Dell Demps' pursuit of Gustavo Ayon was always going to be an excellent move. There's a tendency among analysts to characterize basketball transactions in black and white, to let outcome and results dictate, above all else, the legitimacy of signings and acquisitions. But the truth is, at the moment a deal is made, a GM has no choice but to play the odds. Final results can partially absolve a GM of blame, but they can't justify earlier transactions comprehensively (see: the David Kahn Minnesota Timberwolves). And long term failure can't serve as unequivocal condemnation of past moves (see: the Greg Oden/Brandon Roy Portland Trailblazers).
In Gustavo Ayon, Dell Demps opted to not only spurn the conventional route of filling out a bad team, he researched a largely unknown player from another country, eventually beat multiple more prominent franchises to his signature, and, as we're learning now, signed him to a very low risk, high reward contract structure. The Hornets used the non-tax payer mid-level exception to acquire Ayon, as provisioned by the new CBA. Ayon will make $1.6M this season, a bit more than the league minimum. His 2012-2013 is non-guaranteed, his 2013-2014 is again non-guaranteed, and the Hornets have the option of keeping him under team control through the 2015 season. Again - zero risk, and, as we saw at the time of his signing, plenty of potential. Whatever Ayon's future, regardless of whether he failed or succeeded in the NBA, this was a brilliant move.
And just seven games into Ayon's career, we're seeing that the long term results may well skew towards success. It's extremely early yet, the sample size is tiny, and let's also not go too overboard in projecting his ceiling. Ayon is 26 and will be 27 in a couple months. What we see of him over the next year or so will be close to his peak performance as an NBA player. But there's immense promise here. Not every contributor to an NBA contender is a superstar; the third through twelfth best players on a contending team are just as important as the top two. In Ayon, we may well have found a key role player for the next contending New Orleans side.
The most dominant attribute of Ayon's play thus far is his ability to cover the floor; on offense and defense, he's everywhere.
Let's start with his offense, where Ayon has established a nice rapport with backup point guard Greivis Vasquez. The Hornets are yet to give him a legitimate back-to-basket post up possession, despite Ayon gaining post position against defenders on multiple occasions. By my count, Marco Belinelli, Jarrett Jack, and even Vasquez have all spurned opportunities to toss it into him. Ayon has had only two real isolation chances. The first came against Minnesota on Friday; Ayon took it right at the body of Anthony Tolliver, escaped him to the left side, but missed the left handed layup. The second came yesterday against LaMarcus Aldridge:
The drive itself is emblematic of the rest of his game; it oozes confidence. Ayon isn't the greatest dribbler, but in two steps, he's right at the rim, taking advantage of a defender in Aldridge who perhaps wasn't expected the drive. In space, Ayon represents a kind of anti-Jason Smith; where Smith would have pulled up here, Ayon took the extra space as an invitation to attack the basket. Again, let's not get too crazy. He won't be taking good defenders off the dribble, nor will he be creating for himself with much frequency. But in space, his mentality is aggressive, and that's a valuable skill to have in a role player. The next step here will be seeing how he finishes against NBA defenders; in Europe, he was largely an under-the-rim scorer, and in the early going, that's translating reasonably well.
Where the Hornets have used him quite frequently is off the ball. Ayon has received the ball on cuts eight times so far, and in almost every single case, his motion wasn't by design. Rather, Ayon waited within the flow of the play, picked his spot, and presented himself underneath the hoop in line of a passing lane to receive a possible pass. This connection with Squeaky Johnson from Wednesday's Thunder game is a perfect example. Watch Ayon hold his normal position through almost the entirety of the play before leaking out at the very end:
It looks like a small thing, definitely. Ayon really didn't move much, but that tiny, last second movement was enough to save the play. On those 8 off-ball plays, Ayon has scored 5 times in almost identical circumstances, missed twice, and turned it over once (the turnover really should have been a dunk). His early awareness of defenders and floor spacing is reasonably impressive.
On the glass, he's been equally impressive, posting 11%/22%/16% offensive/defensive/total rebounding percentage splits. On three occasions, he's drawn loose ball fouls from opponents while pursuing offensive rebounds. His activity level serves him better on the glass than anywhere else, as you might imagine.
Defensively, Ayon has had some monster blocks at the rim already, but my favorite attribute of his play is his footwork. He keeps guys in front of him, and he anticipates moves well. It's still way, way too early to see if this is just a result of a small sampling of offensive players he's faced, and this video isn't spectacular, but it illustrates Ayon's positive footwork. Here he is after getting switched off onto Ricky Rubio on the perimeter on Friday. Watch his feet:
Again, I don't include that video to say "look, he defended Ricky Rubio!" or anything of the sort. It was the end of the shot clock, Rubio's biggest skill thus far has been his court vision and not his dribble, etc. But Ayon matched Rubio almost step for step from the three point arc to the baseline by virtue of his footwork. If he can maintain this kind of lateral ability going forward, he'll have a definite role to play on the defensive end.
Ayon moves well, he understands the game, and he fights hard on every single play. He's the type of player who needs to be measured and analyzed beyond his simple box score numbers (though his early line - 117 points/100 possessions, 103 is average this year, 24.1 PER - is incredible) because he does so much outside of conventional statistics. Dell Demps hit a home run with Ayon, regardless of how Ayon's career eventually pans out, and if his first seven NBA games have any predictive ability whatsoever, it should be a great one.
(Join us in two weeks for "On Xavier Henry," a gushing recap of the first seven games of Xavier Henry's Hornets career!)