Prezemek Karnowski was born 25 years too late. In 1989, Atlanta Hawks 7’ 260 lb. back-up center Jon Koncak signed one of the NBA’s richest contracts ($2.2 mil per year) making nearly as much money as Michael Jordan ($2.5 mil per year). Eight years later, 7’ 280 lb. Bryant “Big Country” Reeves signed a 6-year, $61.8 million contract extension after playing two seasons for the Vancouver Grizzlies. Neither Koncak nor Reeves could be called superior athletes, they were big and skilled in a time the NBA rewarded those attributes. NBA centers needed to battle Shaq, Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone, not be overgrown guards who fill the lanes on breaks and shot threes. Aww Shemmy, those were the days.
Yes, Shem lacks the wingspan and athleticism of today’s prototypical NBA center but he makes up for his shortcomings in skillset, basketball I.Q. and attitude. Those positive attributes will only take him so far, what will get him over the hump is to show parts of his game he wasn’t able to display at Gonzaga.
The first area is the consistent ability to hit the 15-18-foot jumper. Shem showed flashes of a decent mid-range game this past season, but why shoot from 18 when you can back down and shot a hook from 5-feet. As Florida center John Egbunu proved last season, Shem’s signature hook shot is susceptible to being blocked by an NBA caliber defender. A consistent midrange threat could be the difference maker. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities he has the skills. Domas Sabonis proved a threat from deep in the NBA. He took 14 threes in his two years at GU, last year he took 159 at OKC.
Two other areas where Shem needs to demonstrate to impress potential NBA teams are rebounding and defense. Over the years, he’s often gotten a bad rap on NBA scouting sites for not being a more dominant rebounder, but they didn’t consider the mitigating circumstances. In the first seven games of his sophomore at GU, Shem fouled out twice and had four fouls in two other games. The aggressiveness and physical play he learned in the European game didn’t translate to D-1, that and he’d get unreasonable fouls just for being big. In order to stay in games, he had to throttle back. He won’t be drawing cheap fouls in an NBA environment for boxing out too aggressively, setting too firm a pick or for having an opponent bounce off him on 50/50 rebound situations.
While he’ll never be a shot blocker, his smarts and his size allow him to be an above average post defender. His footwork has always been impressive for a man his size allowing him to quickly close on opponents and use his size to alter or bother their shots. In the “no blood/no foul” NBA post, he’ll be freer to leave his feet and move his arms while defending increasing his effectiveness. One of the uglier aspects of the NBA for basketball purists is hard fouls for smaller offensive players entering the paint, a big Shem not worried about picking up a foul could be a strong, lane-clogging deterrent.
Shem does possess several qualities that make him an attractive option. Passing is the one area of his game that’s fully in sync with the modern era. Be it kicking out for an open three or hitting a cutting guard, no college center last was more adept at punishing opponents for defensive lapses or ill-timed double teams than Shem. While most NBA players are taken for their potential and future impact, Karnowski, who turns 24 his next birthday comes ready to play. His years of international experience, including having gone head-to-head with several NBA centers, dramatically reduce his learning curve for the pro game. Lastly, he seems like a great guy and a great teammate. Personable, positive, soft-spoken and funny. Like Robert Sacre he’d be a great person to be around in the locker room and on the road.
Several teams see his potential and he’s worked out for at least four NBA teams thus far. He said in an interview he missed his first couple of workouts because of illness, but in the past two weeks has traveled to Washington D.C., Charlotte, Atlanta and Denver. Atlanta has the 19th, 31st and 60th picks in the draft this year, could they, like the Lakers did a few years ago, use the last pick in the draft to take a Gonzaga center?
Whether he’s a late 2nd round draft pick or not, expect Shem to see plenty of playing time in this year’s NBA Summer League and fighting to make and NBA roster this fall. As one of Gonzaga’s best loved players, we’ll all be hoping for a storybook ending after the adversity he’s overcome. Worst case scenario is the big guy will have a long, successful and well-paid career in Europe, play for the Polish National team and 20 years from now look for him to be Poland’s Minister of Sport and Tourism.