Michael Ajayi: Basketball is a Marathon
Stephen sits down with Top 15 scorer and rebounder Michael Ajayi. Get to know one of the best players in the country that you've never heard of before!
Basketball is a Marathon
One of the things that I love most about basketball is the storylines. Yes, I am aware of the actual game that takes place on the court, but I love the connection that I have with players that I have never met before. While it’s fine to have a rooting interest for a player because of the jersey they are wearing, I have always found it to be even better when I learn about who a player is as a person.
I loved Brandin Podziemski last year because of the way he played the game, but I took an even larger liking to him when I got the chance to interview him. Even in our chat, he was a no-nonsense character. Sure, he answered my questions, but he didn’t mince his words. There seemed to be this insatiable appetite for greatness that permeated through every answer he gave. We’ve even seen interviews of players like Draymond Green praising the rookie out of Santa Clara for his desire to learn.
Beyond the personality, Brandin’s humble beginnings gave him both an underdog appeal and a chip on his shoulder. Sparingly seeing playing time for Illinois as a freshman, Air Podz transferred to the Broncos and showed the entire world why he was destined to be on his path to greatness. This “from out of nowhere” prospect became a first round pick when he was selected 19th overall by the Golden State Warriors, and he is already contributing in a meaningful way.
But even Podziemski was a Top 100 recruit, according to the RSCI rankings. There were stories of him becoming the next Tyler Herro while he was in high school. While many within the scouting community may have had low expectations of the sophomore who became one of the more dynamic scorers in college hoops last season, he was a known commodity; people knew that Brandin had talent and he was respectfully recruited.
There is currently a prospect playing in the WCC—right now—who is Top 15 in total points scored and rebounds and is probably one of the lesser-known players in all of college basketball. That is not hyperbole! How do I know?
Well, I interviewed him. One thing I pride myself on in player interviews is being able to dig up information to ask them. Most players have some sort of mixtape—some sort of interview on the major recruiting sites on the line. Not this young man.
I would like to introduce today’s featured prospect to the world. Ladies and gentlemen, Michael Ajayi…
Michael Ajayi is from Kent, Washington (State). He didn’t have the routine, cookie-cutter story of most dominant Division I players. He didn’t blow up with scouts as if he were some sort of basketball prodigy. His story starts off a little more bumpy than that.
“Going [in] to my freshman year, I was starting [off at] 5’7”. I was really small—short, skinny, so I knew I wasn’t going to make the varsity team. I was playing “C Team” that year. I was actually playing the Two Guard—the shooting guard and point guard position. I was practicing and still loved the game. My time on the “C Team” really didn’t go to well; we didn’t win as much. But I was going into my sophomore year with high hopes, trying to make the JV team or varsity team.
Sophomore year comes around, I grew to like 5’10”—not that much of a difference. I got cut from my varsity team, but I made JV, though! I was hooping there for a little bit. I was doing good.
Going into my junior year, I was really having high hopes then, too—making the varsity team. But I got cut, again, from there. I was still hooping, and I grew to like 6’2” my junior year—6’2” to 6’3”…I made the Summer League team…for the varsity squad. I thought I was gonna, you know, make it. The season cut came around, and they chose the high school football quarterback for my position. I was devastated.”
Not a storybook beginning for Michael. Faced with multiple proverbial doors being slammed in his face, what came next would be the beginning of the story for a player nicknamed “Marathon” (more on that later).
“It was going to be either me or him [the quarterback] to make the varsity spot, but they chose him over me. I was kind of shocked, because I had been in the program for a while and I thought I was going to make it.
When I got cut, I instantly was about to cry—I went to my dad, crying a little bit, asking him: ‘Can I still play the game?’, you know, because that really hurt…a couple of days went by, cried a little bit in my room, sucked it up, and I was like: ‘I still love the game; I’m just gonna keep grinding for that varsity spot.’
Going into the summer of my senior year, I grew to like 6’5”. And, you know, you can’t get cut when you’re 6’5”! I went in there and, you know, and everyone was like ‘Oh my gosh, Mike, you got so tall—you got so big!’ But they didn’t know that I had some skill with it.”
One thing that has become discussed quite often by my fellow Draft Sicko Maxwell Baumbach is that there seems to be a market inefficiency when it comes to scouting late growth-spurt players. The translation of existing ball skill with improved physicality and advantages that come with a larger frame usually makes for a talented player. This would lead to a wave of D1 offers to come rolling in for the young man, right?
“Senior year I tried out—obviously made varsity. I averaged about 11 points and eight rebounds but, like, no one really knew me. I was really under the radar. That Covid year really helped me, I feel like. I was grinding every day…My dad built a court right next to his house. I told him ‘I really want to be great at basketball.’
I was playing everyday in the hot summer sun—just getting burnt.
Senior year came through and I didn’t have any offers. Anywhere. Not even JUCO offers, but only one: Pierce College. Shoutout to Brian, shout out to Coach Hart, Coach Wright all believed in me and my abilities.”
