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How to play all of the big Gonzaga frontline at the same time

Looks like Mark Few may start the nation's tallest frontcourt.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's note: Community meet Keith. Keith meet community. I'm really excited to welcome Keith into the fold and look forward to more fantastic articles like this.

If you haven’t heard already, Mark Few is ready to dip his toes in the world of supersized basketball lineups. As a general rule of thumb, you want to get your best players on the floor together and the size of a starting frontline composed of the 7’1 Przemek Karnowski, 6’11 Domantas Sabonis, and 6’10 Kyle Wiltjer is incredibly enticing. One would be hard-pressed to find a frontcourt as imposing and skilled than Gonzaga’s big (literally) three. There are, however, issues that may arise with fielding such a lineup.

On the defensive side of the ball, power forwards can be exploited if placed at the small forward position where they will oftentimes be tasked with defending a quicker opponent. Such a mismatch often lands the out-of-position defender catching the ball as it falls through the basket after they’ve been beat off the dribble or in foul trouble as they’re placed in a compromising position every time they’re attacked on the defensive end. This can be mitigated to an extent by adjusting the team defensive scheme to allow for help from the fellow big men and digs by the guards followed by a quick recovery. However, it’s asking a lot of a PF to guard a SF for a whole game.

It’s much easier to field a jumbo lineup when employing a zone-based system. A 2-3 zone defense would allow the Zags to flank Wiltjer and Sabonis on either side of Karnowski. And, both forwards are athletically gifted and long enough to ably extend their coverage out to the corner-three spot and the wings. Furthermore, the forward positions are very interchangeable and Sabonis and Wiltjer should have no problem banging with a big or covering a wing. While they may not play a traditional zone defense exclusively (they will likely employ variations of a match-up zone), look for it to be used a lot when the big boys are on the floor together.

Is is more concerning with the impact a jumbo lineup has on the offense rather than the defense. Spacing quickly becomes a problem when fielding a large frontline. Employing the jumbo lineup often leaves you with two bigs clogging the lane, even when they’re trying to play a high/low look. The Chicago Bulls are a great comparison to what the Zags will be attempting as the Bulls have sporadically used a jumbo lineup featuring Nikola Mirotic (very similar skill set to Wiltjer), Taj Gibson, and Pau Gasol/Joakim Noah together (my use of the word "sporadically" should indicate the Bulls did not enjoy much success with that lineup). The problem with the jumbo lineup is perfectly captured below.*

While Wiltjer is clearly capable of extending his game out to the 3-point line, and even as far as 30-feet, the beauty of having a stretch-4 like him is that you pull the opposing team’s PF away from the basket creating cutting lanes, post-up space for Karnowski/Sabonis, and offensive rebounding opportunities for your team. Another concern with the jumbo lineup is the stretch-4 will be guarded by a quicker wing player reducing their effectiveness on the perimeter. But, I’m not as worried with this issue when it comes to Kyle as he can still shoot over just about anyone who’s covering him and he’s crafty enough on offense to get to his spots even against a quicker opponent.

The Zags will need really good shooting to come from the two guard positions to make the offense more efficient. In a small sample size (18 field goal attempts), Josh Perkins seems willing and capable of firing up a lot of 3s—55.6% of his shots last season were 3PA—and he made 40% of them, but he only had a total of 18 field goal attempts last year so it’s hard to count on that rate holding up. Eric McClellan (also a small sample size) and Silas Melson will need to improve on their 3PT%’s of 37.5% and 33.3% respectively in order to have success. Without credible three-point threats on the perimeter, opposing defenses will sag a lot more on the interior and ask their guards to dig/help on Karnowski, Sabonis, and Wiltjer.

The jumbo lineup also raises concerns about crashing the offensive boards and effective transition defense. In an ideal world, having three big men who are all excellent rebounders should help the oREB numbers but in the event the opposing team actually snags a rebound and can initiate their transition game, the guards will likely be hung out to dry. I’m sure Mark Few has established transition responsibilities in practice and the players have the aptitude to implement it but it’s something to look out for early in the season.

It’s nice to see Mark Few so open-minded about his lineup usage and on most nights Gonzaga will be able to get away with playing all three big men together. However, it will be interesting to see if he presses on with this lineup should it stutter early in the season.

*As a side note, it’s much easier to play a jumbo lineup extended minutes in the collegiate game as opposed to the NBA where most teams have great athletes at every position in the starting lineup and it’s much harder to mask athletic deficiencies. This is why although the Bulls jumbo lineup was a dud, I’m more optimistic the Zags will find success with theirs.