Keith Ybanez: We’re 10 games in and usually at this point the rotation is locked in. However, Mark Few opted to sit Anton Watson again at the start of the second half against USF after doing so in the first Northwestern State again before replacing him in the starting lineup the following night with Andrew Nembhard. Is this a motivational ploy to get Watson going or are the Zags better off starting the “death lineup” with Nembhard and Kispert sliding to the 4? What would you guys do?
Steven Karr: They certainly have six starters. I personally like Watson starting games with Nembhard coming off the bench and then going from there. I like having his defense available right away and then bringing offensive firepower off the bench to play against second units and tired first units. They basically went with a six person rotation the entire second half against San Francisco because Aaron Cook was out, which was interesting.
Peter Woodburn: As a full-blown Anton Watson supporter, recognizing that a lot of his contributions aren’t reflected directly in the box score, I understand the frustration of the coaching staff sometimes in dealing with Watson’s up and down nature on the court. That said, it worked after the Northwestern State game. Watson looked aggressive, locked in on defense, etc. So whatever they need to do to keep him focused is fine by me. This is what coaches do, and people are going to wring their hands over Watson because that is what the Gonzaga fanbase does.I agree with Steven though. I like having Watson’s defense available straight away and Nembhard’s offense available if you need it, not the other way around. On Saturday, the three fouls to Jalen Suggs and the lack of Aaron Cook probably also played a role in the switch. The Zags needed to open the half strong, not let USF back into it, so having Nembhard on the floor in that position makes sense.
KY: I think it’s a motivational ploy as well, and it looks like we’re all on the same page with respect to usage. I much prefer having Watson in the starting lineup and bringing Nembhard off the bench as that arrangement allows for better balance. I won’t argue that Watson’s offense is still raw and he’s been inconsistent at that end of the floor, but on this team, I really don’t think it matters at all. If he was a reliable offensive threat—emphasis on threat, he doesn’t need to be a big scorer—opposing defenses would really be in a bind. But his offense isn’t exactly hindering Gonzaga’s attack as it is, and I think he offers a lot as a defensive playmaker and provides another body to help out Timme in the post. I say keep him in the starting lineup.
SK: He’s also an excellent passer. His IQ and instincts are really good. He just hasn’t gotten his scoring output to match the rest of his game quite yet, and a lot of people just see scoring as the end all, be all, which it isn’t.
PW: Exactly. I think people also just tend to forget that Watson’s previous season, by all accounts, was essentially busted by the shoulder. He played what, four games healthy? It isn’t like he is a college basketball veteran at this point.
KY: He definitely sees the game at a very high level. And to Peter’s point about his shoulder injury, I think it robbed him of some confidence in taking contact which he’s still working through at the moment. The more he plays and puts distance from that injury, the better he will be.
Notwithstanding the Watson issue, Gonzaga’s core rotation is performing at an absurd level, so let’s shift our focus to the end of the bench. The blowouts over the last few games have allowed Martynas Arlauskas and Pavel Zakharov to get on the floor. Considering they played a little bit last year, and have had some time to work with the staff, I was hoping they might have made some developmental progress. However, at this point, it looks like that may not be the case. Are either of you surprised by this and has that affected your expectations for them in the years to come?
PW: I never really had expectations on either of those players because we saw so little of them last season. When it comes to development at Gonzaga, my overall philosophy is to never question it, because the coaching staff has shown how to essentially maximize everyone’s potential and to unleash them upon the college basketball world at the right moment. With that said, as stacked as Gonzaga is right now, and on the recruiting level as stacked as they might be next year, I do wonder where and how these guys are going to carve out their roles.
SK: Well said. I don’t have a lot to add. They’ve been passed by on the depth chart and there’s another influx of talented freshmen coming in.
KY: It’s kind of a bummer as you hope for players to make developmental gains every season, but it has to be said that development isn’t linear for everyone. Additionally, it’s tough to show what progress you’ve made during 2-3 minute cameos at the end of blowouts. Gonzaga is always going to be add top-flight talent each season though and Arlauskas and Zakharov have to count on their teammates getting better as well, so if they want to carve out bigger roles for themselves in the seasons to come they need to convince the coaching staff that they’re worthy of it.
PW: I can see Arlauskas moving into a glue guy sort of role, but things are a bit harder for Pavel. With his body type, he is pretty pigeon-holed into playing the frontcourt. Assuming we get Chet Holmgren, and then have Ben Gregg arrived and Kaden Perry coming in, AND presumably Watson still in the mix, it gets a bit crowded down low.
SK: There’s also no guarantee that Drew Timme leaves.
PW: Very true.
KY: I hope he never leaves. Shifting gears, the Gonzaga women dominated Saint Mary’s over the weekend. They (GU) have been pushed in a lot of close games this season, and perhaps haven’t been at the level they were expected to be going into the season. Have they turned the corner or was the win over the Gaels a one-off?
PW: The defense has still been spot on, so that is a good thing. Gonzaga’s best offense comes from turnovers and second chance points, because although they have a few decent shooters in the mix, overall, the Zags aren’t the best shooting team. Kayleigh Truong is shooting 31.9 percent from the floor as your starting PG, and Cierra Walker, although a pretty decent three-point shooter, is also just shooting 36.2 percent overall. Flat out, if the Zags are settling for two point jump shots, a lot of these games are going to be closer than they should be, because Gonzaga isn’t taking a whole lot of high percentage shots.
SK: The Gaels only had 8 players available on Saturday. They are not very good. However, it was nice to see Gonzaga step on their throats, which is something they’ve rarely done this year. It’s kind of weird watching this team. They play unbelievable defense, but their offense is all over the place. They have games where they look like a top 15 team and games where they look like a third place WCC team. Lisa Fortier has dwindled her rotation down to a core 8-9 players, so maybe with a little more consistency in their roles, they will become more efficient on the offensive end. If their offensive production and consistency can match their defensive prowess by the end of the year, they’re going to be very dangerous
KY: They came close to knocking off South Carolina, and then I think suffered a bit of an emotional letdown in the two games that followed. But yea, the offense can get really out of whack at times, and I think they end up taking much more difficult shots than you would like. The Truong twins are immensely talented, but I think we also have to acknowledge that it’s hard to transition after losing two extremely experienced point guards in Jessie Loera and Laura Stockton in back-to-back seasons. As the backcourt gains more experience, I’m hoping the offensive inconsistency will go away.
PW: Yeah that is a very good point. No matter how veteran and talented a basketball team’s frontcourt is, it is the backcourt that is the driving engine.