J-III returns; maybe the sky isn't falling at Gonzaga

Johnathan Williams III dispersed some hope around an anxious Zag Nation Wednesday, announcing he’s going to return to Gonzaga for his senior year after submitting his name into the NBA draft.

Some Zag fans had sensed the wheels wobbling on the program that forged a Monday-night date in April for the national championship. For them, not much of the news has been good since about the 38-minute mark of that game with North Carolina, and they were panting for a respite.

It’s not so much that Zach Collins left early for the draft, because surely, GU backers had to know he might heed mid-first-round projections. And it’s not so much that Nigel Williams-Goss also departed a year early. Anybody who knew a little about Williams-Goss, or witnessed how he made this Zag edition his team, might have known he could bolt. (My belief, written weeks ago, was that Williams-Goss would be gone, and that Collins was a 50-50 proposition.)

No, it wasn’t those early entries, not that they aren’t hugely significant. For some, it’s that the Zag brain trust seemed to miss an opportunity to capitalize on the 37-win, Final Four breakthrough and land some reinforcements.

To which I would say: It ain’t that easy.

Wing Elijah Brown, the grad transfer from New Mexico, visited GU but opted for Oregon. After that, Chase Jeter, a conventional transfer who never made it work at Duke, chose Arizona as his second home.

So, did the GU coaches repair to a Baja beach for six weeks after the loss to North Carolina?

Fact is, sporting history is littered with tons of examples of on-field successes failing to yield anything immediately significant with recruits. Rarely is a brief burst of winning something that equates to a big signature from a prospect. A lot of other things are more important to recruits -- proximity to home, weather, conference affiliation, or whether a girlfriend happens to be going to school somewhere close.

Back in 1988, covering college football for the Seattle P-I, I explored a story about what was going on that season in the state of Washington. While the Huskies were lurching through a six-win season, and looking very much like the Don James regime might have run its course, Dennis Erickson was leading WSU to a 9-3 record, including a win in the Apple Cup.

It was one of the more dramatic, simultaneous turns of fortune by the two programs, and I asked some top football recruits in the state about whether they might be more inclined to pick the Cougars. I can’t remember what they said, just that they didn’t. Old loyalties, old perceptions die hard.

Three years later, of course, Washington won a national co-championship. And, you can look it up, it had a small, undistinguished recruiting class in February of 1992, certainly nothing befitting a program that had just won a ring.

In writing “Glory Hounds,” I recall Gonzaga coach Mark Few telling me he was surprised that the 1999-2001 breakthrough by the program -- going to an Elite Eight and two Sweet 16s -- didn’t translate more quickly to recruiting success.

It’s a long, long slog before such trends develop. No question, an appearance in a title game can’t hurt, but recruits have natural predilections -- a coach, a geographic area, a conference -- and it’s often difficult to move them off that position.

I can’t vouch for the particulars on either Brown or Jeter, or whether a passing car might have splashed mud on either of them while they walked down Hamilton in Spokane. But it’s worth remembering that Brown also picked a Final Four participant in Oregon, and Jeter, well, it’s not as if he opted for Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

So to those bemoaning what’s happened since early April, chill. Williams’ return is indeed worth a toast for GU fans. If he had left, Gonzaga would have lost its top five scorers from ’16-17 (Williams was No. 4 at 10.2).

His decision surely seems wise, in that he’s still a little rough around the edges. With improvement, and with a cast up front (Killian Tillie, Jacob Larsen, Rui Hachimura) that will be less dominant but still formidable next season, Williams certainly could blossom into a draftable player. His perimeter shooting can improve, as can his team-leading rebounding figure of 6.4. Moreover, his length and quickness could help him become a high-level defensive player.

In “Glory Hounds,” Williams told me, “I want to be a beast that averages a double-double.” He was talking about his junior year. But that wouldn’t be a bad outcome next season, either.