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With Olynyk gone, Zags have to find way to fill hole

Sat., April 20, 2013

Just as e-tail has changed the way America shops, so have college basketball’s evolving protocols changed the way a team gets the goods.

The operative word is “change.” You’d better be ready for it.

A year ago, not a soul associated with Gonzaga Bulldogs basketball would have entertained the possibility of Friday’s happy development: Kelly Olynyk summoning the media to announce that he’s bypassing his final year of collegiate eligibility and making himself available for the National Basketball Association in June.

“I thought I would have a pretty good ‘this year,’ ” he admitted, “and then have a year like this year next year.”

That speaks volumes about both Olynyk’s native abilities and his determination to jump-start his game with what will go down as the most renowned redshirt season in Gonzaga history. And it speaks pretty highly of the developmental aspect of the Zags’ program, as well.

Maybe the latter will quell any fan panic in the question that can’t yet be answered.

What now?

The Zags have a big void in the roster long-term planning couldn’t have addressed. With Olynyk’s decision and Elias Harris’ graduation, major minutes and production are gone inside. The returning bigs, Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski, are capable and willing, but dramatic jumps will be necessary from both – and Gonzaga no longer has the luxury of having them as backups.

That now falls to the likes of incoming freshmen Ryan Edwards and Luke Meikle, both in need of collegiate body work, and even Louisville transfer Angel Nunez, a smaller, slender, Micah Downs-type.

In any and all of their cases, development is crucial. Unlike in Olynyk’s case, the Zags don’t have a year to cultivate it.

The Zags are not without other options in how to reconcile his departure, however. And with a proven player.

In the past few years, a new animal has come to populate the basketball landscape: the graduate transfer. NCAA rules now allow players who have earned their degrees but still have a year’s eligibility remaining to transfer without the shackles of sitting out a season (athletes aren’t supposed to have perks not available to regular students, but the NCAA is cool with sticking them with penalties).

So now college recruiters not only have to track rising high school juniors, juco hotshots and disenchanted four-year players, but also the alumni rolls.

No one seems more ambivalent about this than Gonzaga coach Mark Few. In a conversation last winter when the NCAA was weighing an overhaul of the transfer rules, he sidetracked on the subject of grad-trans, mentioning both the potential for abuse and the essential unfairness of “investing four years in a player’s development only to have him cherry picked” by another program.

Still, this has not kept the Zags from getting involved with a pair of 6-foot-8 grad-trans – Portland native Mike Moser, who now has a UNLV degree, and Tulane’s Josh Davis, a 17-points-a-game scorer for the Green Wave. Moser is planning a GU visit; Davis is more of a long shot.

Either would be welcome. Neither is likely to inject the season with the same sizzle Olynyk’s emergence did last year – or else, hey, they’d be declaring for the draft.

If Olynyk’s decision seemed like a done deal to everyone else, it wasn’t for him. He admitted flip-flopping until he walked into Few’s office at 9 p.m. Thursday.

Olynyk’s mother, Arlene, was in town for decision day, and confirmed her son’s “torturous” internal tug-of-war – albeit a logical one, until she and her husband Ken encouraged him to “add some emotion to it” at the end. That made for a predictable tipping point: It’s a rare player whose basketball dreams don’t extend beyond college, and Olynyk’s always did.

That those dreams seemed to be in danger of stalling two years ago, she pointed out, “spurred him to train a little harder. And now I think that was a good experience for him, because now he has another learning curve ahead of him and he knows how hard work paid off at this level.”

Every college program that loses a player early to the NBA can tell its next batch of recruits that it can deliver on his pro dreams. Of the Zags who’ve gone that route, Olynyk is easily Gonzaga’s best advertisement, given the route he took.

“It’s a great place to come and learn and develop and grow,” he said, “and hopefully they can be in the same position I am this year. That’s what every kid dreams of, and I hope every kid has that opportunity.”

Opportunity and change. Kelly Olynyk’s Gonzaga story was a salute to both.


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