bad thing, we allow our guys to make mistakes,” said Hart, who also trains Ajayi’s younger sister Jessica, a standout at Kentwood. “Mike’s first year he made a lot of mistakes, but he was always willing to be super coachable. We didn’t know what to expect in a new role, but he excelled.

“We exploited his guard skills. Nobody in the league could guard him at that position. We played him at ‘3’ the next year and we worked on it during the offseason. He flourished. There’s not many challenges he doesn’t embrace.”

Ajayi visited Western Washington after his freshman year, but after a heart-to-heart chat with Hart, Ajayi returned to Pierce to try to reach his goals of playing Division I and ultimately professional basketball.

Still, Ajayi, who had grown to 6-7, received little interest from four-year schools after putting up big stats in two seasons at Pierce. That changed when he played in a pick-up game with former Washington and NBA standout Isaiah Thomas, former Husky standout Abdul Gaddy and several current and former pros.

“I got a text from Abdul that he played great,” Hart said. “Mike called me super hyped.”

“I was straight hoopin,’ ” Ajayi said. “After the run, ‘IT’ was like, ‘Who is this guy? What school does he go to?’ I introduced myself afterward, told him I go to a Juco. He didn’t get why I was at a Juco and thought I was definitely a D-I talent.”

Later that August night in 2022, Thomas tweeted: “Mike Ajayi, 19 yrs old, plays basketball at Pierce Community College. If you a DI college coach and haven’t heard about him you better do YOUR job! He’s a really good player.”

“When I saw that tweet, I just yelled,” Ajayi said.

Pepperdine coach Lorenzo Romar got the message, too, and quickly contacted Ajayi. It was Ajayi’s only D-I offer, but it was all he needed.

The 220-pound Ajayi led the West Coast Conference in scoring (17.2) and was second in rebounding (9.9) while hitting 46.7% from the field, 47% on 3-pointers. Romar was relieved of head coaching duties prior to the WCC Tournament but allowed to coach the remainder of the season.

Ajayi, a first-team All-WCC honoree, entered the transfer portal roughly a week after the Waves went 1-1 in Las Vegas.

This time, Ajayi received plenty of attention. He heard from Ole Miss, Indiana, Arkansas, Arizona, UCLA and Gonzaga, looking for reinforcements with the departure of do-everything forward Anton Watson. GU coach Mark Few and assistant R-Jay Barsh were in constant contact with Ajayi.

“Nine straight Sweet 16s, 25 straight NCAA Tournaments, winning culture, produce NBA talent with a role like Anton,” Ajayi said of the Zags’ recruiting pitch. “I know a couple of the guys. Nolan (Hickman), I grew up playing against him. I felt like I could fit in with them and how they play. A no-brainer.”

Michael Ayaji guards Gonzaga’s Nolan Hickman while playing for Pepperdine last season. The two will be teammates if Ayaji returns to school after declaring for the NBA draft last week.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Michael Ayaji guards Gonzaga’s Nolan Hickman while playing for Pepperdine last season. The two will be teammates if Ayaji returns to school after declaring for the NBA draft last week. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Ajayi is still in the L.A. area, working out with numerous draft hopefuls – Kentucky’s Antonio Reeves, Indiana’s Kel’el Ware, Virginia’s Ryan Dunn, Florida State’s Jamir Watkins – under the tutelage of former UCLA and NBA player Don MacLean.

Ajayi, who recently measured at just over 6-7½, said he’s all in on the draft “because you have to be right now. If they want me to go back for another year of school, correct stuff and work on things, whatever they say, I’ll work on my game and do a year at Gonzaga.”

That seems to be where it’s headed after Ajayi recently received a draft evaluation from the NBA, but things can change during workouts for teams. “Some of it was undrafted, some of it was second round,” he said. “I just want to get feedback and work on my game and it’ll just better prepare me for next year.”

If he does play one season at Gonzaga, projected in the top 10 in numerous preseason rankings, Hart said the Zags are getting a talented, versatile player and a tireless worker.

“If you’re having a bad day, go interview Mike,” Hart said. “He’s going to make you laugh. He has a smile on his face, goofy but not too crazy. Just a loving kid. He’s super emotional. He cares and he will show you. He’ll play hard for any coach that believes in him.”

Hart attended the WCC Tournament and watched Ajayi post 21 points and 17 rebounds in a win over Pacific and 14 points and 15 boards in a season-ending loss to San Diego.

“They have an area where nobody can see the players and he was just sobbing,” Hart said. “He felt like he didn’t do enough and I’m consoling him. He really cares and he’s emotional. There’s not one bad thing I can say about him. When people ask Romar, he says the same thing.”

Ajayi is looking forward to the next chapter in his defy-the-odds story. He’s working on his 3-point shot, improving as a defender and tightening up his ball-handling and midrange game.

There’s no doubt he’ll put in the time.

Asked what he would tell his ninth-grade self, Ajayi said, “I just tell people if you love something do it 100%. If you can do that, you can achieve a lot on the journey. It’ll be very rewarding. Don’t give up.

“It’s crazy how the world works. Just need one person to believe in you.”