An old Zag mega-scorer riffs on ... the next one?
03-21-18

This might come as a surprise to followers of Gonzaga basketball who twisted and squirmed through last weekend’s Boise sub-regional, but Zach Norvell Jr. went a long time this season without leading the Zags in scoring in a game.

In fact, as mid-March approached, he hadn’t led his team since before Christmas -- when he scored 22 in a Gonzaga loss at San Diego State Dec. 21.

That didn’t affect him materially in his first college games in the NCAA tournament, where he rescued the Zags with a clutch three-pointer to beat North Carolina-Greensboro, and then seemed to make every big shot with a career-high, 28-point game in a nervy Gonzaga win over Ohio State.

Call it recency bias, then, because it seems like Norvell has been gunning in baskets by the bushel all season, kind of like a certain prolific scorer at GU a little more than a decade ago.

“I’m just impressed with his overall mentality,” said Adam Morrison.

I caught up Tuesday with Morrison, now doing radio analysis for Gonzaga, to pick his brain on Norvell. If Gonzaga’s last great scorer wasn’t Kyle Wiltjer (2015-16), certainly it was Morrison, who averaged 28.1 points a game with his for-the-ages season in 2005-06, one that won him a couple of player-of-the-year awards.

Of course, it’s far too early to put Norvell in that category, but there are encouraging signs, starting with an apparently implacable mindset.

When the season began, most of us expected that the newbie wing to make a major splash would be Corey Kispert. He started at the outset, but an ankle sprain late in November thrust Norvell into the starting lineup.

Immediately, he responded. He rattled off 21 points against Creighton, 22 in New York against Villanova, 21 against Washington.

None of that happened without Norvell managing his mindframe through the early games, Morrison says, noting that the reserve role -- yet one carrying expectations of point production -- can be difficult for a young player.

“He was kind of thinking, his-shot-first,” Morrison says. “Now it’s more of a flow. He’s starting to understand when’s a good shot and when’s not. You could tell, from my perspective as a former player, when it’s, ‘I’m gonna shoot it (pre-determining, in other words), instead of trusting that it’s gonna come back.

“I think he kind of pressed a little bit early. That’s a tough role to come into. He wasn’t taking horrible shots, but some of them, that’s got to be a ball-swing and trust it’s going to come back to you.

“You’ve got to give him credit for being ready for the opportunity. A lot of kids will get frustrated.”

So there Norvell was last week in Boise, struggling to score against UNCG. But he nailed the killer three-pointer that separated Gonzaga from the No. 13 seed.

And against Ohio State, it seemed like every big basket was Norvell’s. After the Buckeyes had scrambled back to take their biggest lead at 67-62, Norvell quickly bombed a three that again turned it into a coin-flip game. And after GU nosed ahead, but tenuously, 73-69, Norvell rained in another trey with 2:21 left from that familiar right wing that allowed the Zags breathing room to the finish.

The question, then: Does Morrison see some of himself in Norvell?

“Yeah, some of the stuff, I really do, the unconscious stuff,” Morrison said. “If you want to score in bunches, you’ve got to forget the last shot. It’s so cliché, but it’s hard for guys to do it.”

Norvell, who redshirted last year after a preseason knee injury, averages 12.7 points a game, third among five scorers in double figures, shooting .466 overall, .368 from the three-point arc and .821 on free throws. As a freshman in 2003-04, Morrison was GU’s fourth-leading scorer at 11.4 -- behind Ronny Turiaf, Blake Stepp and Cory Violette -- shooting .531, .304 and .726 in those metrics.

My memory isn’t failsafe, but I don’t recall Morrison immediately announcing himself as a college scoring phenom in the making (though he had certainly been prolific at Mead High). It was in his sophomore year that he averaged 19 a game before exploding his junior year, which included bursts of 43 points against Michigan State and Washington.

Through many of the succeeding years, when Gonzaga burnished its national profile, it didn’t necessarily have a go-to scorer, rather relying on offensive balance. In fact, since Morrison left, five times GU’s scoring leader averaged less than 15 points.

Very soon, that may change. Morrison hopes to sit down with Norvell after the season and brainstorm ways the Chicago product can elevate his game.

“The next step is, he’s got to get a little more ‘shake’ to his game,” Morrison said. “He’ll be more of a focal point next year. He’s got to get to the line, he’s got to cut better. Every once in a while, you’ve got to back-cut a guy, cut with your hands and show the ref you’re getting fouled, and guys will back off you.”

Norvell jab-stepped a UNCG defender to launch his decisive shot last week, and that’s the foundation of another building block, Morrison says.

“Being a lefthander is such an advantage, because you’re not used to guarding it,” Morrison says. “But I’d like to see him become a better jab-stepper. One of his next steps is being able to jab with both legs. The toughest guys I’ve ever been around offensively were really good jab-steppers with both legs.”

Morrison has no qualms that Norvell would take the pointers and run with them.

“I’ve been so impressed with his development throughout the whole season,” Morrison says. “It’s fun to see a kid go from being a little down on himself, or just not in the role he wanted to be, and when he gets the opportunity, make the most of it.

“He’s a good kid, fun to be around.”

In Boise, the kid’s teammates no doubt agreed.


Back