By Chuckie Maggio @chuckiemaggio
Josh Ayeni knew what he did was wrong.
After sinking his first four shots from the field against UMass on Dec. 30, it looked like the St. Bonaventure forward was on his way to a career game.
With 7:29 left in the first, however, a freshman-against-freshman altercation led to Ayeni and UMass forward Brison Gresham being ejected from the game.
It wasn’t an ideal Atlantic 10 debut, but getting tossed provided a learning lesson for the Zaria, Nigeria native.
“I learned if I do something crazy, I’m not helping the team; instead, I’m being selfish,” he said. “Instead of being selfish, I’ve gotta calm my emotions down so I can help the team.”
Make no mistake: the 6-foot-8 Ayeni is still one of the most fierce competitors on the Bona squad. But a commonplace first-year maturation process has allowed him to channel that energy into a positive. With guidance from senior Denzel Gregg and other team leaders, he hasn’t picked up a technical foul since the incident in Amherst, despite being tested by opponents multiple times.
Avoiding technical fouls is one test; avoiding normal fouls is a much more difficult one. Ayeni fouled out in three of his first six games as a Bonnie, but has shown marked improvement, reaching the fifth, disqualifying foul in just two of the last eight contests.
When Ayeni fouls out, Bonaventure is 3-3. When he is whistled for three or fewer personals, Bona has compiled a 5-2 record. The team is also 5-1 when he scores in double figures.
It’s no secret: SBU is much better when its talented rookie is on the court.
“The coaches have been talking to me to do my best everyday in practice,” Ayeni said. “They’ve been telling me not to foul, (that) I should play good defense without fouling, that I could stay out of foul trouble. I’ve been doing my best at that.”
Early success has precipitated a bombshell comparison, as some fans have already jumped to compare Ayeni to Bona legend Andrew Nicholson.
On the surface, any comparison to Nicholson just 19 games into a player’s collegiate career seems hasty and unfair. However, the notion that Ayeni could be the best four-year big man since the now-Washington Wizard is very reasonable; the only other freshmen bigs to play more than 10 minutes a game since No. 44 were Marquise Simmons, Jordan Tyson and Derrick Woods.
Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt is just fine with Ayeni’s effort.
“Josh, he works at it,” Schmidt said. “He’s got good skill, he works on his jump shot. He’s got a ways to go with his back to the basket, but he works at it. He’s someone who’s always in the gym. I think the way we play, we recruited him for a reason. Because of the way we play, we think he fits the ball-screen motion stuff that we run.”
If Ayeni can continue to average at least seven points a matchup, he and Nicholson would be the only freshmen big men to have that production since at least the 1992-93 season.
“I don’t know what to say on that,” a tad overwhelmed Ayeni said with a laugh. “I’m still working on my game everyday. I’m trying to be the best I can be.”