By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
May 10, 2012
Hornets.com continues its look back at the 2011-12 season with player-by-player analysis of the team:
Even among diehard basketball fans, the name “Gustavo Ayon” was an extremely unfamiliar one entering the condensed 2011-12 season. The native of Mexico began the campaign as a rare 26-year-old NBA rookie whose previous professional hoops experience took place in Mexico, Venezuela and Spain. When the 6-foot-10 power forward was signed by the Hornets on Dec. 21 – just five days before the regular season opener at Phoenix – it was difficult to predict what kind of impact he might make. Adding to the uncertainty was the fact that Ayon’s grasp of English needed significant improvement, making it a challenge for him to communicate with his teammates (fortunately Spanish-speaking teammate Greivis Vasquez was acquired in a Dec. 24 trade with Memphis, while Hornets assistant coach James Borrego is also fluent in Spanish).
While getting acclimated to his new team and country, Ayon did not play in any of the team’s three December games, but it didn’t take him long in January to prove he belongs in the NBA. His breakthrough performance took place Jan. 14 at Memphis, when he showed off his all-around skills by posting nine points, seven rebounds and five assists in just 20 minutes. Ayon and a cast of fellow reserves helped slice the Grizzlies’ 16-point second-half lead all the way down to two before the hosts regained control late in the fourth quarter. After several strong performances, he moved into the starting lineup on Feb. 6 and remained there for the next 20 games. While logging an unexpectedly large number of minutes, especially for a rookie, Ayon established himself as a hard-working, unselfish role player.
“He plays the way that you should play the game,” praised Monty Williams midway through the season. “Even if he makes a mistake, you can live with it because he plays so hard. And everything he does is for the team. He’s a guy who certainly plays our style of basketball.”
Whether it was fatigue, nagging injuries, or the return to health of frontcourt teammates, Ayon’s playing time diminished in the latter portion of the season. He also missed three West Coast road games due to the birth of a son in late March.
“He’s had a shoulder issue all year, and his foot is bothering him,” Williams noted in early April of Ayon’s physical ailments. “He doesn’t complain about it a lot, but I know he’s hurting. And he is worn out. He told someone that he didn’t understand how many games we play (in the NBA). Over there (in Europe), they play one game a week. Here, sometimes you play four or five. That’s a lot, emotionally, and just getting ready for that every day can wear you out. And he just had a new baby, and Lord knows what that’s doing to his whole system. I think he’s tired, but I also think he can play better.”
There were games in which Ayon scored more (he had 16 points twice) or grabbed more rebounds (he had 17 boards at Cleveland), but perhaps the most noteworthy contribution he made to team success occurred Feb. 17 at New York. In one of the Hornets’ most memorable victories of the season, Ayon posted 13 points (on 6-for-9 shooting from the field) and 11 assists, as New Orleans notched an 89-85 win in Madison Square Garden. The outcome generated national headlines because it took place at the height of “Lin-sanity.” It was the first defeat for the Knicks with mid-season revelation Jeremy Lin as a starter, as well as the end of their stunning seven-game winning streak. From a Hornets perspective, it marked a third consecutive victory, the team’s longest winning streak of the season prior to a four-game stretch in April. Ayon helped secure the triumph in the Big Apple with a key layup that gave NOLA an 84-80 lead with 54 seconds remaining.
Ayon signed a three-year contract in December 2011 that included team options for 2012-13 and 2013-14. Williams believes one important step in Ayon’s progress will be to improve the accuracy on his jump shot. Opponents sometimes played off Ayon, daring him to fire from beyond his comfort zone around the basket. He also struggled on free throws, connecting on just 61.9 percent of his attempts from the foul line.
“Once he starts knocking down his shot, that could add an element to his game,” Williams said. “He can pass and has a great feel for the game.
“He’s a guy who is getting a better understanding of his game as it relates to the NBA. He scored a ton more overseas, but I think he’s finding here that he can do some things as far as passing. And he’s a better defender than people give him credit for. He’s done some nice things this year, but he still doesn’t have a niche in this league yet. When teams start to scout you and try to take out, then you find out what kind of game you have.”
|ADDITIONAL 2011-12 SEASON IN REVIEWS|
|JASON SMITH||JARRETT JACK||GUSTAVO AYON|
|MARCO BELINELLI||LANCE THOMAS||XAVIER HENRY|
|EMEKA OKAFOR||CHRIS KAMAN||ERIC GORDON|
|GREIVIS VASQUEZ||AL-FAROUQ AMINU||TREVOR ARIZA|
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