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When the Magic signed-and-traded Ryan Anderson to the New Orleans Hornets for Gustavo Ayon, many Magic fans were probably displeased. Anderson was one of the sole bright spots on the team last season, while Ayon is hardly six months removed from toiling in complete basketball obscurity. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound 27-year-old had been nowhere near the NBA radar as he spent the early portion of his career between his home country of Mexico and Spain. Even when Hornets general manager Dell Demps brought him over to New Orleans last summer, it was to a team decimated by both offseason trades and injuries, one that few people would willingly watch all year.
Those who watched, though, were pleasantly surprised. Ayon broke into the Hornets’ rotation early in the year last season and stayed there, displaying a smart game to go with nimble feet and constant effort. As such, he shot above Eduardo Najera and Earl Watson (bet you didn’t know that) for the position of best Mexican NBA player, as well as ensuring that his 3-year, $4.5 million deal would be a huge bargain.
The first thing that meets the eye with Ayon, as mentioned, is his smart play. Ayon rarely does the things he’s bad at — 60 percent of his shots came in the immediate basket area, where he converted 65.4 percent of his attempts, as he left his jumper in the closet more often than not. This definitely seems like the right decision, as he shot only 36.5 percent away from the basket all year.
Ayon’s shots come mostly in the flow of the offense, as he struggles to create off the dribble. MySynergySports.com classified only 26 possessions all year as ones where Ayon isolated, and they mostly ended badly, as he averaged just 0.42 points per possession. Things weren’t much better in the post, where he averaged 0.52 points per possession in 33 possessions.
Ayon actually has a pretty solid first dribble -– he likes planting himself at one of the elbows, faking a handoff to a guard curling around him, then dribbling hard to the rim -– and he uses this combined with his speed to get by some of the league’s slower big men defenders. However, if that first dribble doesn’t gain him an advantage, he is often lost, left with no choice but to barrel into an array of defenders and throw up an awkward layup. It is a weapon to be used only in very favorable matchups, and Ayon definitely seems to realize that his iso game is not his strength.
Instead, Ayon is at his best when he is diving to the rim and catching the ball in momentum. Few big men are as fast as Ayon, and he has good hands that were made for catching entry passes mid-dive. MySynergySports ranked Ayon as a good-to-great player both cutting to the basket and as the roll man in pick-and-roll situations – he ranked 51st and 19th in the league in those play types, respectively. Most of his scoring comes either in this fashion, or on second chance points, aided by his solid offensive rebound rate (9.6 percent last season).
The best thing about Ayon offensively, though, is his passing. Ayon has fantastic court vision, and is great at both recognizing who has been left open by an over-eager help defender, and who lost his man cutting to the rim. His 1.4 assists per night don’t seem impressive, until you remember that he is a big man who only played roughly 20 minutes a game. His 18.1 assist percentage, conversely, is fantastic for a power forward.
Defensively, Ayon is very effective. He positions himself well, grabbing 19.3 percent of all available defensive rebounds, and his hands are constantly active, to the tune of about a steal and a block every night. His size prevents him from being bullied down low — MySynergySports ranked him as the 91st-best post defender in the league –- and his speed enables him to close out well on shooters or stay with drives. He can even occasionally switch onto guards in pick-and-roll situations without embarrassing himself.
The main concern would be that we only have one season to draw from, and that it may well be a fluke — head coach Monty Williams has a strong system that can oversell mediocre defensive talent, and the Hornets were only 0.7 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Ayon on the floor. Plus/minus data is always tricky, especially in short lockout seasons with rosters that saw significant turnaround, but one would expect a strong defender to rank out better in a frontcourt consisting of middling-to-subpar defenders in Chris Kaman, Carl Landry, Jason Smith, and flotsam (with my sincerest apologies to Lance Thomas enthusiasts everywhere).
However, if last year’s trends hold, Ayon can be a consistent plus on the defensive end. Not to the tune of the presumably departing Dwight, but definitely a member of the Nick Collison school of defense -– understanding where offensive players are trying to go and how to stop them, being at the right place in the right time, and gaining a cult internet following.
Though Ayon is technically coming off his rookie season, his age tells us he won’t get much better, and as a player who works so much off energy, it remains to be seen if he can sustain an uptick in playing time without a significant drop in production. But even if what we saw in New Orleans is the best he ever gets, Gustavo Ayon is something to get excited about. He will play hard, he won’t make mistakes, and he will excite fans with nifty passes and well-placed yelling. No, he doesn’t solve the team’s need for an offensive creator, but the makeup of the roster is mostly irrelevant at this point. Instead, he’s a piece that can fit well on the court with just about anybody, who will only make $3 million over the next two years.
Ryan Anderson may be gone, but the Goose is loose.