Mark Few barely shook the sand off his feet after his annual stint on Maui when college sports lost their collective minds. The Gonzaga the coach said he’s equally worried and curious about where this is going. Not so much for him or his program. The Bulldogs are in an interesting half-strength position, or at least as half-strength as a football-less school can imagine today. Gonzaga is a highly-coveted piece of the hoops pie, an incentive for any conference that might reach out to add him, and thus can be prudent in its decision-making — if such a decision even needs to be made. In a world of wild volatility, Gonzaga is remarkably stable.

That’s especially evident at the Zags’ practice facility, where the first few days of preseason practice are revealing a team with a very familiar face. Drew Tim is back, and while it may not be cause for a chorus of hosannas at other West Coast Conference schools, it feels worthy of celebration in a world where nothing stays the same. The elder weighed his NBA options and decided to come back, immediately shooting the Zags up to or at the top of the majority preseason polls. This place is completely familiar to Tim. He played college basketball for 69 weeks; he ranked first in 30 of them. Not since then UCLA combining for 10 national titles in 12 years, the only player to enjoy the view from such a lofty perch for so long.

This, of course, leads to attrition – the same one that always annoys Gonzaga. Because the other thing that remains constant is that while the Zags continue to float near the top of the polls, they’re still chasing the elusive national title. So, what makes this year different? There are additions (Malachi Smith and Efton Reed), and subtraction (Andrew Nembhardt and Chet Holmgren). The big question is, what does it all add up to? “Well, we’ve had, I think, two practices so far,” Few says, smiling, “so I don’t think we’ve quite figured it out yet. But we will get there.”

So about that guy Tim…

Tim took his time with his NBA decision, not announcing his intention to return to Gonzaga until there were hours left on the clock. It was so close. He’ll likely start this season where he started last: among a very crowded list of preseason Player of the Year candidates surrounded by mostly by the same players as himself — big men who weren’t in demand in the NBA and chose to return to college instead.

“The NIL deal definitely made the return a lot more enjoyable,” says Few. Last season, Timme struck deals with local casino Dollar Shave Club (affiliated with Drew Manchu) and Boost Mobile, earning six-figure sums. This year he will earn more. But Thieme exists in a strange world, so agile and capable as a scorer and passer in the post at once that Few is in almost complete command of his highly efficient attack. His footwork resembles a crossover guard, capable of leaving a defender both flat-footed and confused. In his three-year career, he shot 61.9 percent from the field (by comparison, Bill Walton shot 65 percent). However, Timme is no longer a professional prototype.

There are definitely things he can do this year that might make him more attractive to people in the NBA. He still needs a lot of work on his three-point shooting. He still doesn’t take them often and shot just 28.6 percent (on 28 attempts) last season. It should be a more reliable part of his repertoire for the NBA game. He can show more agility in defense.

But few hope that people will simply appreciate Timme as he is. “I think he’s one of the best college basketball players ever, and I just hope people enjoy it,” he says. “He’s so great that at this point, no one will be surprised. For me, he is the face of college basketball. I hope others see him that way too.”

A portal with a purpose

Long before the portal was all the rage, Few and Gonzaga carefully selected transfers that filled specific needs and, more importantly, fit their team chemistry. Just because teams can now look to basketball’s Amazon for help — with the immediacy of Prime — the Zags aren’t changing the way they do business. They made calculated additions through the portal, finding players who filled certain holes and would play.

Efton Reed is not Chet Holmgren (who is?) and in fact looks nothing like him. The LDU The transfer is a more traditional big man — a big body who hangs in the low post and, at 7-foot-1, 238 pounds, gives the Zags a chance to roll out a new look they haven’t had in several years. Its numbers for Tigers weren’t earth-shattering — 6.3 points, 4.3 boards — but the former five-star recruit wasn’t the focal point of Will Wade’s offense either. He similarly blocked less than one shot per game, but he should be able to play a more traditional five-man role under Few. The Zags have a history of developing big men as well as transfers. “It has great size and can be a really good rim protector,” says Few. “He’s a perfect fit for what we need right now.”

