David Pendergraft’s albatross was his height. At 6’ 6” and 220 pounds he had to use positioning, hustle and smarts to guard an opponent’s 4 or sometimes even their 5. Mike Hart was so hesitant to shoot, he looked like a sniper needing clearance from higher headquarters before firing. Draino was good in all aspects of the game, just not great in any single area. They were our blue collar/Swiss Army Knife/glue guys from the past. The guys who made up for a lack of height or foot speed by outhustling, outthinking or outplaying their opponent. They could do a little bit of everything and usually did, accomplishing whatever it took to win. They were also fan favorites because they personified Gonzaga basketball; using guts, brains and hustle to compete with and often beat, longer more athletic opponents.
Welcome to the 16-17 season Gonzaga fans, gone are the days of GU being the athletically inferior team. These guys are so talented, the early candidate for this year’s Swiss Army Knife may be the best athlete on the floor with an abundance of length and athleticism. The excellent overall play of Killian Tillie may be the most surprising element of the new season. Most of us thought Tillie was a prime candidate to redshirt. He didn’t play last year, so all we saw were his pictures and videos as a 16-year-old weighing about 160 lbs. and looking two years away from needing a razor. He still needs 20 lbs. of muscle, something he hopefully acquires in the offseason, but I don’t think any of us expected the explosive, smart and talented player we’ve seen thus far.
Honestly, we probably should have known better. For someone with his pedigree in volleyball to forgo that game and concentrate in basketball means he has a special talent for basketball. Sure his brother Kim played at Utah, but his other brother Kevin was a two-time D-1 National Champion and All-American volleyball player. His explosive jumping, timing and body control are no doubt byproducts of a childhood playing volleyball, a game he gave up at 14 to concentrate on basketball. Though his athleticism is supremely impressive, the 18-year-olds grasp of the game and composure are reminiscent of freshman Domas. He’s unfazed by the big stage, playing like someone who’s watched his family compete at the highest athletic levels and has been waiting to take his turn.
We knew Collins would be a star and haven’t been disappointed. Norvell was brilliant in the exhibition but a sore knee and an abundance of guard talent may prevent us from seeing him again this year. With practice and experience, Rui could be the best of the class and if Larsen comes back healthy he could be a sleeper. Tillie on the other hand has been an amazing and welcome surprise. Many thought he’d be good, just not this good right out of the gate. 3-pointers, post play, passing (3 assists in 2 games), defense and shot blocking. At 6’ 10”, he even dribbled down the middle of the floor last night leading a fast break. The young Frenchman seems to be able to do it all.
From his play in the first two games, the sobriquet (French for nickname) of Swiss Army Knife is appropriate but we may be minimizing him. If he continues to demonstrate the same level of talent, composure and athleticism it may be more appropriate to refer to him as a great all-around player or like his fellow freshman front-court mate Zack Collins, simply a star.