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John Blanchette: Youth movement getting plenty of time in the spotlight for Gonzaga

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 14, 2017, 11:25 p.m.

Ask the 5,000-odd people who made up the crowd they marked down again as 6,000 at McCarthey Athletic Center on Tuesday night what happened after Rui Hachimura’s latest Ruination of the laws of physics and they might not have an answer.

And, hey, it was spectacular.

The eyes that saw nothing but a through lane to the basket 94 feet away, the rise toward the rafters and the flush over Howard’s poor Cameron Lewis, the next Dunky McDunkedonface on YouTube.

Fun stuff. And you’d swear half the Kennel Club headed for the door right after it happened, eight minutes into the evening.

But attention still needed to be paid, if not to the scoreboard. Gonzaga’s 106-69 romp was a by-product of the inevitable first-to-second-game gains, crisper shooting, nice attention to the defensive game plan and a lesser (and smaller) opponent than what the Bulldogs faced last Friday – though Howard is by no means the least efficient ensemble based in Washington, D.C., these days.

Improvement will not be linear, though it’s nice to imagine. In fact, there were times it was easy enough to contemplate the Zags beyond even this season.

In particular, the game’s last 10 minutes, when the Zags had four freshmen running the floor – three of them very much a part of coach Mark Few’s fall rotation, and another trying to break in.

Yes, all in good time. Still …

“It was really exciting to see the guys out there working hard and coming together,” said Corey Kispert. “Guys getting on the floor as early as possible – I’m all for it.”

Naturally. He’s the guy getting on the floor earliest – the lone freshman in the starting lineup.

And he’s already been a revelation – bigger than the average Zags “3” man, with a terrific stroke and a grit in his game that suggests more Metro League than 1A. Though the two 3s he hoisted in back-to-back Tuesday night – a 25-footer, then a bank off the glass – had that little-school ball touch.

So, too, did his general amazement at Howard’s lack of conscience when it came to launching 3s of their own.

“I screwed up on one of the plays at the beginning of the second half,” he admitted. “The guy was 30 feet from the basket and I still needed to be out there because he made it and it was a tough shot. When guys can shoot it from that deep and with that much confidence, it’s a really scary thing to go against.”

A freshman’s lesson in Division I. There will be more.

But maybe Gonzaga’s freshmen will impart a few lessons, too.

One of them was the evening’s leading scorer. Zach Norvell Jr., watched from the bench last season, his debut pushed back by a balky meniscus. On Tuesday night, he made seven of nine shots in the second half, including 12 points in the space of maybe four minutes.

“He can score,” acknowledged Few, “he can score. When he’s going, he’s going. I think today he adhered to what we wanted him to do defensively, so that’s a good sign for us. But he can definitely score.

“And there’s more to his game than just shooting. He’s really good on ball screens, he’s a really good passer and makes players better. We’re trying to encourage him to explore that, too, instead of just shooting it every time.”

Just as diversified – and maybe surprisingly so – is 6-11 Jacob Larsen, another 2016 recruit shelved by a knee injury, in his case an ACL. The big Dane just missed a double-double by one in each column – but his highlight was one of his four assists, a bounce pass delivered while on his butt to Hachimura for a three-point play.

“I’ve always considered myself a good passer and wanted to be a good passer,” said Larsen. “It’s really important to be able to go inside out with the post and something I really value.”

Watching Przemek Karnowski for a year did nothing to change his view.

“When he moved the ball, it just created more offense – it’s a great skill to have,” Larsen said.

With Jesse Wade coming off the bench in the late going to throw in a three 3-pointers, the Zag freshmen wound up combining for 49 of GU’s 106 points.

“I think all the freshmen are confident,” Norvell said, “and we’re confident in each other.”

Though Larsen did admit to some nerves both this night and in last Friday’s opene – perhaps because his parents, Michael and Rikke, are in from Copenhagen to see him play his first college games. They’ll be back at Christmas, too, when they’ll sample some of the area’s skiing and watch GU’s West Coast Conference openers.

“He’s not coming home,” Michael Larsen said with a smile, “so if you can’t move the mountain you have to go to the mountain.”

With these freshmen, the Zags may climb a few.



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Ex-Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams signs with Lakers

UPDATED: 5:21 p.m.

Former Gonzaga Bulldog Johnathan Williams’ pursuit of a spot in the NBA took another step forward.The 6-foot-9 forward apparently made a good summer league impression on the Los Angeles Lakers. The NBA club announced Saturday it has signed Williams. No terms of the contract were released.