For a 6’7” forward averaging nearly a double-double, it is next to impossible for such a player that has the character and ability that Ajayi has to go unnoticed—especially for people who find high school players for a living. Nevertheless, the story could have ended here for Michael, and it still would have been a reasonable success. After all, the JUCO route doesn’t really provide the path to make it to the NBA. Or…does it?
“Everyone thinks that JUCO is the bad route to go, but I feel like JUCO gives you a real good opportunity to get better at your game. The players there—they’re really good. They are the best at their high schools—the same thing as the D1 level. [The players are] a little bit shorter, a little bit not as fast. But they all can hoop.
You’d be surprised. You could go to that gym, there’s someone averaging 20 points…You scout the same way as you would at the D1 level…it’s still a high level—you still have to compete. You still have to go out there and work hard; you still have to put the work in.”
It’s worth remembering that many NBA players have taken the JUCO route to make their dreams of becoming a professional basketball player. Dennis Rodman, Shawn Marion, Larry Johnson, John Starks, Ben Wallace, Nick Van Exel, Steve Francis, Sam Cassell, Bob McAdoo, Mitch Richmond—current players such as Jimmy Butler, Kenrich Williams, Jae Crowder, Richaun Holmes—all of them were able to develop their craft while spending time in junior college.
Michael put up impressive numbers at Pierce College, averaging around 22 PPG, 13 RPG, 3 APG, 1.5 SPG, and 1 BPG—all while posting shooting splits of 48/36/74. No doubt these numbers were impressive but, once again, Ajayi was overlooked to some extent.
According to JUCOrecruiting.com, Michael didn’t make their annual Top 100 player ranking. With the odds stacked against him again, how in the world did our guy wind up in Pepperdine?
“Shout out to Isaiah Thomas—he’s the one who actually referred me to Coach [Lorenzo] Romar for him to pick me up. Coach Romar didn’t really even know who I was before Isaiah Thomas. Shout out to him.”
As the old saying goes: Sometimes it’s not what you know, but who you know. In Michael’s case, it was a combination of who he knew and what he could do.
Minutes Percentage - 84.8
BPM - 6.1
Offensive Rating - 110.3
Usage Percentage - 27.2
Effective Field Goal Percentage - 54.3
True Shooting Percentage - 55.8
Offensive Rebounding Percentage - 9.7
Defensive Rebounding Percentage - 28.5
Assist Percentage - 16.1
Turnover Percentage - 14.8
Assist : Turnover- 1.1
Block Percentage - 0.9
Steals Percentage - 2.3
Free Throw Rate - 20.4
Dunks - 2
Two Point Percentage - 48.1 (63/131)
Three Point Percentage - 61.9 (13/21)
The advanced metrics aren’t really prevalent in the JUCO but I would imagine that they would look very similar to what Ajayi is doing for the Waves right now, as his counting stats are pretty close in. It’s clear that Pepperdine is keen on giving Michael a big role with the usage and minutes percentages grading out at above average compared to other NCAA hoopers.
Currently, Ajayi is one of only 35 players who have a minutes percentage of at least 80, while also having a BPM of at least six. He is one of only 10 players with an offensive rating of at least 110 and a defensive rebound percentage of at least 28—he’s also the only non-big on that list. He is one of only 46 players in the nation with an assist percentage of at least 16% and a steals percentage of at least 2% while shooting at least 47% on twos and at least 40% on threes.
Beyond that, when running Michael’s numbers through the history of BartTorvik, it doesn’t take long before you start seeing his name pop up alongside NBA players:
Ajayi’s combination of offensive efficiency and ability to crash the glass registers with several big men who have seen multiple years within the NBA.
There is more of the same level of results for Michael with the query above. Not only is Ajayi putting up numbers similar to NBA big men, but he is also making plays on both ends of the floor. Michael is scoring and defending in a similar manner to that of several NBA perimeter players. Combining these skill sets makes it feel like Michael making the jump to the NBA is inevitable at some point.
In his first 11 games of D1 hoops, Michael ranks within the 57th percentile (Good) in overall offense. In transition, he ranks within the 51st percentile (Good) and in the 58th percentile (58th) in halfcourt offense. His shooting splits have been just as good for the Waves as they were at Pierce College, as he is putting up 49/57/70 while scoring over 17 PPG. That level of efficiency on the minutes and usage percentages he is producing has led to Ajayi being one of the best players in college basketball.
It hasn’t been on the highest volume in the world, but Ajayi is knocking down the three-point shots he is taking. He has hit 13 of 23 of his looks from deep, which translates to about 57% on slightly over two attempts per game. On this play against New Mexico, we get to see how Michael can make the defense pay when they are out of position.
“I always want to be aggressive; I don’t want to settle for shots—except for my mid-range. Once I get to my mid-range, it’s a done deal…I want to shoot the open three I want to shoot the greatest shot I can get.”
That thought process has led to Michael being a very efficient player despite taking about 15 shot attempts per game. He ranks within the 70th percentile (Very Good) in all jumpers and in the 95th percentile (Excellent) in shots off of the catch. He’s also shooting over 44% on dribble jumpers, which ranks in the 66th percentile (Very Good).
