The Zags came close last Thursday night to having two players drafted in the same NBA Draft for the first time in school history. Domantas Sabonis ended up going to eventually to the Oklahoma City Thunder via a No. 11 pick by the Orlando Magic. Kyle Wiltjer missed out on hearing his name called, but he rapidly signed a three-year deal with the Houston Rockets and a chance to make the squad.
This doesn’t seem like the biggest deal, because after all most perennial top 25 teams tend to have multiple players go into the draft a bit more often. There are a few things that have avoided Gonzaga during its run from cinderella team to the national spotlight: mainly a Final Four (and beyond) appearance, and overall success in the NBA from its graduates.
As of now, the Zags have had a total of 14 players appear in the NBA, many of those players getting sporadic time in the past decades. Today, not counting Sabonis or Wiltjer, there are only two Gonzaga grads on NBA teams: Kelly Olynyk and Rob Sacre.
So yeah, it may not seem like a big deal, but last Thursday marked another potential watershed moment in Gonzaga history. No one is quite sure if Wiltjer will be able to consistently carve out time in the NBA, but Sabonis looks primed and ready to make an impact. But for the second time in three years, the Zags sent multiple players into the NBA.
A few months ago, I wrote about how Gonzaga’s recruiting had turned a corner. Zach Collins got bumped up to a five-star recruit. The Zags plucked Zack Norvell out of the fertile grounds of Chicago. They landed three more solid international prospects, and the 2016-17 season wasn’t a rebuilding a year whatsoever. For a few years now, the Zags haven’t ever had to rebuild, they simply reload. This upcoming season is the prime example of that.
There are a lot of question marks heading into next year. Although the talent is definitely there, the Zags have a lot of incoming players and team chemistry on the court is a question mark until we are proved otherwise. This past season showed that Mark Few has what it takes to make it eventually work—even if that means waiting until the very last minute to prove that point.
The talent is there, however. If the stars align like they are supposed to, the Zags could easily at least make the Sweet 16 for the third-straight year, something that hasn’t happened since this whole run started in 1999. They have now had two first-round draft picks in four years. There is NBA caliber talent lurking on this roster, and that number could easily rise.
Gonzaga will never be Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke, Louisville, etc. But they have made a name for themselves as a scrappy team getting the most out of their players. Now, with higher level recruits and a higher ceiling, the expectations are correspondingly going up. Most way-too-early preseason rankings have the Zags in the top 15 despite losing four very important players: their entire front court, the senior guard, and the four-year gorilla glue guy.
We’ve seen this promise happen a bit before. The Zags finished the 03-04 season ranked No. 3 and the 05-06 season ranked No. 5. Both years, they didn’t make it farther than the Elite Eight. But ten years later, it feels a bit different, and it will be truly exciting to see if this promise is starting to come true.