Key Departures: Corey Kispert (NBA); Jalen Suggs (NBA); Joel Ayayi (NBA); Aaron Cook (–>Georgia)
New In Town: Rasir Bolton (<–Iowa St); Chet Holmgren (#1) Hunter Sallis (#20); Nolan Hickman (#32); Kaden Perry (#56)
State of the Program:
What a year for the Zags and Mark Few, going 31-0 into the National Championship game only to lose their potential historic moment to Baylor and once again fall just short of bringing home the Ship. Despite the disappointing end Few has this Gonzaga program at a level where they are now perennial top contenders and bringing in some of the most talented players in the country. They have the 3rd best recruiting class in the country according to the rankings and also get back a couple key pieces from last year’s dominant group. Coming back for another run is star big man Drew Timme (JR) alongside G Andrew Nembhard (SR) and Anton Watson (JR). They also get back a couple of returning SO’s Julian Strawther (SO) and Dominick Harris (SO). With that being the core Few also welcomes in a transfer and a heralded FR class. The Zags will once again start the season near the top of the rankings, and with Timme and Nembhard back it is completely justified. They lack the proven talent of last season’s team, but have a loaded group of Freshman incoming which gives them a ton of potential.
The lone transfer incoming is former Iowa St and Penn St PG Rasir Bolton (SR). Bolton has been a high volume scorer ever since he came to this level, and has increasingly gotten better as a playmaker and distributor. Those improvements culminated in an All-Conference selection a season ago and he will have a chance to start alongside Nembhard in the backcourt this season and give the Zags a much needed scoring punch. Leading that Freshman recruiting class is the top rated kid in the class, big man Chet Holmgren (#1). Holmgren is a unicorn as he’s 7-feet tall, scrawny as can be and has a knockdown jumper out to the 3-point line. It is likely we will see his at the other big spot next to Timme inside, forming a huge frontcourt tandem that has dangerous inside out potential. Holmgren reminds you of Porzingis with his size and shooting ability, and if he’s able to be effective in the pick and pop game and have a consistent shot that will help keep the floor spaced for Timme inside. He should have a big time season in that role. The other 5-star in this class is CG Hunter Sallis (#20), who has a lot of Ja Morant in him in terms of his ability to playmake as well as score at all 3 levels. He excels more in transition and when attacking downhill, but he has big upside as a true lead guard at the next level, and at 6’5” is a plus athlete for the position. With the Zags this year he will likely join Nembhard in the starting backcourt and potentially even be the 3 in this offense. Another G is coming to campus in 6’2” Nolan Hickman (#32), who is not an explosive athlete but has a solid feel for the game as a lead guard. His jumper is a little quirky but he gets it off quick and has a chance to develop into a plus-shooter. This season he will battle with Harris for backup minutes in the backcourt and will have a shot as a SO to be the primary guard for the Zags. The final newcomer is 6’8” big man Kaden Perry (#56) who is undersized as a big man but is a really good athlete and has a big time motor that helps him make up for his height disadvantage. He has a solid face-up game but his jumper isn’t really a weapon at this point, but if he’s able to develop that aspect of his game he has potential as a 4 at the next level.
With All-American big man Timme back the Zags are once again primed to be a top-tier program and with the group around Timme they once again have a legitimate shot at another Final Four trip with another chance to finally get over the Championship hunt. Nembhard, Bolton, and Sallis create a dynamic backcourt for Few, as all have ability to score as well as attack and distribute for others around them. The big change in this season’s team I see being outside shooting, as Ayayi and Kispert were knockdown shooters and those 3 guys have been inconsistent from outside. Holmgren should help in that sense but the shooting struggles could be an Achilles heel for this group. They should have a solid bench with Watson, Strawther, Harris and Hickman all available and talented kids. Few has a ton to work with here but there are certainly more question marks with this season’s group than a year ago, and while many have the Zags as their top team I am not convinced of that yet. They will have a great record, but their non-conference games will tell us a lot about what kind of ceiling this group has.