You ever come across the perfect Denver Nuggets role player?
Such a player may not exist, but in a world with Nikola Jokić as the MVP and leading playmaker on the team, it’s important to surround him with players that understand the ins and outs of performing at a high level around a versatile post playmaker. These players must know how to move with the basketball, move without the basketball, possess a versatile skill set, be willing to shoot, and cut hard. It’s rare to find players that can do all of the above, and one such player, Jamal Murray, is already a perfect complementary piece to what Jokić does.
It’s a long shot, but Joel Ayayi might be another perfect Jokić player.
Let me explain:
Joel Ayayi - Gonzaga
Per Game Stats
As a junior at Gonzaga and the fourth option on the top offense in the country by a mile, Ayayi averaged 12.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 2.7 assists in 31.3 minutes per game. He shot a highly impressive 68.3% from two-point range, 38.9% from three-point range, and 78.1% from the free throw line. Ayayi’s 6.9 rebounds per game were 0.1 off of being the highest mark on the team, and he showed a nose for the ball on both ends of the floor, putting himself in great position to impact the game in a variety of ways.
Gonzaga ran a complicated offense under head coach Mark Few that relied on several factors. First, the movement and cutting of his players in the halfcourt and in transition. Second, the post up scoring of big man Drew Timme, who was a consensus All-American at the NCAA level. Finally, the dynamic slashing and playmaking of Jalen Suggs tied everything together.
Ayayi was generally used to fill in the gaps around Timme, Suggs, and three-point marksman Corey Kispert. Often, he found himself to be a spot up shooter around post ups for Timme. Ayayi understands how to move around the perimeter to find himself wide open for a kick-out three or a swing-swing-swing sequence. He also understands the cutting dynamics around a post scorer that can pass, something Nuggets fans can surely appreciate.
Joel Ayayi is the best backdoor cutter in the 2021 Draft by a wide margin, imo. Just one of the many great skills he has that I think would make him a solid pick for the Sixers at 28. pic.twitter.com/aKM6ZUvYcm— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) July 9, 2021
It can be fairly difficult to find a player best suited for being a complementary option as a scorer as those skills are often the last to develop at the NBA level in a meaningful way. Ayayi is far more advanced in his ability to read passing angles, defensive rotations, and cutting sequences than many professionals, let alone college draft picks. He will find a way to impact the game with a limited number of touches.
But even when he handles the basketball, he’s competent going off the dribble and getting to the rim with either hand. He uses change of pace dribbles to weave his way through defenses, and though Gonzaga’s top ranked offense and elite spacing helped him out, it doesn’t mean he can’t be a similar handler in a top ranked offense at the next level either. He was efficient with the ball in his hands, exceeding a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio for his college career and staying in control. That sounds like a competent secondary ball handler and playmaker at the next level to me.
Joel Ayayi is a great finisher at the rim and even greater using P&R. Shot 75% at the rim this year, and was in the 99th percentile of P&R ball handlers. Outstanding passer and scorer off of screens, and they boost his already strong finishing ability pic.twitter.com/c1TBgCX8Wp— Mavs / Magic Draft (@MavsDraft) July 6, 2021
As a career 36.0% three-point shooter and 77.6% free throw shooter in college, Ayayi has a projectable body of work as a quality outside shooter. With a squared up shooting form, a quick dip, and a flick of the wrist, Ayayi appears comfortable shooting out to roughly 28 feet with clear NBA range in his future. Ayayi was mostly the product of shots created by someone else, but he hit some occasional pull-ups off the dribble at an acceptable rate as well.
There’s no reason to believe that Ayayi can’t continue to develop into a high quality three-point shooter at the next level. The attempts weren’t exceptionally high, but he displayed a calm ability to hit shots within the flow of the offense while ignoring defenders. He often had time to set his feet due to the nature of Gonzaga’s offense, but he shot the ball with confidence when afforded that time, and his shooting form is so smooth and fluid that it seems unlikely that he won’t be a good shooter at the next level.
6.9 rebounds per game is a significant amount, and for Ayayi as the 6’5” 180 pound shooting guard to accumulate so many is fairly impressive. Most of his rebounds came on the defensive end, and it’s good to see a perimeter player invest in the boards, especially one that would often benefit from leaking out in transition.
