Zags flying in college hoops' turbulent skies
05-14-19

On the Saturday morning of Bloomsday weekend, with the spring sun glorious, we breakfasted at Chaps, Celeste Shaw’s terrific hangout off State Rt. 195 just south of Spokane. Farmhouse feel, pastries to die for, and an overall good vibe – the place never disappoints.

That fact apparently isn’t lost on the Gonzaga basketball staff, which regularly brings GU recruits there. On this day, Admon Gilder, the transfer guard from Texas A&M, was in the house with the rest of the Zag staff as part of his visit to Spokane, and you know what happened a day or so later.

“Every time they bring a recruit here, he commits,” Celeste said, between busing outdoor tables.

Mark Few, the head coach, happened by and half-lamented how the seasons have been turned upside down. Used to be, April and May were kick-back times for coaches. Now, he said, spring is the most topsy-turvy time of the year, one that requires constant monitoring and decisions on the fly about transfers and roster-shaping.

“During the season,” he said, drawing contrast, “you get into a rhythm.”

As Few spoke, the Zags had no fewer than five players who had plunged into the NBA draft or evaluation process. Since then, Zach Norvell has said he’s full-speed ahead with it, and it wouldn’t be a shock if Killian Tillie, albeit limited by injury, goes forward as well. So they could lose four players to early entries, a Duke- or Kentucky-sized attrition. You hope Admon Gilder knows this is what he signed up for.

I called Fran Fraschilla, the ESPN analyst and sometimes Sirius radio host, for a read on Gilder. They’re both from Dallas.

“He’s a combo guard,” Fraschilla said. “More of a scorer than a playmaker. But that’s never bothered the Zags.”

One of Fraschilla’s specialties is evaluating overseas talent for ESPN, so I asked him about three GU recruits for 2019-20: 6-10 Oumer Ballo of Mali, 6-10 Russian Pavel Zakharov and 6-7 Lithuanian Martynas Arlauskas.

“The guy with the most upside is probably Ballo,” Fraschilla said. “A big monster, a baby Shaq. Very athletic, strong, raw, but has a chance to be very good. Zakharov is different, a very agile, young guy who’s already been acclimated to the States because of Montverde (Academy). Zakharov is athletic and agile but also in need of physical maturity, the other guy (Ballo) is physically mature but in need of skill development.”

Of Arlauskas, Fraschilla said, “I don’t know as much about him. If I were in the States, I’d probably give him a three-star. Not a super athlete, but a tough, hard-nosed player.”

This will be one of Few’s greatest challenges yet. He has to account for the loss of three or four veteran studs, with the backdrop of all those streaks – the 21 straight years of making the NCAA tournament, the 11 straight first-round successes, the Sweet 16s five years running.

Theres a yin and yang to it all. Gonzaga is attracting – and losing early -- guys like Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke because it has entered a new realm in college basketball. (What was it Fraschilla called GU, “near-elite”?)

On the other hand, that elevated status confers immediate gravitas on the grad transfer market. Ask yourself: Would Gonzaga have been able to pluck a guy like Gilder – a double-figures scorer from a Power Six school – eight or 10 years ago?

Gonzaga is now running in the fastest lane. It’s both treacherous and exciting. It seems like a tightrope time for college basketball, underscored by John Beilein’s exit from Michigan to the Cleveland Cavaliers, accompanied by some reported unease with the constant roster churn he was seeing.

Maybe I’m misreading, but the trend, even among the marginal, is toward cutting college classes and taking a flyer on the NBA draft. Not very long ago, the operative guideline was: If you can get the guaranteed first-round money, you go. If not, you stay. Now, players like Norvell and Jaylen Nowell of Washington, widely projected as sub-first-round talents, are poised to stay in the draft.

Sam Vecenie of The Athletic wrote last week that the wide-open nature of this draft pool is leading more collegians to take a shot at it. Fraschilla also points to the G League’s improved salaries and affiliations with NBA teams as an avenue that’s become more enticing for those on the fence.

“The fact you can basically get pro coaching, you’re in a pro system and your team is connected to an NBA franchise allows you to be as prepared for the NBA as if you had played another year of college,” Fraschilla says. “That has changed over the last five years.”

All this comes in an era when the NCAA’s amateurism model has never been more under scrutiny. If you’re that close to making an NBA roster, and you can’t help but notice Damian Lillard and Kawhi Leonard downing climactic shots in the playoffs, you might be persuaded that you can do this, too, and oh yeah, get paid for it.

Meanwhile, the bulldozing of Gonzaga’s roster continues. Unlike Beilein, at least Mark Few isn’t going anywhere.


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