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Zags and the 2022 Draft

With a loaded team, a few Zags will have a big decision ahead of them

NCAA Basketball: Merrimack at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

This iteration of the Gonzaga Bulldogs is about as interesting in roster construction as a team can be. The Zags have as many as seven legitimate NBA caliber prospects on the roster, but only freshman unicorn Chet Holmgren looks like a first-round lock early into this season. Fellow freshmen Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis both have the makeup of surefire first-round picks, albeit maybe a year or two down the road.

Here are some reasonable expectations for each Zag who may enter the draft or at the very least flirt with going pro.

Chet Holmgren - Top 5 lock

It’s been remarkable to see Holmgren retain his draft value while playing a secondary role in the offense. He’s tied with Rasir Bolton for fourth-most shot attempts on the team, a rate that is hardly the norm for a top 5 pick, let alone a big man in that pick range. The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks highlighted Holmgren’s predicament fitting into Gonzaga’s established offensive schemes that go through fellow post player Drew Timme. What buoys his stock in terms of offense is his incredible efficiency, shooting 75.8% within the three-point line and a true shooting percentage of 68.5%.

That ability is tantalizing to a lot of NBA teams, where the roster is full of guys who need the ball in their hands to impact the game on offense. It highlights his adaptability and versatility rather than suggesting a low-motor or deferral mentality. And little questions can be made of Holmgren’s motor considering his work on the defensive end.

Holmgren’s offense is worthy of a lottery pick but his defense is what makes him the player with perhaps the highest ceiling of anyone in the draft. The game against North Alabama was his first game where he did not record a block. It’s also the first game he did not record at least 2 blocks. You see Chet’s impact throughout the game, gradually discouraging his opponents from even considering attacking the basket when he’s within the paint.

Opponents’ two-point shots account for just 41.7% of their total attempts, the eighth-lowest selection of all college defenses (for perspective, the median attempt is 49.7%). That is a direct result of Holmgren haunting the interior lanes. He has a higher block rate than previous lottery big men Jonathan Isaac and Mohammed Bamba (both drafted 6th by the Magic) and with a more established offensive skillset than either.

Holmgren’s ability to secure blocks and defensive rebounds and in turn initiate the fastbreak is a irresistible skillset in the increased tempo of the modern NBA. As he improves his dribbling and passing he will only become more of a cornerstone for an up-and-coming professional team.

Julian Strawther - Second round

After Holmgren, the case for Zags to jump to the next level becomes substantially more questionable. While realistically Gonzaga has as many as nine potential NBA-level players, Holmgren is the lone player that looks physically capable and displayed the ability to consistently provide a game that suggests he’s ready. Sophomore guard and wing Julian Strawther would be the next guy who fits the mold and could excel in the right situation.

Strawther has the size, handles and rebounding skills to be a legitimate NBA prospect, it’s just a matter of seeing him inject himself into the game more consistently. Like Holmgren, Strawther is a secondary offensive weapon that has to make more out of less with how loaded this team is. When he is involved in the offense, he’s a dynamic triple threat, leading the team in turnover rate (just 10 turnovers on the season) and shooting 37.9% from three. He’s solid driving and has the second-most offensive rebounds on the team, making him a three-level player.

Strawther worked hard on his physique throughout his freshman year and it’s paid off. Out of high school, scouts pigeonholed Strawther as a “smooth” forward with so-so athleticism. He has since turned into an off-ball guard who can guard four positions. Throughout the year, he’s shown the ability to use his size off of the glass as well.

The Vegas native will no doubt test waters once the season comes to an end, but NBA teams will likely want to see Strawther in a larger role to merit first-round status or potentially a lottery pick.

Drew Timme - Second round

The Drew Timme experience is what makes college basketball the greatest. Few college athletes have been able to parlay both their elite athleticism and charisma and humor quite like Timme has during his time in college. Even in what could be considered as a season of regression, Timme is one of the most reliable scorers and by far the most gifted offensive post players in the country.

He has the offensive skill set to be a contributor in the NBA, but the questions on defense may be too large to see him go any higher than the back half of the second round. He would by no means be the sole big man that a team would try to hide on defense, but the restraint teams will show in selecting him raises the question of what’s best for Timme in the short term.

As we have a year of NIL deals under our collective belts, it may benefit Timme most to continue cashing in in Spokane rather than leave for the NBA. The league minimum is $560,000 and if anyone can market themselves to surpass that it’s the guy with an iconic celebration and popular TikTok account.

Andrew Nembhard - Fringe second round

Despite an up and down nonconference, Andrew Nembhard still has a pathway to the NBA if he can button up his game and showcase an improved shot. The Canadian was always a fringe selection due to his shooting mechanics, but he does possess a lot of NBA-caliber skills.

He has the potential to be a plus defender at the next level, with adequate speed, ideal size and ability to guard his assignment. He is a good to great passer who has elite court vision with a knack for finding a passing window that leads to quality shot creation. A decent comparison for him would be somewhere between Kendall Marshall and Greivis Vasquez.

For Nembhard to put himself into the second round he will need to have not just a good conference play but a clean NCAA tournament. Scouts will not just want to see a guy who can hit tough shots–of which he’s more than capable–but also a guy that can consistently make defenders pay for going under screens.

Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis - Fringe second round

Hickman and Sallis are interesting as they’re two of the surest NBA prospects Gonzaga has had outside of the clear one-and-done recruits like Jalen Suggs and Holmgren. Outside of a catastrophic roster reconstruction, it’s difficult seeing Hickman or Sallis grow into the draft as Zach Collins did during that 2017 run.

Hickman and Sallis are both making the most of their opportunities and highlighting their skillsets in their roles. Sallis’ athleticism, ball-hawking and lane running are incredible to watch. Hickman’s offense creation, defensive intensity and handles are incredible. But ultimately, it’s hard to envision them receiving the necessary assurances for either to keep their names in the draft process.

Next year’s team could be the most NBA-ready team the Zags have ever had if we do see a lineup involving Hickman, Sallis, Strawther and Timme.