Ayon started 24 games as a 26-year-old rookie and was shipped to Orlando in a sign-and-trade for Ryan Anderson this summer. That’s fairly incredible value for someone New Orleans plucked from a small Spanish club only 12 games into its ACB season.
So will Ayon’s leap become the archetype for signing post-draft eligible prospects abroad? Almost certainly not. Or at least not exactly.
Unless you followed Mexican professional hoops closely before 2009—Halcones de Xalapa, Dorados de Playa del Carmen, Vaqueros de Agua Prieta—or the ACB thereafter, you probably hadn’t heard of the 6-foot-10 Mexican forward before he made American landfall. He saw the floor in NOLA’s fourth game to become the third Mexican to play in the NBA, after Horacio Llamas paved the way with Phoenix in 1996 and Eduardo Najera followed in 2000 with Dallas.
Ayon cut both his collegiate and professional teeth in Mexico before playing his first ACB games in Fuenlabrada, Spain, a sleepy Spanish town that lies on the southernmost tip of Madrid’s metro map. But two seasons ago, this provincial suburb became a favorite getaway for NBA scouts that had to see for themselves if Congolese center Bismack Biyombo was myth or man.
It only took Biyombo 14 games, 32 blocks and a few rolls of measuring tape to become the scariest rim defender in Europe’s top domestic league and the fastest rising name on your favorite mock draft, yet the eventual Bobcats lottery pick’s overall game was clearly outclassed by his teammate, a relentlessly active rebounder with soft hands: Gustavo Ayon.
When Biyombo went to Oregon without Fuenlabrada’s blessing to put up the only triple-double in Nike Hoops Summit history and bump his draft cred, Ayon remained with Fuenlabrada and started getting used to life on the radar. His reputation built from blip to blimp as his averages moved from 11 points on 66 percent shooting, 6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 22 minutes in 2010-11 to 16 points on 66 percent shooting, 8 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in 29 minutes in 2011-12.
He was named the ACB MVP for the month of November and in December, he became a Hornet. In January he saw his first minutes—just two of them in a New Year’s Day affair in Sacramento—and in February he got his first start, his first double-double, and then his second double-double just two nights later. In March, a foot injury robbed him of his starting job, and his minutes shot and slid their way through April and the end of the season.
By the time July rolled around, the Orlando Magic were asking for Gustavo Ayon in the sign-and-trade for the NBA’s leader in 3-pointers made and its Most Improved Player (not Chris Bernucca’s), Ryan Anderson.
Ayon missed the start of the Magic’s season with a sprained thumb, but has worked his way into Jacque Vaughn’s rotation and when Glen Davis’ left shoulder held him out of action on Friday night, Ayon filled in with 12 points and 13 rebounds in 27 minutes, all season highs.
Ryan Anderson has been the Hornets’ best offensive option, putting up 18.2 and 7.1 while hitting 3.3 threes per game for $8.7 million this season. A bargain, and one that might not have happened without Ayon.
Play them. Trade them. Either way, it sure is nice to have attractive assets come hot stove season, and the Hornets are reaping the benefits of being Ayon’s earliest adopter.
Whereas Biyombo left Fuenlabrada on the most acrimonious of terms and didn’t negotiate a buyout until months after Charlotte had picked him 7th overall, the Hornets took advantage of a rare clause in Ayon’s contract that allowed the Mexican power forward to walk at anytime during the season provided the two teams could agree on a buyout.
Why would Fuenlabrada dangle their best player, a legitimate MVP candidate and one of the latest blooming can’t-miss prospects in European memory in the midst of an ACB playoff push?
Because the fronts of their jerseys were empty. Just orange, only orange, and with no sponsor’s logo in sight.