Field goal percentage .437 vs. .435, 3-point percentage .374 vs. .372, free throw percentage .875 vs .867, rebounds per 40 minutes 6.2 vs. 5.6. Quick, which statistics are Corey Kispert’s and which are Zach Norvell’s? Kispert’s are the first numbers, the higher ones. To be fair, Norvell played more minutes (31 vs. 26), took more shots (11.3 vs 6.4), was a much better ball distributor (3.1 vs. 1 assist per game) and had more steals. Kispert though had more blocks with less turnovers. So how did Norvell make the Wooden Award preseason Top 50 and All-West Coast Conference First Team while several fans thought Kispert should lose his starting spot?
Kispert was in an almost impossible situation. His fellow starters were All-West Coast Conference First-teamers, three of them possible NBA draft picks with the fourth being the team’s all-time assist leader. The team’s arguably best all-around player, when healthy, was waiting on the bench. Gonzaga had the most efficient offense in the nation, but Kispert was often maligned for not being a bigger part of it. Did he simply know his place in the offense, sometimes lack confidence or was it a combination of both?
Last season, Corey took a backseat to his higher profile teammates, much like Josh Perkins did his sophomore season when playing with Nigel Williams-Goss. The problem was when the team did need his substantial skills he was often unable to go from being the fifth scoring option to a key part of the offense. Take the loss in the WCC Tournament Final for example. Norvell, Perkins and Crandall were 5 for 27 from the floor. Corey only took three shots, making two, the first being a made three 22 seconds into the game and the last being a missed three during garbage time. It was a missed opportunity to be a bigger part of the offense.
When he did play well, he was spectacular and that was the frustrating part for fans. Despite Brandon Clarke having the best NCAA tournament game in Gonzaga history against Baylor with 36 points and 5 blocks, it was Kispert’s 16 point and 7 rebound performance causing Coach Few to single him out as player of the game. Few seemed to be trying to inspire confidence and consistency in Corey for the rest of the tournament and it worked with another good game against Florida State. Unfortunately in the Texas Tech loss he was 0-3 in 25 minutes of play.
At the beginning of the 17-18 season, Corey Kispert took most fans by surprise winning the starting “3” spot over Rui and Norvell. It soon became apparent why watching him play. He competed favorably with Clarke and Rui at the Kraziness dunk contest, the form on his jump shot looked like the cover shot of an instructional video and he went chest to chest with Mo Bomba and won the battle. Losing his starting spot that season due to an ankle sprain, he’d still average almost 20 minutes per game coming off the bench.
He’d start all 36 games this past season, but early on several fans felt he should again lose his starting spot. After his spectacular play in the Maui Classic, many felt Jeremy Jones should start. The question arose again once Killian Tillie returned. Should he start and Rui play the “3”? The offense was clicking, the Zags were winning and there was no reason to disrupt a good thing so Gonzaga was one of the nation’s only teams to never change its starting line-up.
One big reason Kispert stayed a starter is he possess an attribute Few loves; he rarely makes mistakes averaging less than one turnover a game for his career. While his defense has often be questioned, it appears to be something he successfully worked on all season and improved as the year progressed. If you look at his advanced defensive metrics, his 93.7 defensive rating is 7 points better than the previous season’s and compares favorably to Norvell who was at 93.1 (the lower the better). He also had at least two Clarkesque blocks last season and is a good rim defender for his size.
As possibly next season’s only returning starter, his role will obviously change dramatically. I expect his shot attempts will double and he’ll possibly lead the team in minutes. If Novell and/or Tillie return I still expect him to average 30 minutes per game. Corey did make an All-WCC team last season when he and Josh Perkins were named to the All-Academic team. He spent last summer playing basketball for Athletes in Action throughout Europe. I think those fans who questioned why he was starting last season will be very happy he is starting next season.