The most important Zag, and it may not be close
11-17-17

Guessing that Gonzaga partisans haven’t found a lot to quibble over in their team’s walkover victories against Texas Southern and Howard. The Zags have defended well, run offense with some fluidity, substituted profitably and shown themselves to be more than a flimsy imitation of their landmark, Final Four club of 2016-17. This wouldn’t be the first team I’ve seen that, in the face of significant attrition, puts together a big season, seemingly in part because that’s the residue of a winning program. There’s an expectation to perform, if not excel.

Let’s not get carried away with wins over Texas Southern and Howard. But I think an initial inclination I had about this team is going to be faulty. I thought there were striking similarities between the current team and the GU outfit of two years ago. Recall, that was the one that was coming off an Elite Eight run in 2015, that had lost the graybeard backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. It had two formidable talents up front -- Kyle Wiltjer and Domas Sabonis -- whom you might judge to be roughly comparable in production to Johnathan Williams III and Killian Tillie.

But while that team struggled to break in new guards in Eric McClellan and Josh Perkins, this one has veterans in Perkins and Silas Melson, and the combined wing help from Corey Kispert and Zach Norvell -- albeit freshmen -- appears likely to trump the steadiness of Kyle Dranginis. It also has a true center in Jacob Larsen, and the outfit two years ago went almost the entire year without Przemek Karnowski.

I’m sticking to one story, however. The player most pivotal to Gonzaga’s future this year will be Perkins, by a bunch. And not only because he’s the only real option at the point-guard position, at least until freshman Jesse Wade is capable of extensive time.

Perkins’ ride at Gonzaga has been eventful, to say the least. His description as a fourth-year junior seems more youthful than his varied experiences.

So much about Perkins has been sharp contrasts. He was going to play as a true freshman, and then he lost that 2014-15 season to a broken jaw suffered in November.

His play in ’15-16 was fretful. Mark Few, the head coach, was deeply worried about guard play early that season, for good reason. Perkins seemed hitched to the no-look pass as much as he was the quiet, routine play that worked. In one miserable stretch against Arizona, Montana and UCLA, he went 1 of 13 on threes with 10 turnovers in the first two. Then it gradually got better, the guards settled down and the Zags went to a surprise Sweet 16, but the final, unkind cut was Perkins’ runner to try to upend Syracuse that was swatted away by Tyler Lydon.

If Perkins was going to blossom, it might have been a year ago, but in October, he was charged with physical control of a vehicle while under the influence. When he got on the floor, here came Nigel Williams-Goss as main man, taking twice as many shots as Perkins, leading Gonzaga to a Final Four. Indeed, where Perkins had taken the third-most shots on the team as a redshirt freshman in ’15-16, he took 61 less in ’16-17. His assist turnover numbers, 119-75 last year, were actually poorer than they were the year before.

You never quite knew what you were going to get from Perkins. In the first two games of the WCC tournament last March, he didn’t make a field goal. In the breakthrough victory over West Virginia, he didn’t attempt one. Yet he had a crucial blocked shot in the final minute that was a desperately needed prelude to Jordan Mathews’ huge trey seconds later.

And then against Xavier, in an uh-oh moment for Gonzaga fans, it was Perkins’ lazy pass that led to a Xavier runout to start the game, something that he didn’t dwell on. He came back with three treys in seven attempts, part of Gonzaga’s deep-range fusillade that won it going away.

So it’s obvious what Gonzaga needs from an old hand wielding the joystick this year: Consistency. Few, who puts a premium on shooting from his point guards, wants Perkins firing with abandon, calling him an “elite” shooter.” Last year, with Williams-Goss unleashing 453 attempts, Perkins took only 6.1 shots a game. You figure Gonzaga coaches are fine with him bumping that number to at least 10.

Nothing that’s happened over two games disputes any of that. Playing with the look of freedom, Perkins has already launched 17 threes, hitting nine. If he can fulfill the upside there, fine-tune his decision-making and contribute leadership, he’ll be approaching the player Few spent so much time personally recruiting a few years ago.


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