Denton: Ayon All About Hustle and Energy

By John Denton
February 11, 2013

ORLANDO – Gustavo Ayon’s understanding of the English language is impeccable, and he’s often quick to crack a joke or make a teammate laugh with a witty quip.

It’s publicly speaking the language – especially in front of a gaggle of television cameras – where Ayon gets a little skittish because his translation of some words from Spanish to English differs.

But what definitely didn’t get lost in translation on Sunday night was the wide smile splashed across the Mexican-born Ayon’s face and the relentless energy that he played with from start to finish in Orlando’s 110-104 defeat of Portland.

Whether it was knocking down mid-range jump shots, flipping backward, no-look passes or battling in traffic to come away with rebounds, Ayon did a little bit of everything on Sunday in arguably the best all-around game of his two-year NBA career. Ayon – only the third Mexican-born player ever to reach the NBA – set career highs in points (16) and assists (six) and his 11 rebounds were his most in a game since December.

What had to make Ayon happy was that he delivered the stellar performance following a leg injury that cost him all or parts of 11 games and he seemed to be slipping behind rising rookie Kyle O’Quinn in the Magic rotation. His strong play came at a time when the Magic needed it most, helping them finally break a 12-game skid on Sunday night against the Blazers.

``You have to forget about the game before and you have to think about the game that is coming up,’’ Ayon said through an interpreter. ``I have to stay positive and be ready for the game coming up.’’

The Magic (15-36) had Monday off following a performance on Sunday that was their best in weeks. The team will return to the practice floor on Tuesday before hosting Atlanta on Wednesday in the final game before the break for the NBA All-Star Game.
Like Ayon, his Magic teammates were all smiles after Sunday’s game because of their fondness for the 6-foot-10, 250-pound center who hails from a tiny town 90 minutes north of Mexico City.

Ayon is a favorite on the team not only because of his good-natured persona, but also because of his willingness to do the little things to help the team. He’s not afraid to dive on the floor or throw his body into a scrum, he sets solid screens and he’s arguably the third-best passer on the team behind Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick.

``Goose was incredible,’’ said Magic guard Arron Afflalo, referring to Ayon’s nickname on the team. ``He’s such an unselfish player and he does all of the small things. So once for him to be rewarded from a stats standpoint and get the proper respect he deserves it’s gratifying to me. He deserves it because he works hard every day in practice and sets all of the screens. Hopefully he continues to bring this effort every night.’’

Ayon’s first season in Orlando has been a challenging one because of injuries. He had a strong training camp and pushed to be the starter at center, but a thumb injury in the final week of the preseason hampered him early in the year. It wasn’t until recently that Ayon stopped wearing protective tape over his thumb and he could catch passes again without pain.

Then, in late December, just days after Ayon had strung together consecutive double-digit rebound games, he took a knee to his lower leg in a game against the Toronto Raptors. The pain and swelling were so bad around his lower quad and right knee that he needed crutches to walk, he repeatedly had to have fluid drained and he couldn’t drive a vehicle because he couldn’t flex his leg.

In the eight games before Sunday night, Ayon had scored just 14 points total, and counting his time out it had been 23 games since he last scored in double figures. But he used his hustle and muscle to outplay Portland’s J.J. Hixon on Sunday. He made eight of 14 shots, he grabbed three offensive boards and he had a steal and a block to go with his other career-best numbers.

``He does some special things,’’ Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. ``His ability to pass the ball and be in the right places gives guys outlets. And the competitive fire that he has in him, we saw it tonight and it was good to see.’’

When he was coming up with the playbook for the Magic this season, Vaughn actually tailored several plays around the ability to pass the ball from Ayon and fellow center Nikola Vucevic. Ayon has often picked defenses apart from the high post with his ability to hit cutters in stride or deliver no-look feeds.

Nelson had a career-best 15 assists on Sunday night, but it was two of Ayon’s assists that caused the home crowd to roar. Once upon taking the ball along the right baseline, Ayon shoveled a dart of a pass to a cutting Vucevic for a dunk. But his play of the night came when he flashed to the high post, took a pass from Nelson and without looking, dished the ball backwards to Nicholson for a layup.

Passing, he said, has always been a big part of his game. And as much as he likes scoring or grabbing rebounds, Ayon said setting up teammates for scores makes him smile the brightest.

``It’s just a game-reaction for me,’’ Ayon said of picking apart defenses with his passing. ``When a basket is made (off one of his passes), it’s as if you made it yourself.’’

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