With family support, Ayayi shakes off rust to lead France to Quarter-Finals
RIGA (FIBA U18 European Championship 2018) - Joel Ayayi is a major reason France find themselves in the Quarter-Finals of the FIBA U18 European Championship 2018 - their fourth straight trip to the final eight.
Ayayi was outstanding in France's 86-81 win over Greece as he scored 31 points - just one point off the high for this summer's tournament - to go along with 5 rebounds, 5 steals, 2 assists and 1 block. Through the first four games, the guard is averaging a team-high 16.8 points as well as 5.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.3 steals.
“I have been trying to be aggressive at the beginning of the game both offensively and defensively. I know that I can put the team in a rhythm and that I am a leader. So I have to be really aggressive for my team,” Ayayi said. “They just give me the ball and I tried to do my best and create for my teammates. Defensively, I just want to lock down my player.”
Huge game for Gonzaga redshirt freshman Joel Ayayi in France's 86-81 quarterfinal win vs. Greece at #FIBAU18Europe— Austin Green (@LosCrossovers) August 2, 2018
Ayayi had 31 (11/16 2FG, 2/5 3FG, 3/3 FT), 5 reb, 5 stl, 2 ast, 3 TOs in 29:18. Aggressive defender with disruptive length, smart cutter, made 4 floaters in a row pic.twitter.com/wgtsFXIFXK
France fans believe a fifth U18 title could be possible following the crowns in 1992, 2000, 2006 and 2016 - thanks in large part to the high level of play from Ayayi. But rewind less than six weeks and you would have seen quite a different Joel Ayayi.
The 6ft 3in (1.90m) shooting guard was a rusty resemblance of his former highly touted prospect self. When French coach Federic Crapez called his team together starting on June 26 in Voiron for the first stage of training camp, Ayayi had not played a game in nearly a year.
"The preparation games were very, very difficult," Ayayi admitted. "I was rusty. I was starting from zero and trying to get to 100 percent. I didn't come here at 100 percent. But I think every game I am getting better. I remember my first game this summer, I was off my rhythm and everything. But every game for me is an opportunity to get better."
The last time Ayayi had really taken the court in a game was in the training camp for last year's FIBA U18 European Championship, where he was to play as a bottom level player until he got hurt and missed the tournament in Slovak Republic.
“"THE PREPARATION GAMES WERE VERY, VERY DIFFICULT. I WAS RUSTY. I WAS STARTING FROM ZERO AND TRYING TO GET TO 100 PERCENT. I DIDN'T COME HERE AT 100 PERCENT."”
Then Ayayi headed to the United States to play with Gonzaga University - only to eventually decide to redshirt the season, meaning he could practice with the team but could not play Gonzaga's NCAA games and he would retain his four years of college eligibility.
All that meant he was not in game shape when he got to the France camp. That is better by now but his shot is still a work in progress.
"I have been working on it for a year and now it's hard to put it all together when I am really competing and trying to win," Ayayi said about what is still lacking in his game. "I would also say my composure sometimes - just silly turnovers. Otherwise I got better."
Part of that improvement is also thanks to family support - and not just the usual rah-rah coming from your loved ones. Ayayi’s loved ones include Valeriane Ayayi, who is one of the best players in French basketball and helped the French national team reach the Semi-Finals at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Joel grew up playing one-on-one against Valeriane, who is almost six years older.
"My sister is with the national team right now (in training camp for the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2018), so she's trying to follow the game. She is always following me," Joel said. "My other brother and sister too. They are sending me texts to support me and give me energy. They always watch the games."
Joel Ayayi and this French team also arrived in Latvia with a bit of inspiration and motivation from the generation one year younger than them as the 2001-born group reached the Final of the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2018 last month in Argentina for the country's first medal at the competition.
Essome Miyem and Timothe Crusol played together at the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2018 and reached the Final
"You just look at the togetherness. They were always together and a real team," said Ayayi, who is actually teammates of two of those U17 World Cup players in Latvia in Timothe Crusol and Essome Miyem. "You could see off the court they were always together and having fun. But also staying focused and being together and always having each other's back. This is what we are trying to do."
That kind of togetherness combined with the support of some elite level basketball family has made France a dangerous team in Latvia - especially since Joel Ayayi has shaken off that rust of not playing for a year.