Zach Collins, We Hardly Knew Ye

Well, Zag fans, you’ve hit the big-time. You’re now part of the “in” crowd in college basketball, part of a high-rolling, high-wire act just like Kentucky and Duke.

Congratulations, I guess.

When Zach Collins declared Tuesday for the NBA draft, he became the first Gonzaga player in history to do so after putting in a single freshman season. The Zags have had a handful of others leave early, but never after a freshman year.

Have to admit, I never thought it was a given that he’d declare after one year -- even with a productive NCAA tournament. He seemed to enjoy the year greatly, and there’s no doubt he’s not ready for the NBA, not needing weight and strength, not having accounted for seven of GU’s 15 total player disqualifications on fouls this year. Indeed, the understated nature of his year is obvious in the fact he wasn't even a starter, averaging 17 minutes.

But readiness is not the NBA yardstick, and no doubt, Collins’ potential is immense. So, too, are NBA paychecks. Here are some for 2016 draftees in the neighborhood of Collins’ projected draft slot: Domantas Sabonis (No. 11), $2.44 million; Taurean Prince (12th), $2.32 million; Denzel Valentine (14th), $2.09 million; Caris LeVert (20th), $1.56 million.

This is the first of what I expect to be a one-two blow. I’m anticipating Nigel Williams-Goss to follow suit -- even as his NBA prospects are far cloudier -- leaving Gonzaga with some rebuilding on its hands. The departure of NWG, in combination with Collins and the exits of Przemek Karnowski and Jordan Mathews, would strip the Zags of four of their top five scorers.

At the very least, Collins’ decision seems to render the possibility of a repeat run like 2017 highly unlikely.

From what I’m gathering, Zag fans are conflicted. There’s obvious disappointment in forfeiting what-could-have-been scenarios for next year. But some are speculating that Collins’ college drive-through makes the Zags elite and augurs a new era in which they can flourish in recruiting because they’ve now shown themselves to be capable of getting a one-and-done talent to the League.

Of that, I’m skeptical.

Old standards tend to be almost immutable in recruiting. Precedent dies hard. I suppose there might be the random case in which a decorated prep player picks Gonzaga over UCLA because of the aforementioned proposition. More likely, that recruit chooses Gonzaga or UCLA for the same reasons a prospect has always selected Gonzaga or UCLA.

Perceptions affecting recruiting tend to happen glacially. In my research of “Glory Hounds,” Zags coach Mark Few told me he was surprised at how slowly the initial burst of NCAA-tournament success -- seven wins in three golden post-seasons in 1999-2001 -- equated to recruiting gains. It wasn’t until later that the accumulated success began to pay dividends.

Similarly, look at Gonzaga’s recruiting in Seattle, a subject I explored in detail in Glory Hounds. We’re now a generation into the Zags’ golden era -- 19 years straight of NCAA tournaments -- and candidly, it’s had very little impact in inner-city Seattle.

More than Collins’ case, I’d expect the Zags to profit by the increased spotlight through the ’17 tournament run on their success with transfers. And in the wake of Collins’ departure, GU coaches will doubtless have a keen ear to the ground on such prospects in the next couple of months.

Other riffs on the Collins decision:

-- Someday, we may look back on the NBA’s 19-and-under rule as a bizarre aberration of the pro-sports labor market (in fact, if you’re so inclined right now, feel free), a stricture that invites a seven- or eight-month stopover at a university between high school and the NBA. I’d favor a baseball-style revision: Be allowed to go out of high school, or wait two seasons (rather than baseball’s three) to be drafted.

-- I regarded Collins as a stealth candidate for college player of the year, had he returned for his sophomore season. He likely would have been a preseason All-American.

-- The Zags’ deep run might have impacted Collins -- as in, they accomplished everything they could accomplish, short of winning the national title. Also of possible relevance, as he weighed staying: While Gonzaga schedules are demanding, they lose punch in the WCC outside Saint Mary’s and BYU. It isn’t unreasonable to wonder how much Collins would gain by dominating Pepperdine and San Diego.

-- Collins’ move shifts the focus to a couple of returnees -- 6-11 Jacob Larsen of Denmark, who redshirted after a knee injury; and fourth-year junior Ryan Edwards. The train may have already left the station for Edwards, who played mop-up minutes this year (48, fewest of his three seasons on the floor) and would seem to fit the profile of a potential grad transfer.