For the first time in five years, Gonzaga fans won’t be speculating about Przemysław Marcin "Przemek" Karnowski. Initially, we wondered how good he would be, next on the extent of his domination, lastly, if he would ever play basketball again and if so, return to his former glory.
Tommy Lloyd discovered Shemmy while scouting Kevin Pangos at the U17 World Championships. During the tournament, the big guy averaged 14.5 points, 11 rebounds and moved impressively well for someone his size. The University of California also noticed him and began actively recruiting within weeks of Lloyd’s initial contact. Thanks to Lloyd’s half-dozen trips to Poland, Gonzaga won out despite last minute sniping attempts by Duke and Kansas. According to a 2014 Sports Illustrated article, after committing, Karno had to call Lloyd to locate Spokane. He couldn’t find the name anywhere on his map of Washington D.C.
Shem’s freshman year coincided with Kelly Olynyk’s breakout season so significant minutes were hard to find. When he did play, he looked like an 8-month-old Saint Bernard at a crowded dog park. Fresh faced with a fair amount of baby fat, he showed flashes of why he was so coveted demonstrating a well-developed post game and impressive passing ability. He also ran the floor like a derailed locomotive. Speaking of derailed trains, the over/under of him crashing to the floor during his first two seasons was about 2.5 per game.
As a starter during his sophomore and junior seasons, Karnowski was the model of consistency. He started 74 of 75 games (Few started subs against Texas Southern), shot .608% from the field and played his best games against the toughest competition. At the beginning of the 13-14 season, St. Mary’s, with returning starters Brad Waldow, Stephen Holt and Beau Levesque, was picked by many to win the WCC. In their first meeting of the year, Karno put that speculation to rest with 7 block to go along with 15 points and 9 rebounds. GU would blow out St Mary’s by 20+ points in all three meetings that season.
Waldow wasn’t the only big to pale in comparison to Karnowski. In the 2014 loss to Arizona in the NCAA Tounament, Karno had 14 pts and 10 rbds; Arizona’s touted Kaleb Tarczewski 6 and 5. In the following year’s tourney, his performance in the Iowa blow-out led an Iowa fan to post one of my all-time favorite SBNation comments: “Gonzaga looks like 4 Steph Currys and a Shaq”. In the next game against UCLA, he torched current NBA big Kevon Looney and sidekick Tony Parker for 18. In the Elite Eight Duke loss, he held Jahlil Okafor, the NBA’s #3 pick the following summer to 9 points, half his season average, on 4 for 10 shooting. During the 14-15 season, he shot below 50% in only 5 of 38 games, the worst being 2 for 6 in the Texas Southern blow-out.
Consistent offense and dominating other bigs were only part of what Shem provided. He was also the literal centerpiece of the offense receiving an entry pass on the high post or on the block on almost every possession. Opponents were in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation on whether to double-team him or not. Play him one-on-one and he drops an easy 20, double him and watch kick out to the open man on the wing or hit whoever is cutting to the basket. The guy has great instincts and an incredible feel for the game.
On defense, excluding the above mentioned St. Mary’s game, he never was a great shot blocker but that’s not to say he wasn’t a great defender. He was a shot modifier. Unable to be backed down and always in great position, opponents were forced to shoot over him either falling away or at a greater range then they would have liked. What may have been the most impressive part of his defense was his ability to hedge out and disrupt an opponent’s guard at the beginning of their offensive possession. Somehow he was able to make to above the top of key, disrupt the guard and return to his man. I don’t ever remember seeing him get burned for moving too slow.
Entering his senior season, the big guy appeared to be invincible. When it was reported he hurt his back in a fall during practice for the WSU game, those of us used to seeing him fall several times a game thought it was no big deal. It turned out to be far more serious than anyone could have known, something I didn’t realize until I researched this article.
Two weeks after the injury and in intense pain and losing weight, he showed the medical staff a 4”x1”x1” bulge on his shin. When Gonzaga’s medical staff removed it, they discovered it was a Staph infection. Upon further medical evaluation, it was discovered the Staph had attacked his injured bulging disc, effectively splitting it in half. He needed back surgery, but before they could operate the Staph needed to be arrested. If not, he could lose his leg and possibly his life.
He spent a month on his back taking daily doses of heavy antibiotics to get the Staph infection in check before his back operation. He lost 72 pounds. When well enough for the surgery, two titanium plates were fused to his lower back to reinforce the destroyed disc. When he was well enough to be released from the hospital, he still needed a nurse to come to his residence and administer intravenous bags of antibiotics for four months. After that, he was required to continue the antibiotic treatment orally for five additional months. With the infection finally conquered, he now faced the long and difficult road to see if he could return to basketball.
Doctor’s assured him and the coaching staff that the titanium plates would adequately support his spine, it was the rest of his body that needed to return to basketball shape. That’s where Travis Knight came in. Still unable to do anything aerobic, Knight had him lifting weights, improving core strength and working on flexibility. His back pain gradually diminished, but now the pain was in the parts of his body that hadn’t be used in almost a year. Finally, in June 2016, he was cleared to run, jump and play 5-on-5. He was obviously tentative, the guy who had hit the floor dozens of times and never hesitated to dive for a loose ball would now have to trust a surgically repaired back. Somehow it all came together, he’d come back to have the best season of his college career and be named the top collegiate center.
The only sad part about last year’s incredible comeback was the poke in the eye he received during the semi-final against South Carolina. He nor Few used it as an excuse in the final, but I firmly believe his worst offensive college game was a direct result of imperfect depth perception. Unfortunately, for millions of Americans, the NCAA Final is the only college basketball game they watch all year. They never got a chance to see how good a basketball player Karno truly is or appreciate how far he came over the course of the previous year.
Being the winningest player in the history of D-1 basketball secures him a prime position in the pantheon of all-time great Zags, but there was so much more to like about Przemek Karnowski besides the great basketball. Thousands of fan photos while always being polite and gracious, the beard, the Santa video, his parents flying 5,000 miles to sit in the Kennel, his booming laugh and his charm.
His dream of playing in the NBA has been delayed for a year. Treated as an afterthought by the Charlotte Hornets, he got to play his final two Summer League games with the Orlando Magic and looked great in both. Instead of fighting for a roster spot during training camp, he decided to spend a year playing in the top Spanish division in Andorra. Andorra is a tiny, beautiful country in the mountains between Spain and France, a tough job. Expect him to return for the NBA Summer League next year and hopefully an NBA GM is smart enough to give his a real chance to perform. All he needs is a little Powodzenia, the Polish word for good luck.