Expectations and opportunities is perhaps the most underrated exchange when it comes to college and professional athletics. We hold players to a standard of where they were slotted at a previous level and conjure expectations that the player must match their performance to warrant their placement in the past.
It’s a skill assessment that deflates any real conversation about player development, skills and evaporates any possibility for a nuanced and contextual conversation. This was evident in the way that we talked about the seasons of two All-American guards who garnered five-star rankings throughout the recruitment process. And Omaha’s Hunter Sallis seemed to take the brunt of this discussion.
Sallis came to Gonzaga with the high ranking of a top 25 player and the second-ranked combo guard in his class according to 247 Sports. He was selected for virtually every select awards team you could think of in the country. The conversation headed into the fall was not just if he would pass fellow underclassman Dominick Harris in a prospective rotation but if he would start over senior transfer and Big-12 third-team honoree Rasir Bolton.
The expectations for the guard were large because his athleticism and feel for the game lept out at you from his tape. His fastbreak highlights were reminiscent of Jalen Suggs but with even more pop. His natural awareness as a cutter had you ejecting from your seat when him and the lob met above the rim. But even with all of these expectations and evidence, we had to be met with the reality of opportunity.
The expectations of this Gonzaga team, who had significant returners from a team that just went undefeated leading up to the national championship was that of “win now.” Gonzaga was in the position to be of a “championship or bust” mindset as one can be in a league of 358 teams with a single-elimination tournament deciding that champion. That conflicted with the young talent that was added to this roster.
This conflict was only exacerbated when considering how previous teams’ rotations were shortened as the season went on. Somebody’s minutes were going to be pinched into a spot role, and considering the talent from top to bottom, you were going to run infinite “what ifs?” throughout the year.
Sallis played 13.6 minutes per game this season and 14 minutes per conference game. In those spot minutes, he showed a range of skills that demonstrated that this was attrition by opportunity, not necessarily ability. Sallis demonstrated a clear proficiency in cutting and attacking the basket but a level of defense that was shocking.
The 6-foot-5 guard was a lockdown this year. According to Synergy, Sallis graded “excellent” in both transition defense and the half-court. Opponents shot just 41.8% in transition against him, significantly lower than average. In the half-court, his man shot an absurd 37.2% from the field. Sallis had the best Defensive Rating of all of the guards on the roster, notable considering the defense of Nembhard and Bolton were strengths for the 10th-ranked defense according to KenPom.
Sallis forced a turnover on over 13% of possessions when he was guarding the ballhandler. He had a steal rate of 2.4%, third behind Anton Watson and Nembhard. And his defense is what earned him minutes on the floor, often spelling the starter and immediately defending the best scorer.
The freshman’s offensive game was still developing as he learned the system and found his role. Last year’s discussion of Julian Strawther and Harris’ shooting numbers were difficult to project in a larger role and it seems unfair to do anything different with Sallis’. In 101 attempts this year, 64% of them were at the rim and 35% of those came in the fastbreak. Just 15% of his attempts were from behind the arc.
Much like assessing through box scores, these figures don’t tell the full picture. Sallis throughout high school was seen as a team player who was able to get his bucket but was notably selfless for the sake of getting other guys involved.
The 2021-2022 season showed that the two-way guard could paint broadly within a defined role. Now it’s time to see what he does with more room to grow.