The relationship between Maryland’s projected starting guards Fatts Russell and Eric Ayala began long before Russell made his decision to transfer to Maryland from Rhode Island last spring.
The bond between the two guys goes back to the days way before anyone could have predicted they would be college basketball stars, when both hoped, but could not imagine playing college basketball together over a decade later.
Russell, 23, and Ayala, 22, have known each other since Russell was in sixth grade and have remained friends ever since as their basketball journeys took them different places. Now, in what is presumed to be both of their last seasons of collegiate basketball, their journeys have collided as they share a backcourt in College Park.
“I’ve been playing against him [Russell] my whole life almost, so our chemistry just clicked automatically,” Ayala said.
Along with the chemistry, the styles of the guards mesh perfectly. They are expected to be a top backcourt in the conference, and maybe even the country, on the No. 21 ranked team in the preseason AP poll.
“Just being the person that he [Ayala] is, he can play with anybody,” Russell said. “The person I am I feel like I can play with anybody as well, so just having the two characters of people together like that, it just makes it easier for us.”
Ayala is a natural scorer, and while he can play the position, he is not a point guard. Even though he believes he can operate at both the one and two positions, which he proved last year, he is a scoring two-guard who flourishes off the ball.
When Ayala was forced to play the point guard position and assume the ball-handling duties to start last season because there was no one else on the roster to replace Anthony Cowan Jr., he managed.
“I was brought up to play both, I was taught to play both as I grew up working on my game,” Ayala said.
The senior guard has a special knack for getting downhill and is a fluent scorer, so even as he ran the offense, he still found a way to get his buckets. But it wasn't until Ayala went down with an injury that sidelined him for two games in the middle of January last season that the Maryland coaching staff realized they have someone else who can bring the ball up and initiate the offense.
When Ayala was out for two games, Hakim Hart took on the role of the point guard position, even though Hart is not an elite ball-handler nor a natural point guard. Any offense that doesn't have a true point guard running the show is hindered to a degree.
When Hart was running the show, Maryland got the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible, which helped commence the offense quicker than usual with a pass to the wing or high post. This helped the Terps with its sometimes stale, stagnant offense that was on display last season.
When Ayala returned, he did not immediately go back to take over the reins as the point guard. Hart, proving serviceable, continued to bring the ball up. This allowed Ayala to shine as a two-guard and gave way for head coach Mark Turgeon to run sets that freed up Ayala.
Ayala’s scoring average only increased by two points in the latter 17 games of the season following the injury, where he seemingly played more off the ball. However, Ayala mustered a few monster scoring nights in that second half of the season, including six performances that saw Ayala score more than 20 points, compared to just one before the brief hiatus due to injury.
While people on the outside obsess over the exact role both Fatts and Ayala will play on this team, for Ayala, the guard position is simply the guard position. Point guard, shooting guard, it doesn't matter. Because Ayala looks around the country and sees the best teams are playing two point guards anyway. He does, however, acknowledge how he fits into both roles.
“I feel like my size, it helps me a lot playing at the two. I can guard bigger guards, I can switch out,” Ayala said. “And then, with my IQ I can play the one as well, you know, my ball handling, my skill level I can do pretty much everything.”
The reality is it doesn't really matter where either guy is listed on the lineup. Both Ayala and Russell have proven to be interchangeable with each having to fill the role as a distributor and scorer throughout their careers.
“Playing with Fatts, I trust him 1000%,” Ayala said. “I know he will make the right decision for us as a team and make the winning play.”
That trust wasn't just developed in their junior high days, but playing countless hours of basketball together through the AAU circuit and pickup every summer, in Delaware, where Ayala is from, and Philadelphia, where not only Russell is from, but also fellow starters Donta Scott and Hakim Hart.
“There’s times where I go up to Philly and play or like Donta, Fatts, Hakim, they come down to Delaware to play,” Ayala said. “Throughout the whole summer, that’s just what we’re doing. I go up there and play, they come down here and play.”
That magical chemistry that Turgeon has called the strength of the team didn't appear out of thin air, it’s established by guys that have been playing with each other long before they stepped on Maryland’s campus, and it starts with Ayala and Russell.
Russell will run the show and guide the offense, just as he always has, but this time he’ll have familiar faces all over that he knows he can trust.
“It makes my job easier knowing that if I get in the lane and they help, then Eric’s right there to make an open shot, or Donta’s right there,” Russell said. “Or even if I’m off the ball, I know Eric’s going to make the right play.”
Russell is an explosive guard who can beat just about anybody off the dribble. He is a pass-first point guard, but when he needs to, he can score the ball at will. At Rhode Island, the burden to score was consistently on Russell.
In 2019-20, the then-sophomore averaged 18.8 points per game on 35% shooting from three in 30 games. Last year, in his junior season, his numbers dipped to 14.7 points per game on 23% shooting from three-point range in just 23 games.
However, there is a good reason for that. Russell revealed he was injured just about all of last season with a partial tear in his hamstring and plantar fasciitis in his heel. According to Russell, he virtually never practiced with the team.
“I was just going to games just playing and as a basketball player, you have to find a rhythm at some point and I just couldn't do it,” Russell said.
Now, Russell is fully healthy, excited and ready for a bounce-back year with his new squad and his new, and old, backcourt partner.