In the game of basketball, the primary duty of the big men is to battle in the paint. They need muscle and size to fight for better close-range scoring positions, while also trying to win rebounding battles against their counterparts, all to give their teams much needed control of the paint. All of the above is what the two-time Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champion and current Zenit St Petersburg center Gustavo Ayon has been doing to a great extent during this career. What sets Ayon apart from other great centers in the competition, however, is the difference he has made on defense too thanks to his ability to force turnovers and collect steals.
Since first entering the competition after joining Real Madrid ahead of the 2014-15 season, Ayon has been picking up steals like few players in the EuroLeague. He has 196 steals over 167 career games for an average of 1.2 steals per game. Ayon has 49 career games with multiple steals and has never had fewer than 24 in a single season while averaging better than 1.0 steals per game in four of his six EuroLeague campaigns. Ayon has been so impressive, that there is only one player since 2014 – Nick Calathes – who has stolen the basketball more times in the competition than Ayon. Moreover, Ayon has 2.2 steals per-40-minutes average, which is better than Calathes's (2.17) and the third-highest among all players over the last six years.
Several factors make players successful in stealing the ball. Usually, it is quick feet and quick hands, which is often more associated with smaller guards than big centers like Ayon. While it would be unfair to compare his speed and quickness to that of a guard, Ayon compensates for that with quick reaction time, which is a result of his high basketball IQ that helps him read plays and position himself defensively to disturb opponents' offense. In addition to his size, which presents quite an obstacle and often forces players to think twice when they attack the paint, Ayon defends the pick-and-roll well on the perimeter and has showcased great instincts throughout his career. Because of that, many of his steals have facilitated fast breaks, several of which he has finished on his own.
Ayon's overall contributions have been vital in Real's run to EuroLeague titles in 2015 and 2018, but it is his consistent production on the defensive end that has made Ayon one of the best centers in competition history in terms of producing steals.