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Saying Goodbye to Corey Kispert, the Epitome of a Zag

From freshman with clean cut hair to flow and a first-round draft pick.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-UCLA at Gonzaga IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

The four-year story of Corey Kispert’s rise at Gonzaga is rather remarkable, a microcosm of sorts reflecting Gonzaga’s overall rise in the world of college basketball. Here is the story of a recruit, a good one, but not necessarily a great one, putting in the work and the hours and watching it pay off—from unassuming freshman to most likely first-round NBA Draft pick. You want the prime example of player development and what it means to be a Zag? Look no further than Kispert.

When Kispert arrived on campus as the lone member of the Class of 2017, the Zags were just coming off the highest point in program history. Gonzaga had made its first Final Four and first national championship appearance. Despite losing Jordan Mathews, Przemek Karnowski, and Nigel Williams-Goss, expectations were high. The experienced core (Silas Melson, Johnathan Williams, and Josh Perkins) was well balanced to help along with the promising youth (redshirt freshman Zach Norvell and sophomores Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura).

In the midst of all that was a clean-cut Corey Kispert, fresh out of the 1A King’s High School. Kispert was a four-star recruit ranked just outside of the top 100, and how his game would translate to the college realm was a question mark (didn’t help that he missed a chunk of his high school senior season with a broken foot). He had the build and the bulk to exist on the court but didn’t exactly have the wow factor.

No wows were needed his freshman year. Kispert was a glue guy, averaging 19.4 minutes per game. The minutes expanded in his sophomore year, but the role remained the same. On a team featuring the likes of juniors Hachimura and Brandon Clarke and the comfortable outside shooting of Zach Norvell and Josh Perkins, Kispert, now a starter, was still the fifth option on offense. His point totals ticked up a bit from 6.7 to eight per game. But again, he largely rode under the radar.

Everything changed in his junior year. The Zags were coming off a disappointing loss to Texas Tech in the Elite Eight. The roster churn was staggering. Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, and Zach Norvell all departed early. Josh Perkins, Jeremy Jones, and Geno Crandall all graduated. The Zags lost 80.6 percent of their scoring from the previous season.

Kispert was a changed man. The tightly-trimmed haircut was fading into obscurity, slowly replaced with the acceptable Gonzaga-shag look. The Zags opened the preseason ranked No. 8, a combination of expectations on a junior Corey Kispert and sophomore Filip Petrusev to take over, combined with a promising class of Drew Timme and Anton Watson and the thought of a fully healthy Killian Tillie.

The health of Tillie went down immediately. With only two other seniors on the squad, graduate transfers Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder, the soft-spoken man from the Seattle suburbs was suddenly the face of the squad. With an offense that rolled through Petrusev at the post, Kispert quickly established himself as one of the most dangerous catch-and-shoot three-point specialists in college. His three-point average jumped to 43.8 percent (from 37.4 his sophomore season). With it, Kispert led the Zags to perhaps unexpected heights, hitting an AP No. 1 spot, and, had the tournament not been canceled due to COVID, most likely another No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

At that point in his career, no one would’ve faulted Kispert to call it quits at the collegiate level. He was garnering late-second round NBA Draft chatter, and the entire future of college sports (as well as the future of everything) was completely up in the air. Kispert declared, received his feedback, returned to Spokane for one more go-round, and put in the work.

His decision-making and offseason work paid off in dividends. Kispert, now the undisputed leader of one of the most hyped Gonzaga teams we will probably ever see, was a force at the beginning of the season. He donned a headband and tied Gonzaga’s single-game three-point record of nine three-pointers against the vaunted Virginia defense. His game included new-found aggression and effectiveness in driving and attacking the rim—both in the half-court game and in transition. Kispert was always an athletic guy. Instead of occasional displays, sequences like these were common occurrences.

He was second in the nation this season in offensive box plus/minus. His ORtg was the seventh-best in college hoops. He was a consensus First-Team All-American. He helped guide the No. 1 preseason team in history to borderline unsustainable hype, stayed the course all season, propelled Gonzaga to the No. 1 overall seed and the school’s second national championship appearance before ultimately falling short.

If you want to encapsulate Kispert as authentically and honestly as possible, you need to look no further than his post-title loss interview, completed so quickly after an absolutely shocking loss. Specifically, Kispert was asked this question about how he wished to be remembered. His answer:

“I just want people to remember how much I cared, how much I cared about the red and blue. Being a Zag is much more than just the 40 minutes you put in, the time you spend on the floor. It means being a great person off the floor, a great son, a brother, a great friend. I want people to remember me for being able to do all those things as good or better as I played on the floor. I’m hoping that little kids out there look at our team and look at me, and realize they can make it and do it the right way too.”

The definitive “Zag” has evolved over the years, expanding from strictly under-recruited country boys to top prospects in the nation. That quote, right there, however, is truly what it means to be a Zag. To don the uniform and see yourself on ESPN, you are representing an entire city of passionate basketball nuts. The Gonzaga Bulldogs are Spokane, and Spokane is the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

After four seasons, we bid adieu to Corey Kispert. The unassuming freshman graduates, not only with degrees, a wealth of tournament experience, and visible growth of his character and leadership. He also earned himself a spot on a NBA team. Kispert’s draft stock sits firmly in the first round, potentially a lottery pick depending on the author. And with that, his story and legacy in Spokane comes to a close and moves onto a different chapter in life.

If there was ever a Zag for life, it would be Kispert. Hopefully, he has a long and productive NBA career for the fans to cheer him on in the years to come.