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How Joel Ayayi Has Blossomed Into Gonzaga's Unsung Hero

The junior from France is widely considered the Zags' fourth-best player, but he may just be their most important one.

Mark Few just wasn’t sure. He went back and forth, back and forth, watching the new guard bumble through practices. Yes, the Gonzaga men's coach could see the talent, the versatility, the flashes that made Joel Ayayi a legitimate prospect at the French sports institute. But Ayayi had arrived at school early, in 2017, fresh off leading France to a third-place finish in the U-18 European Championships. He was young, skinny and, by his own admission, overwhelmed. “Initially, I didn’t know that he would be good enough to play here,” Few says, candidly, four years later.

Ayayi was good enough, turns out, not only to play at Gonzaga but also to start and star and become an unlikely catalyst for a team pursuing the first undefeated season in men’s college basketball in 45 years. He’s not the Bulldogs' leading scorer (Drew Timme, with Corey Kispert close behind), rebounder (Timme) or passer (Andrew Nembhard). He’s not the top prospect in program history (Jalen Suggs), nor the first player pulled from the French institute (Ronny Turiaf, then Killian Tillie), nor likely to vault past Timme, Kispert or Suggs on NBA draft boards.

And yet, Ayayi might be the Zags' most important player, even as their fourth “best” one. Suggs refers to him as “our motor.” Few notes that Ayayi does not possess one “standalone skill that would make him a bonafide lottery pick.” But, the coach adds, “Man, he just helps teams win.”

BISHOP: How Gonzaga Zagged

Gonzaga's Joel Ayayi shoots between two USC defenders

Few points to one particular contest as proof of concept: season opener, Nov. 26, against Kansas on a neutral floor. The Zags had positioned their team among the NCAA tournament contenders the previous spring, before the global pandemic shut down all sports, ending a strong chance to contend. Few describes telling his team that they would not be able to compete for that elusive national title as perhaps the hardest moment in all his decades at Gonzaga, where he started as a graduate assistant in 1989. He wondered how his team would react against the Jayhawks, especially after a COVID-19 scare limited them to two days of practice beforehand. The coach needed someone to seize control, and there came Ayayi, scoring 15 points on only nine shots, grabbing nine boards despite standing 6’ 5” and adding two steals and one assist. In other words, classic Ayayi, spearheading a never-in-doubt victory that announced the special season upcoming—and not by doing one thing but by doing all of them.

Ayayi, Few says, “showed the resiliency” that would come to define Gonzaga’s 2020–21 season.

For Matt Santangelo, a member of the Bulldogs OG Cinderella squad, to watch how the Zags play basketball is the best argument that this roster ranks as the finest Few has ever assembled. “They’re the most dynamic, versatile and then they have star power,” Santangelo says. Two players above all tie all those elements together. One is Kispert, the senior forward.

The other: Ayayi, whose improbable path began, like for so many Gonzaga players, in another country. The guard grew up in Bordeaux, before catching the attention of French basketball officials, who added Ayayi to their development pool at age 16. Of course, he knew of Turiaf, and he also played with Tillie, so it wasn’t like he knew nothing of Gonzaga. Ayayi saw the Zags as the major power they had grown into and as one of the foremost destinations for international prospects. “I didn’t know all this about them being a Cinderella,” Ayayi says. “I only knew them as one of the top schools in the country.”

Ayayi soon chose the Bulldogs, in large part, so that he could develop. He needed that, as Few noted. He redshirted his first season, concentrating on adding bulk to his Slim Jim frame. He hoisted hundreds of jumpers every day, separate from practice, where he studied the Gonzaga Way, learning to cut and slip behind screens and play unselfish basketball. He also added an element of levity that would endear him to teammates. When they teased him about his diminutive stature, he’d dunk and flex.

Eventually, due to a combination of factors, most notably a lack of guards on the roster and Ayayi’s developmental strides, the player that Few worried about instead worked his way into the team’s rotation, jumping from an average of 5.6 minutes a game in his redshirt freshman season to almost 30 minutes on average last year. “We were low on guards, and it was like hanging out a ‘Dishwasher Wanted’ sign,” says Travis Knight, the Bulldogs performance coach. “He hit big shots. He made the right play in big moments. He also has this unshakable positivity—not just in himself but with his teammates. All of a sudden, the thinking changed. Like, huh, maybe this will work.”

Suggs, on his pre-pandemic recruiting visit to Spokane, couldn’t help but notice the skinny guard who would not stop yapping and played defense like he enjoyed the less-glamorous work more than scoring. “It’s crazy,” Suggs told the Zags, “but Joel is always in the right spot.”

Ayayi can still recall the meeting when last season ended, how his first call went to Tillie, the fellow Frenchman who had fought through injuries for one last run— only for the tournament to be canceled. “This is the last time this group will be together,” Few told his players, at which point Ayayi says he fought back tears. “That was a really, really huge downfall,” the guard says.

Still, he kept in contact with teammates. Became a more vocal presence in the locker room. Stayed in Spokane throughout COVID-19, some 5,000 miles from home. When it came time for mighty Kansas, Ayayi knew: he was ready and so were the Zags. Ready to win, for Few and Tillie and everyone who built a basketball oasis in a remote outpost now known as Hooptown, USA.

Gonzaga's Joel Ayayi

Ayayi made Kispert better, made Timme better, made Nembhard better. The Zags elevated seven different teammates to the West Coast Conference player of the week ledger. Their skills overlapped perfectly, Knight says, like a basketball Venn diagram; each was better because of the others and how they fit. Ayayi urged his teammates to maintain focus during COVID-19 interruptions, like when officials were forced to cancel a highly anticipated match-up against Baylor. He stayed after for extra work with Suggs, an obvious candidate for national freshman of the year who could go No. 1 in the next NBA draft.

Even when Nembhard, a top recruit who wanted to transfer out of Florida, landed on Few’s radar, the coach asked Kispert, Suggs and Ayayi if they minded adding another talent that would eat into their shots, minutes and acclaim. Of course, they all answered, affirming Few’s belief that “real players don’t fear anybody.” After the Zags inked the widely-coveted transfer, Few told his assistants he believed they were now coaching a national championship contender. He was right in that assessment.

As the men's Final Four tips off Saturday night, Gonzaga now stands two victories from a “perfect” season, the first a date with UCLA in Indianapolis. In an interesting twist, the Bruins, an original blueblood the same way Gonzaga became one of the first tournament darlings, now qualify as the upset seekers. Few and Ayayi and the Bulldogs are now Goliath.

The coach and his players continue to insist that an undefeated record does not matter, that they care about the title, not the glory or some nebulous debate over the best teams in the history of college hoops. But when Ayayi spoke to Sports Illustrated earlier this season for a cover story, he admitted that he wants to help Few and this team secure their rightful place in college sports history. “Winning,” he said, “is the best way to be remembered.”

For the looseness that pursuit will require, Few will again turn to Ayayi, the jokester who wasn’t supposed to become a pillar at Gonzaga but who became one. “Unbelievable story,” Few says. He means Ayayi but could just as easily be talking about the Zags, the totality of a perfectly built roster or a season at once as special and strange as any.