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Meet Your Zags: Przemek Karnowski looks to close out his senior year on top

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After an injury nearly derailed his basketball playing career, the big man from Poland is ready to leave his lasting mark.

Gonzaga v UCLA Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Full blown disclosure: Przemek Karnowski is one of my favorite basketball players to ever put on a Gonzaga Bulldogs uniform.

When Shem first crossed the Atlantic Ocean to enroll at Gonzaga, there was an unbelievable hype surrounding him. Reports swirled that if he had been an American high school student, he would’ve been an All-American. Needless to say, Spokane was hyped.

His freshman year had a few bumps, however. Przemek wasn’t called upon as much because the Zags still had Kelly Olynyk, Elias Harris, and Sam Dower down low. What they had was a large man, with solid footwork, a deft eye for passing, but a little bit timid against the competition. He averaged only 5.4 points in just 10.4 minutes per game.

It wasn’t until his sophomore year campaign that Karnowski truly shined. In 24 minutes of play, he averaged 10.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game, all while shooting 59.3 percent from the floor. He was one of the most well-rounded players on the Zags, with his only real detriment being a tendency for fouling and a complete inability to shoot free throws. His junior year, he continued to get better. The rebounds and blocks went down, but so did his foul troubles. He got even more efficient with the ball in his hand, and had established himself as one of the premier defensive bigs in the nation, as evidenced by one of my favorite GIFs I ever made of him:

greatwallofkarno

All of this is what makes his original senior year such a travesty. The Zags had the best frontcourt in the entire nation, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Alongside Karnowski at center, there was Kyle Wiltjer stretching defenses and Domantas Sabonis relentlessly pounding it down low. There was supposed to be no solution of this three-headed hydra monstrosity. Unfortunately, the wheels never quite got turning on the beast. A mere five games into the season, Karnowski went down with a back injury. On Dec. 31, 2015, he was having major back surgery and the prospects were no longer when he came back, but if he even came back at all.

A player like Karnowski doesn’t come along too often to the likes of a school like Gonzaga. The vacuum he left in the post was apparent rather immediately. In 2014-15, defenses attempted just 30.5 percent of their shots at the rim. In 2015-16, opponents drove the lane harder because there wasn’t the Zags lumbering big man there to scare them away, getting 36.3 percent of their shots at the rim. Teams were able to abuse the pick and roll off of Wiltjer even more because there wasn’t the same protection down low once past him.

Hopefully, this year, that has all changed. Of course, there is no way to know for sure (until practice starts) what Karnowski’s true health looks like. According to his Sports Reference page, he weighed (at one point) 288 pounds, and that is a lot of weight to carry around on a surgically repaired back.

Coach Mark Few recently told the Spokesman Review’s Jim Meehan that there is still a long and uphill climb for the big man.

“We’ve seen some real flashes. It’s encouraging and it’s heartwarming when you know where he was at last December,” Few said. “As far as plugging him into a full season of college basketball, he has a ways to go. We have to get him in shape.”

At his peak, we might see a sophomore year campaign with better numbers. At its worst, he is still one of the better all-around bigs in the nation. His 51 assists he accumulated in the 2014-15 season placed him No. 10 in the nation for all centers. One of the beauty’s of Karnowski came when recognized how to feed off the double-teams he often attracts, leading to incredibly easy baskets.

przemeknolookzoomed

Karnowski is one of the players that makes everyone around him better. He is one of those clubhouse guys that everyone gravitates to. He is one of those players entire fanbases rally around because everything about him is everything that is right about college basketball. He is selfless in his play and he will provide an important bout of stability down low. A healthy Karnowski means the team can allow Zach Collins, Killian Tillie, and Jacob Larsen all take their time to find their footing in the college realm.

This point is rather important, because a healthy Karnowski gives Mark Few some much needed flexibility in the post with the minutes. A healthy Karnowski means potentially one of the big, new, foreign imports will be allowed to redshirt if needed. A healthy Karnowski gives the team a silent, but mighty, senior leader. A healthy Karnowski also makes for the great comeback story in the nation, and a story the entire team and fanbase can rally behind.