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Idaho Stampede’s No. 1 pick has NBA ring, knowledge to share

Jeff Ayres
Jeff Ayres NBAE/Getty Images

Jeff Ayres has climbed to the top of the basketball world: He won an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014.

“I got to play basketball with some of the best that have played,” Ayres said. “I’ll never forget that time and winning an NBA championship.”

Ayres spent two seasons playing for the Spurs. This past offseason, he accepted an offer to play in China.

“The situation didn’t pan out,” said Ayres, who was known as Jeff Pendergraph until changing his surname in 2013 to that of his biological father.

So, after looking over his options, Ayres decided to make himself available in the NBA Development League Draft.

He didn’t last long. The Idaho Stampede chose Ayres with the No. 1 overall selection.

“There were some other good players out there,” second-year coach Dean Cooper said. “But I had Jeff in Portland (when he was the Blazers’ director of player development), and I know what he’s about. ... I wanted to get the best guy, the best human, the best pro I could get.”

Ayres looked strong in Idaho’s first two games last weekend at Rio Grande Valley in Texas. He went 8-for-12 from the field and scored 18 points in the opener (a loss), and followed a night later with 28 points and 12 rebounds as Idaho notched its first victory.

“The fortunate news is that we got him,” Cooper said. “The unfortunate news is that we probably won’t have him long. So we’re going to enjoy having him while we do.”

Ayres is listed No. 3 on the D-League’s Prospect Watch, which means an NBA call-up is inevitable, Cooper said.

“But I figure if I have him for some time, he’ll have a big impact on some of the younger guys,” Cooper said.

The question is whether Ayres is willing to take on that role.

“He literally did it the first possession, the first drill,” Cooper said. “I saw that and said, ‘That’s why I wanted him here.’”

Ayres said his past experience with Cooper will help facilitate his role as a leader with the Stampede.

“I’ve known coach Coop pretty much my entire NBA career, so it’s nice that he’s here,” Ayres said. “It raises the comfort level a lot. I’m here to play, but I’ll bring the other guys along, too. I’m not going to be about myself and not the team. ... I’ve learned from the best and how to go about it.”

That includes five-time NBA champion and 15-time NBA All-Star Tim Duncan. Ayres called Duncan a leader on the court and a genuine person away from the game.

“And then some,” he said. “The kind of guy that he is, I could call him right now and just talk with him, and he would listen to whatever is on my mind. He’s always a good friend, and it’s just a privilege to call a guy like that a friend.”

Ayres said he stays in touch with a number of his former teammates, including Patty Mills, who scored 38 points for Idaho while making his D-League debut in 2009.

Ayres was aware that Mills played in the D-League, but he didn’t know Mills played for Idaho. “I love that guy,” Ayres said of Mills, who remains with the Spurs. “We have more in common than we knew.”

And if Ayres has his way, it won’t be long before they have something else in common: NBA jobs.

“I’m still a young guy,” Ayres said. “I’m only 28. In the NBA, that’s when you’re hitting the prime of your career. I had a really good offseason, and now it’s time to use the D-League as a development tool. ... I want to show teams some things I can do besides the things that I’m already known for.”

Such as shooting the occasional 3-pointer?

“We’re letting him shoot 3s, and he’s making a few and loving it,” Cooper said.

Ayres took one 3-point shot in Friday’s opener. It didn’t go in, but ...

“If (Cooper) calls the number and I’m open,’’ Ayres said, “then I’m going to let it go.’’

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