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Josh Perkins will need to be the straw that stirs the drink

Whether or not Gonzaga can come up with a suitable encore for the best season in program history will depend heavily on the junior point guard’s ability to make the leap.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-South Carolina vs Gonzaga Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

For the better part of his two seasons as a mainstay in Gonzaga’s starting lineup, Josh Perkins has been a lightning rod for debate among Bulldog fans. To some, he represents the type of dynamic guard that can catalyze the Zags to college basketball’s truly elite. To his detractors, he’s a bungling turnover machine that can’t be trusted in high-pressure situations.

The latter characterization is unfair. But, some people just can’t shake their memories from a pair of turnovers coming out of halftime in the national championship game; the final minute of Gonzaga’s senior night loss in 2016-17 when a perfect season slipped away; and to a lesser extent the Sweet 16 loss to Syracuse in 2015-16. At times, his body language betrayed a loss of self-confidence. Perkins will need to erase those memories in the season to come.

Make no mistake, the Zags will need Perkins to be at his very best if they want to avoid a disappointing encore to the best season in program history. My confidence levels in Perkins have oscillated from one end of the spectrum to the other over the last two seasons, but now I’m confident he will rise to the challenge (and not because of his backflip skills...ok maybe because of his backflip skills).

Despite played a similar number of minutes between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Perkins exhibited great maturity in sacrificing his game and role to accommodate Nigel Williams-Goss in last year’s squad. While his backcourt partner got the national plaudits (rightfully so), Perkins settled into a supporting role. Though a quick glance at his career box numbers suggest his production went down across the board, Perkins did make some strides in his game that will serve as the foundation for what should be his breakout season this fall.

Perkins bumped up his true shooting percentage from 54.6% to 58.1% by improving his three-point shooting last summer (he was especially lethal during the non-conference schedule). He also had a front row seat to NWG’s weekly point guard clinics, while enabling the Zags to maximize their offensive versatility by providing another ball-handler to run ball-screen actions on both sides of the floor.

With Williams-Goss off to the NBA, Perkins is back to being the sole conductor of Gonzaga’s offense. Except now he’s more experienced, more mature, and presumably less of a jitterbug than he was during his redshirt freshman campaign. This is his fourth summer with a Gonzaga coaching staff renown for player development. Perkins has started 74 games and played 2200+ minutes for one of the best teams in the country over the last two seasons. He has an extensive cache of game experience to lean on, and has seen just about every way opposing teams can play defense (and I do mean every way, because UW rolled out the bold no-defense approach last season much to its detriment).

Now is the time for Perkins to put all his talent and game experience together and reach the next level of his development. Post play will still be an element in Mark Few’s offense next season (and forever), but the skillset of next season’s key players should dictate a more perimeter-oriented and free flowing style of play. Perkins is a key component in making that formula a success.

New talents will undoubtedly emerge with the additions of Zach Norvell, Jesse Wade, Corey Kispert, and Jacob Larsen. But they will have an acclimatization period. A lot of talent and locker room leadership passed through the exit door after last season, so Perkins will need to be a steadying hand on and off the floor. If Perkins doesn’t take the next step, the coming season will be a grind for the Zags. There’s really no getting around it. At the risk of sounding too hyperbolic, Perkins will be the bellwether of Gonzaga’s success in 2017-2018. Big things will be expected. Big things are coming.