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Joel Ayayi returning to Gonzaga for junior season

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 1, 2020

Joel Ayayi (11) drives to the hoop against Saint Mary's in Gonzaga's victory in the WCC Tournament title game.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Joel Ayayi (11) drives to the hoop against Saint Mary's in Gonzaga's victory in the WCC Tournament title game. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Joel Ayayi, whose breakout performance was one of the keys in Gonzaga’s 31-2 record last season, is coming back for an encore.

Gonzaga announced Saturday that Ayayi is returning for his junior season and will not pursue any professional options.

Ayayi was one of three Zags in April to declare for the NBA draft. Center Filip Petrusev recently decided to sign with a professional team in his native Serbia and keep his name in the October draft.

Wing Corey Kispert hasn’t announced his intentions. The deadline to withdraw from the draft is Monday. Ayayi and Kispert have been on campus for team workouts and conditioning sessions, both of which have been limited by COVID-19 protocols.

Ayayi, a 6-foot-5 guard from France, emerged as a strong contributor at the outset of last season and moved into the starting lineup in early December. He averaged 10.6 points, 6.3 rebounds (eighth in the West Coast Conference), 3.2 assists (11th) and 1.3 steals (10th). His 2.08 assist-to-turnover ratio ranked fourth in the WCC.

He became a reliable playmaker, capable of scoring or creating opportunities for teammates. He had a knack for making clutch shots, including a late 3-pointer that helped Gonzaga hold off Washington in Seattle.

Ayayi closed the season by earning MVP honors at the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas. He averaged 15.5 points and 8 rebounds in two GU wins. The Zags thumped Saint Mary’s in the championship game, but the NCAA Tournament was canceled a few days later due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ayayi figures to join freshman point guard Jalen Suggs, sophomore forwards Anton Watson and Drew Timme and Kispert, if he elects to return, in the starting lineup.

Ayayi’s return provides much-needed program experience in Gonzaga’s promising backcourt. Southern Illinois grad transfer Aaron Cook, a 6-2 guard capable of playing the point or wing, has 103 collegiate games on his resume, including 70 starts, but he’s yet to suit up in a GU uniform. Same goes for Suggs, a top-10 recruit, and fellow incoming freshmen, guard Dominick Harris and wing Julian Strawther.

Ayayi, Kispert, Petrusev and Killian Tillie were among 105 players to receive invites to the NBA predraft combine, but there’s still uncertainty the event will take place. Ayayi was No. 87 in The Athletic’s latest top 100 draft board. Kispert is No. 43.

Ayayi saw limited time in his redshirt freshman season before logging 969 minutes last year, third on the team behind Kispert’s 1,090 and senior Ryan Woolridge’s 1,079. Ayayi paced GU in free-throw accuracy (82.5%), and his 42 steals was second on the team.

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