20191123 MBB CSU Bakersfield - LKenneally

Joel Ayayi looks to drive to the hoop in a 77-49 win over CSU Bakersfield on Nov. 23.

In years past, Gonzaga men’s basketball has been very open and committed to bringing the best players possible, regardless of where they have to travel to find them.

 From Domantas Sabonis to Kelly Olynyk to Rui Hachimura, these players have set the benchmark for international players at the collegiate level. It’s prevalent on today’s team, with six international players on the roster.

One of those six international players is redshirt sophomore guard Joel Ayayi. After redshirting his freshman year and receiving limited minutes last season, Ayayi is looking to make big improvements on his game this year in order to make a big impact on a backcourt for the Zags that is thinner than in years past.

“He just needs to be solid when he comes in there,” men’s head coach Mark Few said after the Bulldog’s 77-49 win over CSU Bakersfield on Nov. 23. “That’s what his job is. That’s his role, is to come in and make some open shots and not turn the ball over, make good basketball plays, and just kind of guard his yard a bit.”

The 6-foot-5 guard played basketball with the French sports institute INSEP as well as for the U-16 men’s national team for France in the FIBA basketball tournament, where he averaged 11.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists, finishing the 16-team tournament in sixth place. 

“{FIBA basketball] really helped a lot. It’s a really big confidence builder,” Ayayi said. “It’s always cool to go and play for the national team every summer, so it was really cool for me to just go there and play.”

Along with Ayayi playing basketball at a very high level, his sister Valeriane and father both played internationally for France and Benin respectively, with Valeriane eventually making it to the WNBA with the San Antonio Stars. According to The Spokesman-Review’s Jim Meehan, Valeriane is still playing with the women’s French team. His younger brother Gerald and his twin sister play basketball, with Gerald playing the French third division at 17 years old.

Following his freshman year, Ayayi helped his French team get third place in the U-18 European Championships. Ayayi averaged 15.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.7 steals in the tournament, earning him honors to the All-Star Five at the tournament.

In that tournament, France fell to Serbia, led by current GU teammate Filip Petrusev.

“Me and Joel go way back,” Petrusev said. “We played for [the French] national team since we were 14. He’s made a huge jump. … His confidence increased, and he has become a way better shooter. He’s stepped up in his leadership role.”

Ayayi’s best performance with the French team came this past summer, when Ayayi averaged 20.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 3.4 assists in the U-19 FIBA Basketball World Cup. In that tournament, Ayayi had four games where he scored at least 25 points, with his highest being 33 points in the game against Serbia. Ayayi would earn All-Star Five honors again.

When deciding where to continue his career, Ayayi’s choice of GU was quite easy to make. Former GU and NBA player Ronny Turiaf and current teammate Killian Tillie both went to INSEP, and with Tillie being a guide for Ayayi, it was destined that GU would be the place for him to succeed.

“I picked Gonzaga because of the community here,” Ayayi said. “It’s was a place where international players have succeeded before. Killian being here obviously helped too, because it was good for me to be with another French speaker.”

The two Frenchmen have shared a strong and humorous connection during their tenure together. Tillie has embraced the role of helping Ayayi become acclimated to the school, as he helped him around campus with meeting new people and becoming more acclimated to Spokane.

“I was his host on the visit, so I showed him how Gonzaga was,” Tillie said. “He doesn’t like it, but I’ll tell him I’m his dad. … I showed him the way.”

Tillie also said that Ayayi has done well with his transition from year two to year three. After only averaging 5.6 minutes last year, Ayayi has been featured in every game this year, averaging 26.9 minutes in all 11 games. In those 11 games, Ayayi has averaged 10.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists, shooting 48.8 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from the 3-point arc. At one point in the year, Ayayi was leading the nation in assist to turnover ratio, and now is at 42 assists with 14 turnovers.

Graduate transfer Ryan Woolridge is excited to see what is in store for Ayayi. The fellow guard said he wants to see Ayayi continue to develop and gain confidence, giving him advice to stick to what he does and what he knows.

“I just want to see him step out of his comfort zone,” Woolridge said. “If he can get 20, go get 20.”

Leadership, energy and hard work are all words that describe Joel Ayayi. He said it’s important for him to continue to be the best teammate he can possibly be, looking to take another step toward his ultimate goal of helping his team win a national championship.

“I just want to develop every part of my game and be able to do a lot of things on the court,” Ayayi said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. We’ll see how it goes.”

Vinny Saglimbeni is a staff writer.

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