Former ASU Forward Ayres Growing with Spurs

When you say it out loud, “Former Arizona State standout and NBA Champion Jeff Ayres” has a nice ring to it. After signing with San Antonio in 2013, the forward experienced a jolt of rejuvenation to his windy NBA career while enjoying a breakout season last year as a member of the Spurs. As Ayres gets set for year number two he looks to build on last year and expand his role this season while.

It may be just 90 minutes before the Spurs and Suns tipoff at US Airways Arena in downtown Phoenix but the only thing on Jeff Ayres’ mind is this weekend’s football game between Arizona State and Utah.

It would appear that, even though the Spurs have been busy preparing for the start of the 2014-15 NBA season, the former Sun Devil hoops star has been keeping close tabs on how his alma mater has performed on the gridiron this season.

“It’d be big if they can make it (to the college football playoffs),” he says. “But I don’t know if the conference gets that much attention, you know, besides Oregon. No one’s really looking for us.”

Once a Sun Devil, always a Sun Devil.

While Arizona State continues to chase its season-long goal of reaching the playoffs, Ayres and the Spurs have their attention focused squarely on repeating as NBA champions, and for Ayres himself, on how to extend his NBA career.

After being selected in the second round (1st pick, 31st overall) of the 2009 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings, Ayres (then Pendergraph) was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers where he appeared in 39 games as rookie, averaging 2.7 points off the bench in a reserve role.

Unfortunately, the forward was forced to miss the following season due to a knee injury before signing with the Indiana Pacers in 2011. In his two seasons with the Pacers, Ayres played in 57 games, making just one start while being slowed by various injuries.

But just when things seemed the most uncertain for Ayres on the court, he caught a break, signing with a veteran San Antonio team in need of some youth to help spell their aging stars.

Last season, his first with the Spurs, Ayres appeared in 73 games, including 10 starts while averaging 3.3 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, demonstrating the type of effort and tough-minded attitude that made him one of the most productive players ever at Arizona State.

“Man, it was awesome,” said Ayres with a smile. “To think, I played more last year, in one year, than I had my whole career and on the championship team. That was crazy.

“To play the way I did and how I did on this team, it was just a great boost for my confidence, especially after having so many injuries. I was kind of teeter-tottering up in my head because I hadn’t been able to stick anywhere for too long, but to be here and be able to do that was awesome.”

Ayres averaged a career-best 13.0 minutes per game last season in a Spurs rotation designed to keep the team’s starters rested throughout the regular season and fresh for yet another deep playoff run.

After finishing the regular season with a league-best 62-20 record, the Spurs would go on to win the NBA championship, knocking off the Miami Heat in five games in a rematch of the previous season’s Finals match-up as Ayres became the first former Sun Devil to win an NBA title since Eddie House in 2008 (Boston).

“It was pretty surreal at the end,” he said. “The Dallas series was great and super competitive. Portland was awesome and it was good to beat them after being there and leaving the way things went.

“Playing OKC was crazy. That was nuts. And then to go to the Finals again and play against Miami - because I lost to them twice in Indy - so

these guys wanted redemption and I wanted redemption. It was a sweet moment.” After proving he can be a valuable role player on a winning team last year, the goal for Ayres now is to prove he can do it again, and consistently.

Luckily for him, he gets to learn from one of the best big men that have ever played the game in five-time NBA champion Tim Duncan, a mentor he never dreamed of having.

“It’s like the coolest thing ever,” said Ayres. “That was a guy that, when I got here, I was hesitant to be around. I was like, ‘Why does this guy want to talk to me? He’s Tim Duncan.’ You know? But he’s, like, the coolest guy. You can sit and talk to him about whatever. Just the fact that he’s so willing to teach and everything is really cool.

“If I’m in the game and whatever is going on, he’ll pull me to the side and we’ll just talk. And it’s so weird being on my side looking at him like, ‘Tim Duncan’s talking to me and giving me advice, trying to help me out.’ I couldn’t ask for something better.”

While the two have spent countless hours working on the fundamentals of his game, Ayres says the most important lesson he’s learned from the future Hall of Famer has been his mental approach.

“The biggest thing has been not to hold on to things and move on to the next play,” he said. “Things happen, whether they’re good or bad. Don’t show emotion about it. Don’t be too happy; don’t be too pissed or sad. That’s actually the biggest thing that I’ve been working on, just staying even.

“It’s easy to be on a roller coaster but it’s all about consistency and he’s probably the most consistent player ever.”

Of course Ayres also has the privilege of being coached by arguably one of the league’s greatest basketball minds in Gregg Popovich who, despite his surly demeanor towards the media, has proven to be a man of great influence and leadership towards the five-year pro.

“He is like what you see and like what the media is used to, but there’s another part of him too where he’s a cool guy and you can talk to him and be able to have a conversation with him,” said Ayres. “He’s a smart guy, so if anybody has a question about anything, you can always ask him. He’s not scary and won’t chew your head off. Just when it’s basketball time, it’s basketball time.”

So how long did it take Ayres to warm up to the grizzly coach?

“Actually, it took me a little while,” said Ayres, laughing, “but he opened up to me pretty quickly. I think he could tell I was nervous around him and didn’t want to make him mad or anything. A couple times during a game he would just tell me to relax and laugh. He would tell a joke or something during a timeout to kind of loosen things up, and then I realized, ‘Oh man, this guy is cool. He’s not just all scary.’”

After failing to log any time in San Antonio’s season opening win over Dallas on Thursday, Ayres played five minutes against the Suns on Friday night, totaling two points and two rebounds in defeat.

While the forward says players did not have their customary exit interviews with the Spurs coaching staff following the team’s championship celebration, he spent his summer working on ways to improve around the basket and in a more finesse manner, easing the toll on his body.

“I just sort of came together with some of the other coaches and the strength coach and talked about how I’ve got to be in great shape and work on some touch stuff and my jump shot,” he said. “My touch stuff around the basket has gotten a lot better. I’m just trying to develop skill-wise.

“I’m not trying to be super bouncy and everything all the time and trying to tear the rim off. I mean, I will when I have a good opportunity to do it but for the most part I like the way we play and I want to be able to play for a long time and you need your knees to do that. So being a skilled big man and not just an athletic, work hard guy and putting that all together is kind of how things have developed so far.”

Ayers says that while the season keeps him busy, he tries to follow the Sun Devil hoops team as closely as possible as well.

He was in attendance for last season’s thrilling win over Arizona and hopes to make it back to the Valley during the NBA All-Star break again this season for a game, perhaps while sporting his new NBA championship ring.

“Maybe if I have a cool ASU event or something, I’ll wear it.”

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