Jul. 21—LAS VEGAS—Joel Ayayi had to politely decline an invitation to the recent wedding of former Gonzaga teammate Corey Kispert.
Kispert, who just completed his second season with the Washington Wizards, didn’t need an explanation knowing Ayayi would be tied up with NBA Summer League obligations in Las Vegas on July 7, the date Kispert married former GU women’s standout Jenn Wirth in Southern California.
Instead, Kispert had a few words for his friend and former college backcourt mate.
“I tried to make it happen, but it got a little too complicated,” Ayayi said. “(Kispert) said, ‘Just go do your thing.'”
A packed summer for Ayayi started in late June when he represented the France Select Team for a pair of friendly games against Armenia in Los Angeles, then continued when he traveled to the Salt Lake Summer League with the Memphis Grizzlies, who announced on June 30 that the former Zag would be on their summer roster.
After three games in Salt Lake, Ayayi joined the Grizzlies for five more at the Vegas Summer League — held over two weeks at the Thomas & Mack Center and COX Pavilion on UNLV’s campus.
Ayayi wore a different uniform for the third time in as many years at Summer League, but found himself in a vaguely familiar position the last two weeks trying to demonstrate to an NBA front office why he should warrant a two-way contract.
“I think just like everybody here, you’re hoping for a two-way or a contract,” Ayayi said. “That’s what I feel like what everybody is. But yeah I think I’m in the same boat, the same boat as everybody just trying to grab onto one of those contracts.”
After summer stints with the Los Angeles Lakers and Atlanta Hawks in 2021 and 2022, the French-born guard is now hoping to latch on with the Grizzlies. Memphis was one of the teams to offer him a two-way contract last year before he ultimately signed with the Orlando Magic’s G-League affiliate, the Lakeland Magic (now the Osceola Magic), where he averaged 7.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists over 31 games.
He’s now spent time with five different NBA organizations, also playing for the Washington Wizards and their G-League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go, during the 2021-22 season.
Through experiences in both the NBA and G-League, and now three years at the Summer League, Ayayi’s learned opportunities can come and go. For players in his position, on the edge of a two-way deal, it is important to make the most of every situation and opportunity.
“You’re just looking for an opportunity and a window,” Ayayi said. “You’ve just got to seize the opportunity when it’s here and I just want to ride the wave until something opens up.”
Ayayi was able to call a friend for advice when the Grizzlies offered him a spot on their Summer League roster. Former Gonzaga teammate and fellow Frenchman Killian Tillie is still a close friend — the two talk on a daily basis — and was able to share insight into what Ayayi could expect from Memphis after spending two years with the Grizzlies’ organization.
Tillie, who was waived by the Grizzlies after two seasons that were hampered by injury, was able to catch a few of Memphis’ games in person during the Salt Lake portion of the Summer League.
“Obviously I was kind of like living his career in Memphis through texting and staying in touch,” Ayayi said. “It was pretty fun I got to be in the same environment he was in.”
In six appearances at the 2023 Salt Lake/Vegas Summer League, Ayayi averaged 4.1 points on 9 of 15 shooting (60%) while logging 13.6 minutes per game. He also averaged 2.0 rebounds and 1.8 rebounds.
The former GU guard’s best game came during the Salt Lake finale, when he produced a vintage Ayayi stat line of 10 points, four rebounds and four assists in only 15 minutes against the Utah Jazz.
Ayayi’s versatility on both ends of the floor made him an All-WCC First Team guard at Gonzaga and could be what keeps him employed as a professional basketball player, whether that’s in the NBA, G-League or overseas.
“Joel’s good playing off the ball, good defense so I think he can really guard the ball in pick and roll defense,” Memphis Summer League coach Vitaly Potapenko said after a July 10 game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
After NBA Summer League obligations in Vegas, it was a short turnaround for Ayayi before more national team duties back home in France. He was one of five practice players chosen to help the French national team — featuring NBA players Rudy Gobert, Nic Batum and Evan Fournier — prepare for the FIBA Basketball World Cup in August. France’s training camp is scheduled to start on July 28.
“Obviously you love to play for the national team,” Ayayi said. “I’ve done a couple of the youth teams during the summers when I was at Gonzaga, so I feel like it’s kind of like a continuation. They kept tracking me when I was overseas, so it’s a pleasure they thought of me and adding me to that roster.”
Ayayi is optimistic about the future of the sport in his home country, which could be on the horizon of another hoops renaissance, headlined by recent No. 1 NBA Draft pick Victor Wembanyama. Along with Wembanyama, the nation has produced two other top-10 draft picks since 2020: Bilal Coulibaly (7th in 2023), Killian Hayes (7th in 2020).
“They’re getting drafted so high, they’re shattering records for us. That’s very good. We love to see that,” Ayayi said. “But that doesn’t mean we’ll be great when it comes to playing the national team in the summers. We have a lot of young guys with a lot of potential, so I guess it’s good for the future.”
Although he’s never interacted with Wembanyama, Ayayi monitored the 19-year-old at Summer League, where the 7-foot-4 rookie overcame a sluggish offensive start in his opener to post 27 points in his second game in Vegas.
“I think people are going to overreact,” Ayayi said. “Most of the people don’t watch his whole games, they just watch tidbits and highlights. Obviously they overreacted after the first game, they’re probably going to cool down after the second game. But same thing, once the season starts his first 10-20 games are going to be very scrutinized.
“That’s I guess what comes with being such a high prospect like he is, but he seems like he has a cool head and he’s not letting that get to him.”
Ayayi’s now juggling basketball with fatherhood. His wife Justina gave birth to the couple’s first child, Gabriel, not long after he finished the 2022 NBA Summer League with the Hawks and both will join him in France while Ayayi fulfills national team duties.
The 23-year-old said the last year has been a helpful lesson in time management.
“I would say just probably the way you use your time,” he said. “You just have to be mindful that there’s a little guy that needs you.”
The best part of fatherhood?
“Just coming back home and seeing little man running around and being happy,” he said.