Ayayi also averaged 1.6 offensive rebounds per game too, perhaps an even more impressive number than on the defensive end. Ayayi would often find himself amongst the trees having cut to the rim at an opportune time. Even if his teammates never found him, Ayayi would rebound misses at a high rate for his position, winning possessions on both ends of the floor.
Ayayi is a solid defender. He isn’t a great one, and his size will hurt him against more physical matchups; however, he sits and down and guards well individually and within a team construct. Ayayi does a good job of placing himself firmly in between the offensive player and the rim. He might give up an extra step or two into the paint in the process, but he’s rarely beat in a straight line to the rim.
In addition, Ayayi does a great job of peeling off his own assignment and bothering the ball handler from a help defense position. Ayayi only collected about one steal per game, and perhaps his 6’7” wingspan (relatively average for a combo guard) will be good enough as long as his timing is right. He also does a really nice job of closing out to his man and staying balanced.
Ayayi will be able to play his part in a great NBA defense if he is one of the weaker links. If he’s being counted upon to elevate the group, that’s probably outside of his capabilities. Whether he’s switching, guarding a primary ball handler, or defending off ball, he can be a solid piece as he continues to grow and improve.
Average NBA athlete
There’s a distinct possibility that Ayayi isn’t capable of beating NBA players off the dribble on his own. If that’s the case, it drastically reduces his ability to excel in the areas he did at Gonzaga. If he’s merely a below average slasher and cutter to the rim because of his lack of elite burst, then that would change things for any NBA team. Scoring and shooting isn’t as much of a factor anymore though, and as long as he continues to play a high IQ game, he could continue to pick and choose his spots and remaining efficient.
Where the athleticism really changes projections is defensively and on the glass. If he can’t provide the same resistance in either of those areas, he becomes a much more one-sided player. If teams feel like can go after him defensively, he would have to become so much better offensively than he already he to justify staying on the floor for long periods of time.
Similarly to the athleticism, Ayayi’s frame is of moderate concern. At only 180 pounds, Ayayi remains undersized for the NBA level despite being 21 years old already. He isn’t excessively thin and his frame should be able to carry more weight down the line, but there are questions about whether he can be the same level of dynamic slasher and creator off the dribble without having the extra agility afforded by a smaller frame. If he were to build his body up to 200 pounds while maintaining as much athletic quick twitch as possible, he would be in a better position to handle the demands of the NBA.
There’s a balance between being a complementary player adjusting to the game while picking spots...and not impacting the game at all. In the national title game loss this year versus Baylor, Ayayi scored eight points on five total shots, grabbing two rebounds and dishing out one assist in 31 minutes. He couldn’t find a way to make an impact on the game and the Bulldogs lost in the process. To be impactful at the NBA level, one must remain involved in some way, shape, or form. Too many games of letting others do the bulk of the work will force a team to look for other solutions. Ayayi needs to remain engaged if possible.
NBA comparison: Derrick White/Donte DiVincenzo, athleticism permitting
There are very few players entering the draft this year that have a chance to be an impact player on a legitimate playoff contender. Ayayi at least has a chance. He has enough experience in a high level program, a skill set that should translate well to the NBA level, and enough room for development as a shooter and decision maker that he can still be better. It’s likely that he will be drafted toward the end of the first round or in the second round by a team hoping to use him sooner rather than later.
What better team to do so than the Nuggets? What better way to take advantage of an excellent cutting guard with a versatile skill set than to send him to a team with the best passing big man of all-time? How many easy baskets could they connect on by Ayayi simply working the baseline to perfection?How many kick out passes from Jokić in the post would would Ayayi receive to put up wide open perimeter shots?
With Jamal Murray out for the start of the 2021-22 season, the Nuggets could stand to draft a player they believe would be ready to contribute in the backcourt if called upon at either position. Ayayi has enough positional versatility that he could play next to a number of players in Denver’s backcourt and remain impactful. The question of what position he plays when Murray comes back would be answered relatively quickly. He’s versatile and smart enough to figure out that for himself.
It appears that most talent evaluators have a second round grade on the Gonzaga product. If the Nuggets feel they can trade down and still acquire Ayayi, so be it. I would feel comfortable with Denver selecting Ayayi at 26th overall though. Denver would still need to figure out long term solutions to their defense, but Ayayi would always provide a sound option on the offensive end, something that Denver could use now and going into the future.