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Blanchette: ‘Old shoes’ Przemek Karnowski, Silas Melson fit just right

It’s a new season of Gonzaga basketball. Also a season of the new.

New names, new faces, new numbers, new roles. The newly eligible, the newly enrolled. New concepts for those new guys. New theories for the nouveau fans.

The expectations? Oh, those are the same old, same old.

Some things aren’t going to change.

In that respect, there’s probably some hand-wringing out there among the flock that Friday night’s Bulldogs season opener was not all it could be, at least in the context of the 30- and 40-point carnivals against the resolutely overmatched teams which over the years have come to serve as Gonzaga’s own Washington Generals for these affairs. Plus, there’s that business with San Diego State here come Monday night to trigger worry.

But this year’s import, Utah Valley, was an obvious upgrade to the usual opening fare, and a tricky assignment besides. Imagine a beta version of BYU and its offensive shtick, without the size and polish.

So the Zags’ 92-69 victory – their 28th straight in a home opener – spends just like that old play money. Meanwhile, it was a good chance to weigh the merits of old-shoe comfort against new-shoe style, knowing full well once the new kicks get broken in, they’ll feel fine, too.

That is to say, it’s good to have a couple of old shoes like Przemek Karnowski and Silas Melson to slip into.

They are, for the moment, the old pros in Gonzaga’s rotation, the players who’ve been here and done that, as opposed to been elsewhere and done it – or never been. Though the Zags were never in any particular danger of letting this one get away, Melson and Karnowski always seemed to be in the rescue party when things threatened to become too interesting.

We’re thinking of the moment in the first half when the visiting Wolverines had cut a 15-point deficit to five, and Melson banked in a 6-footer coming out of a timeout. Or Karnowski’s deft footwork in the post for buckets in a nine-point run just before halftime. Or Melson’s game-long defensive work, first on Brandon Randolph (who had a triple-double in UVU’s exhibition win and just a 7-5-0 this night), and then on long bomber Conner Toolsen. Or big Shem’s rim-protecting presence – and throwing his 300-pound self on the floor for a loose ball.

By game’s end, Melson had 17 points and four assists, Karnowski 14 points and seven rebounds in 10 more minutes than the 12 he played in GU’s exhibition. It was welcome reliability on a night when some of the newbies had their hiccups – in particular big men Johnathan Williams, who seemed waylaid by new officiating points of emphasis, and Zach Collins.

And it was not altogether anticipated, based on prior circumstances.

Those are familiar enough. Karnowski is still in the recovery phase from the back injury and major surgery that wiped out what was supposed to be his senior season a ago. As no one could be certain he would make it back at all, every game like this plays out like a bonus – even as he builds for better.

And Melson, it should be recalled, had to pull himself out of the quicksand during his junior season – becoming a component of GU’s run to the Sweet 16 after being a midseason liability.

Like Shem, he’s a work in progress, too. His 3-point shot looked very 2015 Monday night – but there’s much more to his game now, and a reason he was on the floor for 34 minutes.

“It’s simply maturity, and getting in the gym in the summertime with your paint work – so when the 3’s not there, you have another option,” he said.

Because he played so little as a freshman – when he came off redshirt status after an opponent’s kick broke Josh Perkins’ jaw – and struggled through the early months last year, it’s strange to regard Melson as a veteran anchor. But given the Zags’ makeup, it’s exactly what he is.

“It’s not a different role, but just stepping up and becoming a leader,” he said, “and a key factor on the roster.”

As for Karnowski, now that games have begun his pain-staking comeback takes on more urgency – except he can’t hurry.

“I want to do more,” said the 7-foot-1 giant, “but I need to slow down with my body and make sure I don’t overdo stuff – especially at the beginning of the season when I feel fresh and think I can do a lot. We play every couple of days, and I need to be ready for that.”

Just think of them as new realities, for a couple of old hands.

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