Adjusting to the next level always takes time. There’s an age gap. A need for familiarity with speed and spacing. Often, reps and minutes are the clearest accelerators to getting over the initial hurdles and then developing your game.
For Bree Salenbien, her freshman season was largely getting her bearings surrounded by older, veteran backcourt pairings. She played an average of 8.3 minutes in 29 of the Bulldogs’ 34 games, eventually getting her season curtailed by a knee injury heading into the conference tournament. Her minutes would bob from the low teens to under five, depending on the competition. Understandable when you have a cast of upperclassmen throughout your backcourt depth chart.
And frankly, a player’s offensive game is one of those components that calls for experience and familiarity for its consistency. With those fluctuating minutes and limited role, Salenbien wasn’t quite able to turn the corner and become the player that her recruiting profile and high school career showcased. And that is part of being a freshman in a winning program.
Salenbien’s shooting numbers fluctuated as much as her minutes would. A player known for her three-level offensive skills would go 1-for-5 against Pacific in one game and then 4-for-4 the next. Her high usage when playing suggests a trust from the coaching staff that at some point the shots would fall consistently.
The Michigan native did, however, consistently show ball control and a decision-making skill set that makes her development essential for Gonzaga to take the next step as a team in the NCAA tournament.
A 6-foot-2 guard is a major asset at the Division I level, especially for a mid-major. Salenbien offers flexibility that few players with her offensive skills can offer. She makes great reads as a ballhandler (but projects out to be a shotmaker off-ball as well. You could play her at the wing and have guard skills at three positions without losing length on the defensive end (she was in the top 75+ percentile in steal rate last season).
The closest profile to Salenbien’s incoming talent could be Canadian Yvonne Ejim, who played just 6.8 minutes her freshman season a year prior. Experience and consistency win out in head coach Lisa Fortier’s system. And we could see major strides in Salenbien’s sophomore season like we did Ejim barring setbacks from her recovery.
It’s unclear from the outside looking in where Salenbien is in terms of coming back from an ACL tear. It’s not just rehabilitation and recuperating but also trusting the leg again. Once she is fully back, she should be integrated into the rotation pretty swiftly considering her contributions. The Zags have just a 12-player roster heading into the season and Fortier has one of the bigger rotations throughout basketball.
The Bulldogs value defense as a team, having the 12th best defensive rating in all of college basketball last season. Having a wing line featuring Ejim, McKayla Williams and Salenbien offers a length and versatility that stymies even really good high major programs. It’s what makes them the frontrunners of the WCC.
Gonzaga becomes a dangerous rising team if and when Salenbien is ready to play and contribute on both ends of the court. With a big rematch against Louisville in November, it’s likely the coaching staff is hoping it’s sooner rather than later.