You know this already, but Jeff Ayres isn't the most talented guy in the NBA. He is ridiculously foul-prone (5.5 fouls per 36 minutes per game) and is not exactly a future Sprite Dunk Contest champion. Not to mention that his play often makes you wonder whether he was the kid in little league who consistently let fly-balls and grounders slip through his fingers. And yet in the early part of the season, Gregg Popovich was playing him rotation minutes, and with Tiago Splitter out with his shoulder injury, Ayres has been starting. Let's try to figure out why this guy is getting playing time.
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In terms of size, Ayres is not particularly tall for his position -- a mere 6'9" or 6'10" depending on the site you check. But you're not going to block shots with your head (unless you're Gerald Henderson); that's what arms are for. Jeff has a large 7'1" wingspan, and this length helps him make life a little more difficult for opposing big men and driving guards in the paint.
To complement his pesky length, Ayres has a bulky, 250-pound frame. He uses this muscle to push around in the post on the defensive end. Unfortunately, much like Aron Baynes, Jeff isn't able to get away with this physicality too often. But as I said before in my article advocating for Baynes, a hard foul can go a long way in terms of frustrating opposing big men and making them less comfortable in the paint.
Despite his large, imposing physique, Ayres is athletic. He has an immense 35-inch vertical (larger than any other current Spur), and a surprisingly fast 3.14-second ¾ court sprint, which is as fast as premier NBA point guards like John Wall. Ayres' quickness enables him to beat his man down the floor and score in transition, a potentially key contribution on a team that often looks to push the ball up the court after defensive stops.
On the offensive end, Ayres has grown notorious among Spurs fans for his near-complete inability to finish at the basket unless the defense has utterly left him alone. Ayres's field goal percentage in the paint is 56.86%, which is mediocre for a big man. Honestly, I'm not too concerned about that. I would rather him work on his mid-range jumper so that he can provide something on the offensive end that we haven't seen since Antonio McDyess roamed the baselines in the Silver and Black.
Having big men who can knock down mid-range jumpers is big cog in the Spurs offense. It pulls shot-blockers away from the rim and opens the paint up for guys like Tony and Manu. So far this season, Ayres has taken just 22 shots outside of the paint of which he has converted ... four. That's 18%, and I don't need to tell you that's bad. But he has somewhat decent form and Chip Engelland has worked greater miracles in the past (see Leonard, Kawhi; Parker, Tony).
Even if Ayres can't improve his jumper, he's a fit for his role in San Antonio. He's a team player, and according to DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony,
"In terms of intangibles, [he] is pretty much the entire package, as he's a smart, well-spoken, hard working player on and off the court who graduated in three and a half years and is very well respected by his teammates."
If that doesn't describe the prototypical Spur player, I don't know what does. And the fact that Ayres is essentially filling in for DeJuan "I ♥ Whataburger" Blair is icing on the cake that Blair undoubtedly devoured as he left town.
Ayres isn't the answer to all of the Spurs' problems. Far from it. But this is a league where physical stature counts for so much -- in fact, it's just about the main reason guys like DeAndre Jordan and JaVale McGee are paid millions of dollars.
Give Ayres a chance; he just might surprise you.