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The Zags need more consistent offense from their guards

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Gonzaga Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Gonzaga Bulldogs have always been an offensive-oriented squad. In general, that has aligned with a fast moving offense that is a fan of high-low action, ball screens, and motion offense. The end result is something we are generally familiar with as Gonzaga fans—high scoring games.

This season, as we have watched the Zags sputter their way occasionally through this non-conference slog from hell, one thing has become rather apparent: the Gonzaga offense isn’t working the way it normally does.

The stats back that up across the board. So far, only three players are averaging double-digit scoring for Gonzaga, led by Drew Timme at 20.5, followed by Julian Strawther at 13.2 and Rasir Bolton at 10.7. Interestingly enough, the last time the Zags finished a season with only three players scoring in double-digit points was the 2012-2013 season.

A senior Timme is doing everything he is supposed to be doing, so he is largely not the person to focus on in the conversation. In fact, Timme has essentially been the lone consistent man. Strawther, minus a couple of games, has held his own day in and day out.

However, it is the guard play, stretching across the entire unit, that has been a struggle to find any semblance of consistency. Until Gonzaga is able to find that third dependable scorer, it will continue to be a that way.

The below chart shows the scoring breakdown of the top five scorers on the team. (Please note: I’m not including Anton Watson on this chart, despite him being the fourth-leading scorer on the team. The team’s offensive issues do not stem from Watson not scoring enough points.)

2022-23 Scoring

Opponent Timme Strawther Bolton Hickman Smith
Opponent Timme Strawther Bolton Hickman Smith
Season PPG 20.5 13.2 10.7 8.2 8
North Florida 22 16 11 6 15
Michigan State 22 13 7 10 5
Texas 18 13 11 8 7
Kentucky 22 20 24 4 2
Portland State 18 10 14 9 23
Purdue 22 4 11 15 3
Savier 16 23 13 14 0
Baylor 9 10 8 0 16
Kent State 29 14 6 10 3
Washington 22 18 8 9 0
Northern Illinois 26 4 5 5 14

One of the major problems is that the trio of Bolton, Malachi Smith, and Nolan Hickman, are rather all over the place in their scoring. Smith has shown he can score. He leads the team with a 46.4 three-point percentage. He is also 9-for-11 in two games from long range and 4-for-17 in the rest.

Bolton’s three-point percentage has perhaps come a bit down back to Earth. After shooting in the 31.4 percent from long range his junior year at Iowa State, Bolton bombed it at a clip of 46 percent. This season, he is shooing 41.9 percent from three (still good). However, his two-point percentage has cratered down to 40.8, a drop of 15 percent from last season.

Hickman, as we all are very aware, has the keys to the offense and has definitely shown his struggles. Looking strictly at scoring, his inability to find a consistent mid-range floater has limited his effectiveness. On the season, he is shooting just 43.2 percent from two.

The easy criticism lands at the feet of Hickman. He is the point guard after all, and in general, the Zags will only play as well in the grand scheme of things as he can elevate. However, that ignores the real problem: Everyone is on a down swing.

Per Synergy Sports, here is Bolton’s break down on his bread and butter—the jump shot, which accounted for 61.6 of his FGA last season, compared to this year.

  • 2021 Catch and Shoot: 45.4, 2022 Catch and Shoot: 38.5
  • 2021 Dribble Jumper: 43.8, 2022 Dribble Jumper: 35.7

That is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to these numbers. Across the board, the guards just aren’t making the shots they used to make. If one player was having that issue, the Zags have the depth to push past it. However, when essentially your three primary scoring options in the backcourt aren’t dependable night in and night out, it completely narrows the offensive effectiveness of Gonzaga.

We’ve seen some very strong improvement on the offensive end from Hunter Sallis. But he is primarily the lockdown defensive stopper. No one should be expecting a consistent double-digit output from him, yet. Likewise, the clamoring for Dominick Harris doesn’t solve the issue either. Even if Harris enters the game and shoots 100% from three and averages 15 points per game, the Zags still need consistency from their two veteran guards and their primary point guard.

Until then, each game will be a bumpy ride, regardless of whether or not the Zags are facing the likes of Alabama or a team like Northern Illinois.