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Examining Gonzaga’s Frontcourt

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How does Few distribute minutes this year?

A huge piece of the 2021-2022 roster was added on Tuesday morning with Andrew Nembhard transferring in from Florida. Now, we wait to see what the final version of the 2020-2021 roster will look like. If Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi, and Filip Petrusev all return to Spokane, Mark Few’s group should be the pre-season number one team in the nation.

Assuming Petrusev comes back, Gonzaga’s front court rotation will include the WCC Player of the Year along with Anton Watson, Drew Timme, and Oumar Ballo. All four of them will likely have good professional careers down the road, but how do they fit together on the court this season? Let’s examine last season for some answers.

The biggest problem the Bulldogs had last year when Watson went down was their lack of floor spacing from their bigs. Killian Tillie could extend a defense, but far too often when Timme and Petrusev were on the court together, defenses were able to sag off when one of them reversed the ball at the top of the paint. San Francisco would deny wing reversals and literally dared Timme and Petrusev to either shoot a three or drive and hit a free throw line floater, and a lot of possessions looked something like this:

It’s not shocking that of Gonzaga’s 11 worst Points Per Possession performances last season, three of them came against USF’s scheme. It’s also not shocking that the other three games Gonzaga played without Tillie and Watson were also in the bottom half of PPP last season. When the Zags were down to six players in those few games, the offense clicked much easier when they went with four guards and a big because the spacing and flow was much better.

Last year, Petrusev and Timme played 450 offensive possessions together. They had the second worst net efficiency (offensive PPP minus defensive PPP) of any duo on the team with a 0.221. By comparison, Timme played 245 possessions with Tillie and had a net rating of 0.543. Put it in simpler terms, Gonzaga was 0.30 points per possession better when Timme played with Tillie as opposed to Petrusev.

Let’s expand on Drew Timme’s season real quick. Of every player in the country with over 600 possessions last season, Timme led them all in net efficiency when he was on the court. Gonzaga was +0.358 points per possession when Timme was on the floor. The difference between him and second place is the same distance between second and tenth.

The only player perhaps more productive than Timme? Anton Watson. Here is the +/- per minute of the four bigs last season:

Watson: 0.67

Timme: 0.47

Tillie: 0.42

Petrusev: 0.39

Watson and Timme played 148 possessions together last season. They had a net rating of 0.699, which wasn’t just the best duo on the team, but as far as I could tell, it was the highest rating of any duo in the country with 100+ possessions played. Petrusev’s most productive teammate? Also Watson. The offensive ratings of Petrusev/Watson and Petrusev/Timme are identical, but the defensive rating goes down almost a full tenth of a point with Watson. Part of that is because Watson played a majority of his games against lesser competition, but it also shows how poor Timme and Petrusev played together defensively and how good Watson is on that end of the floor.

Here’s a more organized breakdown of everything I just rambled about, highlighted by best and worst in each category.

If Petrusev and Timme are going to play together, one of them will need to learn to step out and shoot consistently or become a threat off the bounce. In all likelihood, it’s going to have to be both of them because of the wildcard in this whole situation, Oumar Ballo. “Baby Shaq” will almost certainly be scoring all of his points in the paint this season, making it paramount that Timme or Petrusev extend the floor when playing with the beast inside. They both need to improve defensively against ball screens as well.

I’ve said all Spring that Watson will start with Petrusev and still hold to that. Petrusev and Timme simply don’t mesh that well together, while Watson can complement any of the three bigs. The problem is that those three bigs are all natural centers and Watson can’t play 40 minutes, which means two of those centers will be playing together for 10-15 minutes every game. What will the best combination be? How will Mark Few distribute minutes? Can Petrusev keep defenses honest from beyond the arc? He was 9-for-30 his freshman year, but only attempted 11 last season. Timme hasn’t shown much range at all yet.

To conclude all this, Anton Watson is the most valuable player on this year’s team if he’s healthy. His athleticism and versatility allow Gonzaga to do much more on both ends of the court. They essentially eliminated their press when he went down last year and their defense in general was fairly ordinary. Even in a small sample size against lesser opponents, you can see how much better Timme and Petrusev played with Watson next to them. If those three bigs can consistently step out and hit threes, and Ballo is as good as advertised, this squad is that much more dangerous.