The Gonzaga Bulldogs are in an interesting spot right now. They are one year from the most successful year in school history: a run to the NCAA championship game, and sending off two players into the NBA via the draft.
They also are returning a sizeable portion of the championship run squad, although the pieces they lost are also mountain sized holes. The Zags basically lost the equivalent of four starters in Jordan Mathews, Przemek Karnowski, Nigel Williams-Goss, and Zach Collins. They also lost Ryan Edwards, Dustin Triano, and Bryan Alberts to transfers.
In other words, there are a lot of new faces, and with it, a lot of new looks we will see with the 2017-18 Bulldogs. The roster is set up to be incredibly fluid, with potentially lineups that feature the more traditional high/low post game Mark Few loves to death, and versions that may more resemble the positionless basketball style of the Golden State Warriors.
The prime example of all of this is Johnathan Williams III. Perhaps one of the most important pieces to the puzzle, Williams dipped his toes in the water of the draft, only to return for his senior year. Without Williams, this conversation we are having still looks vastly different.
The 6’9 incoming senior has spent a majority of his collegiate time playing as a power forward. His versatility allows him to even spend time at center (albeit a bit undersized), and defend quicker opponents on the wing. If history, and Williams style of play, mean anything, we will most likely see the senior holding down the power forward position for much of the season.
But there is a rather large question of what happens at the center position. Jacob Larsen has supposedly put on 25 pounds of muscle this past year as he recovered from his injury, the former four-star recruit from Denmark is poised to hold down the center position for the Zags. If he is there, Mark Few can run the offense he is most comfortable with, relying on movement in the post to help open up his shooters.
The key question of what role Williams will play revolves around Larsen’s health. Williams is more comfortable than Killian Tillie playing a traditional post role, and has a bit more weight to deal with opposing centers. According to Hoop-Math.com, Williams took 63.4 percent of his shots at the rim last season, virtually identical to Karnowski’s mark. He also shot a lot less two point jumpers (only 21.4 percent of his shots), with 15.3 percent of his shots coming from long range.
If Larsen isn’t up to speed, and even if he is, we can expect to see Williams filling most of his time bouncing between the four and the five spots. Williams averaged just 24.4 minutes per game last season, and that workload is bound to increase due to a shortage of bodies up front.
In either case, Williams doesn’t need to alter his game too much, but it will be interesting to see how the game plan shifts when Williams moves to the center spot for spells. That will be the beginning of a “small ball” style of play for the Zags, and we should expect to see Williams excel during those times.
On a team full of important pieces, Williams might be one of the most important ones. The Zags don’t have any obvious leaders of the squad, we because of his senior grade level status, we should expect to see some of that fall onto Williams. He showed he was ready for the role last season, and now it is time for him to step into it.