It’s on plays like this that you can see that Michael grew up as a guard. It’s a small sample size—only 15 possessions—but Ajayi ranks in the 72nd percentile (Very Good) in isolation plays. At the next level, Michael may not be asked to do much of this but, plays like this show the type of player he can be when he is chased off of the line. The ability to go to a number of moves in open space shows high feel, good technique, and the mental makeup of a prospect. That desire to not settle for a contested jumper will go a long way with scouts and analysts.
What makes Ajayi even more special when operating in isolation is his ability to find the open guy.
The playmaking for Michael Ajayi isn’t the first thing people will point to when breaking down his game, but he has been a reliable distributor for Pepperdine. Synergy ranks Michael in the 53rd percentile (Good) in pick-and-roll sets including passes, in the 80th percentile (Very Good) in isolations including passes, and in the 95th percentile (Excellent) on post-ups including passes. Ajayi has an assist percentage over 16% while having a turnover percentage of under 15%. That breaks down to an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1:1.
Again, this isn’t James Harden, to where Ajayi is “the system,” but he can certainly find the right guy to string the play along. Even off of movement.
“I also want to find my teammates, too. So I just drive, get the defense on me, and kick it to my teammates for, like, a wide open three.
I’m always looking to find the open dude. My assistant coaches are always in my ear to make that ‘one more pass’ to the corners…As the season goes on, I know there will probably be more double teams coming so, obviously, I going to hit the open guy—to get my teammates going. That’s what I like.”
On the defensive side of things, Ajayi is graded out in the 37th percentile (Average) in overall defense. This has been the area of the game that Michael has spoken on being the biggest difference between the JUCO and D1 levels: the size and speed of the athletes. Again, it’s worth noting that Michael has only played 11 games at this level, and he is already league-average.
In the play types he has defended the most (spot-up players) Ajayi ranks in the 57th percentile (Good). He is producing a block percentage of 0.9 and a steals percentage of 2.3. He has also committed fewer fouls (32) than he has drawn (35).
We get a look into what makes Ajayi such a solid off-ball defender. A consensus Top 10 player, Cody Williams, picks up his dribble against Pepperdine and looks for an open man. One thing that players can struggle with in the help is either playing their man too hard or paying their man no mind. Michael keeps both plates spinning and is able to time the pass from Williams incredibly well. Generating extra possessions from smart defense is a highly desirable skill.
An area of Michael’s defensive ability that hasn’t been exercised that much is his isolation defense. Opposing teams have only gone iso on Ajayi on eight possessions—which might be indicative of how good he is as a one-on-one defender. On those possessions, Michael has only allowed opponents to score on 25% of those looks.
You can see a good example of that here against UNLV. Michael gets really low in his stance, while also using his great length to close off driving lanes for the ball handler. Ajayi slides his feet, flips his hips, and sticks right to his man—which forces a difficult shot attempt.
“Man-to-man, [I’m just wanting to] stop my man, right? I feel like if someone is scoring on you it’s like : ‘Ah! He just got one on me!’ I hate that feeling when someone scores on me. I just try to be a solid as possible—be in the gap as much as possible. Just having the Mamba Mentality, being your best on both ends on the floor. I don’t want to just be a good offensive player, I also want to be a good defensive player, too…I just want to do that for my team.”
Michael Ajayi is one of the best stories in college basketball—not just because of his talent, but because of his endurance. Those who are close to him call him “Marathon” or “Marathon Mike.”
“Before I was at Pepperdine, it [my nickname] was Mr. Everything. But, when I got to Pepperdine, they saw my work ethic—you know, my mindset.
We have this conditioning test called ‘The Mile’ where you run four laps around the track. I ran it and everyone was like "‘this guy is going really fast—he’s going through it!’ Then everyone was like ‘That’s Marathon! That’s Marathon Mike!’ I got a 5:07 mile time—I was the first out of all of my teammates.
There were just like ‘this guy pushes; he never gives up.’ And, you know, Nipsey Hustle—he’s a really good artist. He was really about ‘the marathon,’ you know? The marathon continues. Don’t quit, don’t give up, keep working.”
It goes without saying, but the story isn’t over for Michael with this article. There is still a lot of season left for him and Pepperdine. There is the postseason and the draft process upon the completion of this season. There is even the possibility of another year of college that could be considered. But, the ultimate goal is to make the NBA.
“Yeah, that’s the dream. I really want to make the NBA. That’s the lifetime dream, for real.”
It’s one thing to want to make the league, but front offices are going to want to know what a prospect brings to the table should they invest in them. What does Michael offer an NBA team, you may ask?
“[I’m a] guy that just works really hard. One thing I pride myself on is just being coachable. I’m really a team guy. If the coach says anything, I’ll listen to him and I’ll do it to the best of my abilities. I do my job and my role.
[An NBA team] will get a good guy, in general. I’m a funny guy. I’m someone that wants to work hard every day. I really didn’t come from a lot in High School, so it gave me a chip on my shoulder. So just every day I just want to get to it.”
No matter how many laps of the draft process it takes for Michael to make the NBA, you better believe that he will run the marathon to the last lap.
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