There aren’t really too many questions for the Gonzaga Bulldogs heading into the 2018-19 season. Generally speaking, that is the safe assumption to make for most teams ranked within the top-five in a preseason poll.
The Zags lost a couple of key starters in Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson from last year’s Sweet 16 squad, but they returned everyone else—and picked up a couple of good names a long the way. Filip Petrusev and Geno Crandall will be nice additions to the lineup, and Brandon Clarke, a transfer from San Jose State, might be one of the best players in the nation absolutely no one is talking about.
Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell, Killian Tillie, and Rui Hachimura were all nominated in their respective positions for preseason player of the year awards. Things in Spokane are seriously looking up; there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
But there are a few key question marks heading into the season—there has to be! A national championship cannot come this easy in life, and if that is the ultimate (and let’s face it, halfway realistic goal), the Zags will have to answer these questions throughout the season.
Question #1: Who is the go-to guy on this squad?
Last year, the Zags nearly had six different players averaging at least 10 points per game. Williams led the pack at a whopping 13.4 points per game. That was the lowest team-leading mark since Matt Bouldin led the Zags with 12.6 points per game in 2007-08, his sophomore year.
Now, balance is by no means a bad thing. But balance also brings the question of who you want the ball in the hands of when the game is on the line.
In a 74-71 loss to Saint Mary’s last season, it was Perkins’ three-pointer with eight seconds left that rimmed out in the waning seconds of the game. In a 72-70 loss to San Diego State, it was a Norvell three-point attempt that was off mark as time ticked off the clock late. In an 89-83 overtime win against North Dakota, it was Norvell’s seven extra minutes points that helped pace the win.
In the second-half near collapse against Texas, Perkins didn’t attempt a shot in the final eight minutes of the half. In the double-overtime loss to Florida, we saw the ball in Silas Melson’s hand to tie the game and force the first overtime.
Now, there isn’t anything bad, per se, about having multiple options at the end of the game. It makes it much harder for defenses to key in on any one individual player. It also makes it harder for the offense to run. It is just more plays to try and perfect on the fly. In basketball, the Mamba Mentality, the idea that someone will always take that last shot, oddly (seemingly) works.
For the most part, that player will often be a guard. Rui Hachimura very well could lead the Zags in points next season, but he isn’t a consistent outside threat yet. Now, if Hachimura has perfected his long range jumper—pencil him into the position of the go-to guy. But until that is available, putting the ball in Rui’s hands limits you to deficits of two points, at the max.
Common sense would put the burden on Perkins’ shoulders. During the WCC Media Day interviews, Perkins stated that the loss to Florida State was on him, saying he should have been more present and aggressive on the offensive end (Mark Few countered, saying the loss was on Killian Tillie’s injury suffered less than 24 hours before the game).
What Perkins was saying does resonate, however. Perkins has the potential to be a prolific scorer, but he isn’t one consistently quite yet. He often defers to the life as a pass-first guard. Perkins averaged the most field goal attempts per game on the team last season, but he also played the most minutes. You expand those stats to 40 minute averages, and Perkins had the fifth-most field goal attempts on the team.
Perkins still has that ability to be that shooter. He has demonstrated his ability to hit shots on a dime, off the screen, with a man in the face, deep in the shot clock, and well away from the line. Realistically, until proven otherwise, we should consider him the man who has the ball in his hands with the game on the line.
But, there is another candidate.
Norvell demonstrated on the grand stage of the NCAA Tournament last season that he was more than comfortable being the big man on the court. This clip is set at the perfect moment because it makes Norvell’s shot seem so huge, and we need to give credit to Perkins here, because he hit a long jump shot to tie the score at 64-64 a mere moments prior.
Norvell, however, is a high volume shooter. He took 23.4 percent of the possible shots while on the floor, according to Ken Pomeroy, second on the squad to Hachimura. Norvell is a big strong guard who is just as comfortable taking a high pressure three as he is driving to the hoop for the theoretically easier bucket.
One would assume there is a pecking order, but the safe bet is that either of these two players will develop into the go-to scorer the Zags didn’t necessarily see too often last season. For my money, I think it is going to be Norvell, as he displayed a blood thirsty hunger to score buckets at almost all times last season. Then again, apparently I have been wrong before.