Checking in with Jeff Ayres, the Spurs’ shiny new toy
Most new toys aren’t bright and shiny at first; they must be trimmed and painted and polished before finding their way to a respective owner. For the Spurs, Jeff Ayres has been a fun but valuable new piece to their old box of toys, and they’re just now starting to see the luster.
Prior to his arrival in San Antonio, Ayres didn’t get much playing time during his three-year NBA career. A knee injury during preseason of his second season in Portland wrecked his chances of any early progress, and the second-round pick was waived by the Trail Blazers before the season even started — an upsetting decision for him, but one he knew was based on business.
Adapting to the league has been a process for the 26-year-old but he’s found some traction in San Antonio, where he’s already played 78 more minutes this season than in any other previous season in his brief career. The injury to Tiago Splitter has given Ayres a chance at a little more burn, and slowly but surely, things are coming along.
Before last night, the Spurs boasted a 111.8 offensive-efficiency rating and an 89.5 defensive rating with Ayres on the floor since Splitter went down. Furthermore, Ayres averaged 13.2 boards per 36 minutes during that five-game stretch, half a rebound less than Duncan at the same rate.
“I don’t know what it is, but I’m going to keep on doing it. It feels good,” he said after the Spurs hung on against the Jazz. “There’s a big difference between actually getting in some time with guys versus just practice and end-of-game situations.”
Not only has Ayres not seen much court time in his career, he’s rarely touched the ball when he’s not hitting the glass, not to mention as the roll man in a pick-and-roll with Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili. He’s already drawn the ire of some Spurs fans because of several dropped balls and a flubbed shots around the basket early this season, and perhaps unfairly so.
“I didn’t think it was a problem,” Ayres said of his catching ability. “but before coming here I didn’t have to worry about anybody passing me the ball much in my NBA career. So I guess it never got exposed. Coming here, these guys are great passers, you’ve got to be ready. If you don’t catch it it’s your fault.”
Ayres only committed nine ‘lost ball’ turnovers in his previous 880 NBA minutes before becoming a Spur, according to Basketball-Reference’s awesome advanced play-by-play data. Considering he’s never had to deal with Manu’s passes before, maybe that early case of the drops was an anomaly. The Arizona State product said Ginobili’s passes often seem like high-speed knuckleballs that take on a mind of their own at times. But he’s working around that.
“It’s just tough. Timing-wise, sometimes you might think they’re going to shoot it and they pass it, and you just always have to be ready to catch it. Even when you think they’re not going to throw it, you got to be ready,” Ayres said. “At practice I’ve been working catching tennis balls and stuff. It’s a lot harder to catch a tennis ball, but it’s pretty close to catching a pass from Manu.
But even the fans fixated on forward’s mistakes can’t ignore the flash we’re starting to see more and more. Ayres had four dunks last night against Utah, with three coming in the first quarter alone. When was the last time a Spur dunked that many times in a game, let alone a single quarter? If anything, Ayres is showing the fans in San Antonio that dunking is fun, is not illegal and does not constitute a fine.
Oh, I’m sorry, Spurs fans. How inconsiderate of me. I should’ve gotten to this first. A dunk shot, as defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary: a shot in basketball made by jumping high into the air and throwing the ball down through the basket.
What I’m trying to say is, they don’t happen often around here when the Clippers aren’t in town, so when Ayres is dunking on people all night I don’t know what to do with my hands. Do I cheer from press row? I shouldn’t, but a Spur dunked. Do I alert the authorities? That seems a little much. Look, we’re just used to celebrating sweet wraparound passes in San Antonio, not these … flying devil shots!
“Yeah I’ve noticed. I even told Tony during a timeout, ‘You don’t always have to bounce-pass. You can throw it to the rim and I’ll go get it,’” Ayres he said with a big grin. ”After I’m done practicing catching tennis balls, he and I can work on our lobs. You know you can’t conquer Rome in a day.”
Eh, we’ve seen Parker throw lobs before. The practice certainly wouldn’t hurt.
“It’s been a while, that’s for sure. He’s definitely up there. We don’t have a lot of dunkers on the team,” Tony said. “He told in the fourth quarter to throw (a lob), I was like, ‘Are you sure? Last time I threw a lob was like 15 years ago.’”
For the fans, then, Tony?
“There you go, for the fans,” he laughed.
Despite still being a raw offensive player in his mid-20s, Ayres is being given his chance to refine his skills with a trio of Hall-of-Fame players and one of the best coaches to ever roam the sideline. And each one of them speaks to how valuable they believe Ayres will be come playoff time.
Not only has it been a while since the Spurs featured an above-the-rim athlete of any kind, but they’ve long lacked a frontcourt player who can defend the pick-and-roll and range out to the stretch ‘fours’ that litter the NBA landscape. Ayres allows just .81 points per possession on 38.5 percent shooting to roll men that finish the play, which is 25th best in the NBA in that category, according to mySynergySports.
All of this and he has yet to truly find his footing. Ayres may never be a player who can create his own shot on a regular basis, but he’s athletic and intelligent enough to be a major asset in the flow of a pick-and-roll offense, especially when the players surrounding him facilitate so well.
But for now, the Spurs’ new toy is catching tennis balls at practice, making sure he snags those passes when they knuckleball his way.