The same with Malachi Smith. Chattanooga’s SoCon Player of the Year now assists (w Nolan Hickman) will fill the space previously occupied by Andrew Nembhardt (who was also a transfer, by the way) and gives the Zags a quick, strong and experienced (Smith is 23) point guard to lead the offense. A capable scorer (18.6 ppg) who can get to the rim, he was also very good in the Zags’ pick-and-roll game (.969 ppg as a possession player, per Synergy Sports). . It takes a strong sense of self to take the keys to this particular Cadillac as a transfer. But few people think that Smith will handle it just fine. “He has a big, big personality,” he says. “He’s all positive and you can tell he’s a great leader.”

Welcome back

Tim’s decision to return to Gonzaga has understandably drawn a lot of attention, but the real key to the Zags’ team is that he’s not the only guy back in Spokane. Rasir Bolton and Julian Strother also discovered that the waters of the NBA were not quite to their liking, and returned to school. No less important: there is no one left. In an age of broadcast temptation, Hickman, Salis the Hunter, Anton Watson and Dominic Harris (who is still working after missing all of last year due to injury) all decided to stay put, and suddenly a team that ranked 259th in KenPom’s season experience is now practically stupid with experience, not to mention about options. “We’re pretty old,” Few says simply, “and I like it.”

Bolton, who transferred from Iowa State, decided to use an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 and stay for a fifth season. He is a great example of how a transfer fits in at Gonzaga. A successful transition understands that it’s not about showing off the numbers, it’s about working effectively. Bolton averaged the lowest points of his career at 11.2, but he shot career-bests from the floor (50 percent) and from the arc (46) as he transformed from a shot-hunter to a player who was approaching the attack.

He’ll get help from Salis, whose athleticism is reminiscent of Joel Aya’s. Last year, Salis came off the bench primarily as a defensive stopper, using his length and athleticism to establish him as the best guard on Gonzaga’s squad. Opponents shot just 37 percent against him, according to Synergy. But Zags fans should hope Sallis fulfills his offensive potential this year. Despite his limited minutes, Salis averaged 1.023 points per possession and was superb in both the transition (1.196) and half court (0.94). Assuming he gets more minutes, his production will only increase.


Hunter Sallis, in a freshman backup role, is expected to produce more. (Kelly L. Cox/USA Today)

Few expect the same from Hickman. It’s hardly safe to say that the starting job at point guard will go to Smith. Remember: Nembhard did not scout Jalen Suggs. Not that Hickman is Suggs, but there’s something to be said for a year in Few’s system. Playing mostly off the ball, Hickman dished out 41 assists for just 23 turnovers in 17.2 minutes per game. He will get more time this year, and likely more time at his natural scoring position, which should increase his numbers even more. “Both of these guys are definitely ready for big jumps,” says Few.

But the player few expect to make perhaps the biggest leap is Strother. “Julian is primed for a big year,” he says. “He was pretty damn good last year, but I think he’s going to be a lot better this year.” According to Few, Strother moved into the starting lineup last season and instantly added value to the Zags’ offense. His Synergy numbers are superb across the board — high marks in transition, half court, spot-up and pick-and-roll — and he’s nearly quadrupled his scoring in one year. His numbers did fluctuate throughout the season, but a lot of that had to do with his role on the team. When Holmgren proved himself, Strother was willing to defer, content to take his points if necessary. While offenses will continue to focus on Thiem this year, Strawther may be the next best option.

Along with Reid, it would be wrong to overlook Watson, one of the most underrated — and sometimes underrated — backups in the game. ​While he struggles with consistency and needs to be forced to hunt at times, Watson is an invaluable plug who has no problem doing the extra work to keep the Zags rolling. “Anton just gets it,” Few says. “He understands how to play. He gets us.

Freshman

The, as in The One. Braden Huff is a one-man group, and only a few have decided to fill the other scholarship spots with Reid and Smith. An Illinois product it’s straight out of the Gonzaga giants’ central casting — a versatile player who can score at the frame and also step out and make shots. Like many freshmen at his position, he needs to work on his strength, but he has plenty of help around him.

(Top photo by Julian Strother: Kyle Terada/USA Today)



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