This offseason has been a wild one for Gonzaga Bulldogs fans. It began with the entire starting five declaring for the NBA Draft, some immediately (Chet Holmgren, Andrew Nembhard), others through the NCAA-approved process (Julian Strawther, Drew Timme, Rasir Bolton).
All the while, the transfer portal, already a bigger and bigger deal, absolutely blew up into an insane Wild West of player names. Due to the Zags roster uncertainty, for the most part, Gonzaga sat on the outside, understandably so. Big name forwards probably didn’t want to come back to Gonzaga if Timme would be returning. Talented wingers probably wouldn’t want their potentially final year to be behind Strawther in the rotation.
It all was compounded by the Zags “meek” recruiting haul of four-star big man Braden Huff.
The past week has changed all of that. Bolton, Strawther, and Timme all returned for one more year, and the Zags also rounded out the 13th scholarship with reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year Malachi Smith. Add on LSU transfer Efton Reid, and the Zags more than reloaded. They made a legitimate case to be the preseason No. 1 team again.
The Zags are absolutely loaded, there are no questions about it.
Of the 13 scholarship players on the roster, nine of them played at least 15 minutes per game last season. Five of them played at least 25 minutes per game. Last year, I attempted to feebly predict the rotation and minutes, and that seems like an even larger fool’s errand right now.
Is this the deepest roster in team history? The answer is a bit more complicated, easy to say yes, and just as easy to say no.
Duh, it is the deepest, Gonzaga can start essentially 10 dudes.
This is not wrong. Assuming you see the sort of growth you would like to see in your young players, Mark Few could start Reid, Timme, Strawther, Bolton, Smith, Dominick Harris, Nolan Hickman, Hunter Sallis, and Anton Watson and he would not be wrong in that decision. We haven’t even mentioned the young frontcourt guys, Ben Gregg, Kaden Perry (fingers crossed that back is OK—that is a whole different question), and Huff.
There is depth at almost every position. Reid can operate as your traditional center, Timme as your traditional power forward, Strawther on the wing, and any combination of Bolton, Harris, Hickman, Sallis, and Smith in the backcourt. Watson can do what he always does, bounce between the five and the four, and Gonzaga never has to worry about foul trouble for the rest of the season.
Except for one minor detail....
The 2017 squad might have been more balanced in its depth.
The departure of a player like Nembhard is always going to hurt, and it leaves big shoes for Hickman to fill. He no doubt is up to the challenge, but the question is who backs up Hickman?
The sophomore is the only true point guard. Looking at that 2017 team, the Zags started both Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins. NWG was a stellar floor general and Perkins is the career assists leader at Gonzaga. At the very minimum, the Zags only had one true point guard on the floor, and when both were on the floor, that combo gave the Zags’ offense and amazing excitement and flow.
Someone is going to need to step up in the meantime, because Hickman is probably not going to average 32 minutes per game or hold the burden as heavily as Nembhard did, who played a low of 37 minutes in the final six games of the season (the other five games he totaled 40).
Smith has history logging some minutes at Chattanooga. Same with Bolton at Iowa State. With both players seniors, they have the experience to help alleviate Hickman’s load, hopefully in a way that does not showcase too much clunks in the offense.
Either way, the answer will only be revealed after the season is over. But the fact that we are even considering this at the moment speaks to the expectations that, once again, will be in our heads for the next season.