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Learning to Appreciate Josh Perkins

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Severely injured one year. thrust under the microscope the next. He could be the key factor in this weekend’s games.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Gonzaga vs Xavier Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

After watching Josh Perkins play his first couple of games at GU, I made the following comment; “he’ll do amazing things Pangos couldn’t do and make bad decisions Pangos wouldn’t do.” While it sounded good at the time, I was wrong to say it. Part of being a player at GU is developing your game and improving every year. Bad decisions decrease as players grow with experience. Look at some of the fouls committed by Domas Sabonis when he was a freshman and how he improved the next year. JP is finishing his sophomore season and we fans seem to tougher on him than we are any other player. Why is that and is it deserved?

Most would say it’s the turnovers, but it’s a perception the numbers don’t support. Josh has averaged exactly 2 turnovers per game each season he’s played. That’s the same number David Stockton averaged his senior year and Stockton was known for overcoming his physical limitations by taking care of the ball. In 07-08, the first year turnover stats were kept, junior Jeremy Pargo averaged 3.4 per game.

Perkins also had the unfortunate timing of following Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr, probably the best loved guard tandem in GU history. Both Pangos and Bell REALLY took care of the ball. Pangos averaged 1.6 turnovers per game and GBJ an outstanding 1.2 for their careers.

Sadly, Josh’s turnovers come in bunches. A long string of 0 and 1 games are forgotten and all we remember is 4 against SMC, 4 against Pacific two games later culminating in 6 in the BYU loss two games after that. A shooter can be easily forgiven for the occasional bad outing, point guards seem to be held to a different standard. Missed shots are considered part of the game, turnovers are unforgivable mental errors.

As one of the highest rated recruits in Gonzaga history, JP was going to be eased into the college game his freshman season, subbing for and learning from Pangos, Bell and Byron Wesley. He’d be able to adjust to the college game without having to carry the team, Few would play his seniors in high pressure situations. He’d learn the mistake-free ball control from the very best GU had to offer. As we all know, that scenario ended with a Kenny Gaines kick to the jaw. Josh would not only lose the season, he be unable to play contact basketball for six months.

Fast forward to the next season, Gonzaga was a preseason top ten thanks to the best frontcourt in the country. They also had a freshman point guard who hadn’t played basketball in half a year along two other new starters in the backcourt. No problem, the offense would run through Karnowski, yeah, for five whole games. Two months of practice running the offense through Shem goes by the wayside and the not-ready-for-primetime backcourt must learn a new one on the fly. A lot to ask of a freshman point guard.

The growing pains were hurt to watch. In the tough pre-conference schedule, opponents could now concentrate on stopping or slowing down Wiltjer and Sabonis because guard play wasn’t a factor. To Perkins credit, he stepped up to help the new “big 2” and was the most consistent guard on the floor. Unfortunately, trying to force the offense was also causing him to develop bad habits; forcing off-balance shots, over-dribbling then losing the ball and trying to thread the needle to finely on his passes. Gonzaga looked ready to implode and they were going to do so on HBO.

We all know it didn’t happen. The guards started playing better providing one of the most amazing and satisfying seasons of all-time. By the end of the season, Perkins play was solid, averaging only 1.77 turnovers per game for the last dozen outings. He also played spectacularly in the critical WCC Tournament, with 5 assists and 17 points against BYU followed by 5 assists and 18 points against St Mary’s in the championship game. Considering the significance of the turnaround, you’d think off-season fan chatter would be would center how good the young guards would be in the future. You’d be wrong, much of it centered on being thankful another point guard would be eligible next year and if and when Silas Melson would transfer.

The following October, fans already skeptical about Perkins would get more ammunition. Charged with “Physical control of a vehicle under the influence” many fans guessed a five game, 10 game or even season long suspension. It turned out to only be two. The transgression was quickly forgiven when fans got a chance to see JP play, he averaged 15 points per game in his first six games as a starter including those in the AdvoCare Tournament. “Bad Perk” was forgotten as fans loved the new kick-ass “scorer Perk”.

Then suddenly, scorer Perk seemed to disappear. NWG emerges as a star, on a given night any one of the eight players could lead the team in scoring and Gonzaga was winning every game, winning big. Instead of being lauded for giving up individual stats for the benefit of the team, fans wondered what happened to Perk and why he wasn’t contributing more. Then came the BYU loss.

People forget JWIII missed a hook in the lane he makes 8 of 10 times with the score tied at 71. They also forget with BYU up 73 – 71, NWG had the ball in his hands, unsuccessfully tried to drive right, then kicked it back to Perkins at the top of the key. All they remember is the Perkins drive, the off the foot turnover, followed by the failed next drive with another turnover. Adding insult, a third turnover in a minute skewing his stats. Those inclined to blame a loss on an individual player had their scapegoat.

Instead of dwelling on the loss, Perkins entered the post-season playing almost error free ball with three turnovers in the next six games. He wasn’t scoring, but Gonzaga was winning WCC and NCAA Tournament games. Last Saturday, scorer Perk made a reappearance in the Xavier game and his outside shooting was a key factor in the win.

Considering the loss of his freshman season and the apprenticeship under Pangos and Bell, the incredible pressure thrust upon him last year after Karnowski went down, then being able to work seamlessly with NWG and let him have most of the spotlight, JP should be praised as a great teammate and a damn fine player. I haven’t even mentioned his significant contribution to the nation’s best defense.

If he can continue performing the same way he has for the past three weeks, he could certainly do something Pangos didn’t have the opportunity to do. Help Gonzaga win a National Championship.