Zach Norvell’s 2016 arrival in Spokane was eagerly anticipated by Gonzaga fans who pictured the tough lefty filling out a formidable second unit on a deep and talented roster. Unfortunately, an offseason knee injury last summer set the ESPN 100 recruit back.
Despite a promising showing in the Bulldogs exhibition warmup against West Georgia where he scored 18 points in 23 minutes, Norvell continued to feel discomfort in his knee and was shelved for the season as he took a redshirt to properly heal and prepare his game for the seasons ahead. With the Zags just a few plays away from a national championship, it’s tempting (and tortuous) to play the “what-if” game and imagine if that game would have played out differently with 10 or 15 minutes from Norvell. We’ll never know what impact he could have made then, but soon we’ll see what impact he can make now.
Assuming health, Josh Perkins and Silas Melson can be written into next season’s starting lineup with a sharpie. But the starting “three” spot is up for grabs, with Norvell and Rui Hachimura as the leading contenders to grab the job. At 6’5”, size is not a concern at that position for Norvell. He has the athleticism, build and rugged game to easily play inside and out on both ends of the floor. He can play off the ball or off the dribble, and in time will flourish into a go-to scorer for the Zags (you will all fall in love with his silky lefty jumper, I guarantee it).
Norvell is good enough to start next season. He’s good enough to start for just about every team that will be ranked in the Top 25. But the most beneficial role for the team next season might be closer to that original picture Gonzaga fans had for him last summer—coming off the bench.
As the 6th man, Norvell can easily step onto the floor and slide in with the starters, while also serving as a stabilizing force for the second unit. While he’s played as many official games as Jesse Wade and Corey Kispert—zero—he’s been around the team for a year now and is likely further along in his comfort level within Mark Few’s offensive and defensive system, as well as his comfort playing at this competitive level.
Rui Hachimura had a strong showing at the U19 World Championships, but I still think Norvell is a more polished player at this point in the development curve. It may seem intuitive to start the five best players, but I think the most sensible thing for the Zags would be to play Hachimura in the starting lineup and have Norvell provide balance to both the starting and second units.
Regardless of whether he’s starting or coming off the bench as the 6th man, Norvell’s long-anticipated (official) debut will be worth the wait. He proved his skill and versatility over the years at Simeon Career Academy in Chicago, the same basketball factory that produced Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, Nick Anderson, and Benji Wilson. He’s an intelligent player who can heat up in a hurry—he once made 11 three-pointers in a single half en route to 53 points. Norvell is the player I’m most excited to watch next season, and it won’t be long before he’s a fan favorite.