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Gonzaga Basketball

‘Over here everyone can play.’ Gonzaga’s Michael Ajayi hasn’t looked back since withdrawing from NBA Draft

Michael Ajayi wasn’t entirely sure what the day would have in store when he woke up from a hotel room in Toronto on May 29.

There was a workout with the Toronto Raptors on the agenda – his fifth with an NBA franchise during the predraft process – but Ajayi wasn’t sure how the rest of the afternoon and evening would play out.

He knew there’d be a conversation with his agent, possibly one or two with family members and then a phone call with Gonzaga coach Mark Few.

Few didn’t know what news he’d be getting that day from the Pepperdine transfer, largely because Ajayi, who was widely considered Gonzaga’s top addition this offseason, still didn’t know what news he’d be delivering.

Nonetheless, there was a decision to make, a hard deadline and only a brief period in the late morning/early afternoon where Ajayi would have a chance to escape the pressure, clear his mind, break a sweat and showcase what he could do for members of the Raptors’ organization.

The odds of Ajayi returning to school at that point?

“It was like 50/50 for me,” he said.

The day prior, Ajayi’s new coaching staff was pinging his phone, eager to learn if the transfer wing would be signing up for one more year of college with a preseason top-five Gonzaga team or chasing his dreams at the NBA level.

The resolution came roughly 24 hours later, when Ajayi talked things over with his agent, then dialed up Few to let the Gonzaga coach know he could count the West Coast Conference’s leading scorer and second-leading rebounder as part of the Bulldogs’ plans next season.

A tough call, but one Ajayi felt strongly about at the time and a decision he still stands by more than a month later.

“I really felt like I could play at the next level, but my agent called me and said, ‘Next year you can improve your draft stock and you’re on a great team next year,’ ” Ajayi said. “So I felt like it would be a win-win situation if I went back or stayed in. So just wanted to play it safe and do another year at Gonzaga and have fun doing that.”

In what was considered one of the weaker NBA drafts in recent memory, Ajayi had an outside shot of hearing his name called, presumably in the second round. Anton Watson, the player Ajayi is trying to replace at GU, wasn’t projected to be drafted, but the versatile forward wound up going 54th overall to the Boston Celtics.

Ajayi didn’t want to leave anything to question and figured if one season at a lower-tier school like Pepperdine could transform him from a largely unknown junior college transfer to a fringe NBA draft prospect, 12 months under Few’s tutelage at Gonzaga could help him make even bigger jumps, both in his game and up NBA draft boards next spring.

“It took me to the last minute or two to decide,” Ajayi said. “I’m glad I came back, for sure.”

After completing workouts with the Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings, as well as a visit to the NBA draft combine, Ajayi came away from the predraft process with valuable feedback and plenty of homework.

NBA teams are hoping to see more volume from the 3-point line after Ajayi made 47% on 2.5 attempts per game last season at Pepperdine.

Ajayi went 3 of 8 from the NBA 3-point line and scored 23 in two scrimmages at the draft combine in May.

“Then maybe increase my athleticism a little bit more,” Ajayi said. “Try to play above the rim especially this year.”

Ajayi got a short break after traveling the country for predraft workouts and spending two months in the Los Angeles area training alongside fellow Creative Artist Agency (CAA) Sports clients/NBA draft prospects Reed Sheppard (Kentucky), Antonio Reeves (Kentucky). Kel’el Ware (Indiana), Ryan Dunn (Virginia) and Jamir Watkins (Florida State).

He’s since settled in to his new home in Spokane and is more than two weeks into organized summer workouts with new teammates and coaches at Gonzaga.

“When I first got there, day one practice was full of energy and a lot of competitive spirit,” Ajayi said. “Everyone’s talking, everyone’s having a lot of energy. Mark Few, he’s very precise. He’s looking for your mistakes and he’s going to tell you about your mistakes, help you correct them and find ways to get better.”

Ajayi got a decent look at Gonzaga’s roster during two WCC matchups last season, but the 6-foot-7, 220-pound wing has a better understanding and feel for the team’s returning players after a few weeks of competitive practices and workouts.

“Over here, everyone can play. Everyone can score, play defense,” Ajayi said. “Nolan (Hickman) is good at attacking the rim, getting to the basket. Ryan (Nembhard) is great at finding guys, having great vision. Graham Ike’s good down in the post. So just trying to find ways to fit and play with their games. Find ways to mesh well together as a team and I feel like those practices are going to help us.”

The toughest defensive assignment for Ajayi during his encounters with Gonzaga last season?

“Maybe Ryan because he’s so fast and he can change speeds quickly,” Ajayi said. “You’ve just got to be aware of that off the screens, being ready to guard it.”

Ajayi will be one of five newcomers on next year’s GU roster and one of three on campus, along with Arkansas’ Khalif Battle and Colgate’s Braeden Smith.

“KB, he’s special man and his personality matches it, too,” Ajayi said. “He’s very funny, cracks jokes in the locker room. So he’s just a very energetic, funny guy. Then on the court, he can do a little bit of everything. He can shoot, he can drive, he can draw fouls, pass the ball. His vision’s really good. So having him on the court really makes me happy, and I feel like it’ll be very dangerous next year. Then Braeden Smith coming in also is a great guy to have. He pushes Ryan, KB, Nolan.”

The Zags haven’t been subtle about the team’s goals entering next season.

That includes Few, who’s guided the program to nine consecutive Sweet 16 appearances and 15 consecutive opening-round wins at the NCAA Tournament.

“Mark Few, he said it the first practice. National championship,” Ajayi said. “This team is capable of winning it. I keep talking to my teammates, we can really win a national championship.”