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Gonzaga Basketball

Michael Ajayi withdraws from NBA draft, will play senior season with Gonzaga

Gonzaga’s Anton Watson looks for an opening against Pepperdine’s Michael Ajayi in a January game at Firestone Fieldhouse in Malibu.  (By Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

In the finest tradition of Drew Timme, Anton Watson and Julian Strawther, Michael Ajayi provided some deadline day drama for Gonzaga basketball followers before withdrawing his name from the NBA draft.

Ajayi’s decision hit social media Wednesday afternoon, six-plus hours before the withdrawal deadline for early entrants. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony’s was first with the news on X and it was quickly reposted by Ajayi.

Ajayi committed to Gonzaga in March after earning first-team All-West Coast Conference honors last year in his lone season at Pepperdine. He declared for the draft in early April while maintaining the option of returning to college.

Ajayi is a strong candidate for the starting position occupied by Watson last season. A year ago nearly to the day, Watson announced two hours before the deadline he was returning for a fifth season in a Gonzaga release. In June 2022, Timme waited until 45 minutes before the 8:59 p.m. deadline to make his return to Gonzaga official, several hours after Strawther had done the same.

The versatile Ajayi strengthens an impressive roster that includes four returning starters, six of the top seven in last season’s rotation and transfers Khalif Battle (Arkansas), Emmanuel Innocenti (Tarleton State) and Braeden Smith (Colgate). Battle is a senior, Innocenti will be a sophomore and Smith, the Patriot League Player of the Year last season as a sophomore, is expected to redshirt.

The Zags, often projected inside the top 10 in preseason polls, could start five seniors with the return of guards Ryan Nembhard and Nolan Hickman, forwards Graham Ike and Ben Gregg and Ajayi. Those five have 422 career games at the college level, including 280 in a GU uniform, led by Gregg’s 106 and Hickman’s 104.

Gonzaga also returns rising sophomores Dusty Stromer, who started 15 games last season, and Braden Huff, who made the WCC All-Freshman team. The Zags seemingly have built a deep roster capable of playing with traditional, smaller or bigger lineups.

Ajayi was an under-the-radar recruit at Kentwood (Washington) High and during two seasons at Pierce College near Tacoma. He had a big junior year for Pepperdine, pacing the WCC in scoring (17.2 points) and was second in rebounding (9.9) while connecting on 46.6% of attempts inside the arc and 47% on 3-pointers.

He’s been training in the Los Angeles area with CAA Sports under the direction of former UCLA and NBA player Don MacLean. Ajayi’s training partners include Kentucky’s Antonio Reeves, Indiana’s Kel’el Ware, Virginia’s Ryan Dunn and Florida State’s Jamir Watkins.

Ajayi had a solid showing at the NBA draft combine in May. Ajayi, who was listed at 6-7 at Pepperdine but measured 6-5 without shoes at the combine, scored a team-high 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field, including 2 of 3 on 3-pointers, in one scrimmage. He added seven rebounds, tied for the most by either team, in 18 minutes of playing time.

The Kent, Washington, native had nine points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals in another scrimmage at the combine.

Ajayi was No. 75 in ESPN’s latest top 100 NBA prospects but he wasn’t projected to be selected in most two-round (58 picks) mock drafts. Watson is No. 85 on the list.

Gonzaga has filled 12 of 13 possible scholarships with Ajayi’s decision. The Zags appear close to landing 7-foot center Ismaila Diagne, a Senegal native who has played for Real Madrid’s U18 team the past two years. Several Spanish media outlets reported that Diagne has committed to GU, but a source told The Spokesman-Review nothing has been finalized.