This is not how it projected two years ago. Zach Norvell would lead this year’s team and impress NBA scouts with his play and leadership enough to earn a potential lottery pick at season’s end. Under the tutelage of Josh Perkins, junior point guard Jesse Wade would be coming into his own and would battle big sophomore Greg Foster Jr. for minutes as floor leader. After losing Tillie, Rui and Clarke to the NBA Draft, look for junior Jacob Larsen to have a breakout year in the post. Such are the fortunes of an elite college basketball program. Players turn professional earlier than expected, some see the writing on the wall and transfer, while injuries keep others around.
This upcoming season, three Gonzaga players with college eligibility remaining will be wearing NBA uniforms. Couple those losses with the transfers of Wade and Foster mentioned above and for the first time in 21 seasons Mark Few needed to bring in grad transfers out of necessity, not as upgrades or added depth as in years past. Few’s ability to seamlessly integrate transfers into the lineup and get them to buy in to Gonzaga system will be put to the supreme test this season. His floor general and the player who’ll probably play the most minutes have about six weeks to learn the system.
This year’s starter will be:
While the starters themselves seem pretty intuitive, this will still be a season full of question marks: Tillies health, Gilder’s return to form, Woolridge playing at the upper echelons of D-1, Petrusev’s defense and Kispert’s ability to adapt to a leadership role. Probably more important than these potential problems are what happens if one or more come to fruition? This will be the most inexperienced, albeit possibly most talented, second unit in recent memory. How Mark Few integrates all this new talent may be one of the biggest challenges of his career and probably won’t be settled until March.
The most important question will be how the role of backup point. When Woolridge rests, Gilder, with a year of point at A&M may assume the position with Ayayi playing the “2”. If Brock Ravet is truly a phenom, he’s an option and should get early season minutes at least. A third possibility is Kispert as shooting guard, Watson at the wing with either Gilder or Woolridge at point. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
How the talented young bigs will be used will also be intriguing. Could Timme and Zakharov or Ballo replace Tillie and Petrusev simultaneously a la Collins and Tillie three years ago? Who, if anyone, will redshirt or who will be too talented to keep off the floor? Will Watson play the “4”? Who starts if there is an injury? Watching all this talent perform and develop will be one of the highlights of the season.
With the potential for another amazing recruiting class in 2020, multiple players leaving school early for the NBA may become the norm. Turning over three, four or even all five starters year after year is something elite basketball programs have dealt with for years. While it may be a new phenomenon at Gonzaga, it proves the program has turned another corner. We fans can no longer count on watching players develop over four or five years or a plucky walk-on working his way into the starting line-up. As the team’s talent level increases, I expect to see more underclassmen and transfers populating the starting line-up for years to come.