Blanchette: GU’s Karnowski shows early flair

Sometime after Gonzaga’s piñata-ing of Northwest Nazarene reached the 40-point threshold Saturday night, Przemek Karnowski found himself with the basketball in the low post, and instinctively scanned the floor for a pass receiver.

This is good.

It’s at such times when glorified scrimmages can turn into every-man-for-himself free-for-alls. Sharing is good, especially from a new man who might have every reason to let his light shine.

But when Karnowski looked over his shoulder for a potential target, he noticed that there was no Naz defender occupying his considerable shadow. So he took a reasonably graceful dribble and kissed a soft reverse layup off the glass.

Simple, restrained, understated. No rim rocking. It was almost as self-effacing as a pass.

“Sometimes you have to tell him to shoot,” Gonzaga teammate Mike Hart said, “because he passes it so well.”

Basketball giants bearing foreign passports have been a curiosity and a blessing – and a tradition – at Gonzaga University for 55 years, dating back to when a Frenchman named Jean Claude Lefebvre brought his size 19s to campus and landed the school a four-page spread in Life magazine, which was to 1957 what going viral is today.

At 7-foot-1, Przemek Karnowski is 2 1/4 inches shorter than the man they called Gros Jean, but because the Zags now generate so much basketball heat and are not a ’50s afterthought, his profile is greater, at least metaphorically.

So his game-conditions debut was probably the only slice of anticipation to be mustered for this October funzie against the Naz, and if it didn’t count in the standings, it counted for the new guy.

“I really enjoyed it,” he said, “and I’m happy we won this game as a team.”

Yes, the team did just fine – 93-45 were the final damages – and after a rugged start, so did the outsized freshman from Torun, Poland, perhaps cheered by the sight of a Polish flag up in the stands on top of the usual throaty support. He had 17 points and eight rebounds, and not always against 6-5 Division II grinders. The Crusaders have a couple of tall Eastern European imports themselves, though they don’t block out the sun the way he does.

It would be tempting to assume coach Mark Few has managed to swap himself one substantial 7-footer for the one he just turned over to the Lakers, Rob Sacre.

But it would be vague and mostly unfair, both to the grad and the undergrad.

“Przemek is just a completely different player,” Few said, “and the whole entity of Rob will be impossible to replace – the personality, the energy, enthusiasm and leadership on top of his game.

“You knew when you had Rob – and the opponents knew – that you were going to get 35 minutes of really physical play. That’s going to have to be a collective thing now and we’re trying to impress that on these guys.”

Karnowski is physical in the sense that he’s simply massive. But his real gift is his offensive skill set: solid footwork, a knack for the right pass and a deft touch around the basket, though that wasn’t always evident Saturday night.

“And yet as bad as he played early,” Few said, “he still got 16 or 17. He can play so much better than that.”

He will. He is nothing if not earnest about any shortcomings.

“I have to lose weight, that’s my main point,” he said. “I have to be more athletic, and run the floor better. I want to work on those aspects, and of course my back-to-the-basket moves.”

Another international player in the program is no big deal for the ever-diverse Zags, but as Karnowski offered, “It’s a big deal for me.

“I’d been thinking about coming to the states for two years, but I wasn’t sure. Now that I’ve come to Gonzaga, I’m happy. I’m working with good coaches and good players and that’s what I need.”

Karnowski’s early adjustment has only cemented the feelings Few has come to have about his foreign legion.

“He’s a quick learner, very much like Ronny (Turiaf) was,” Few said. “I just give those kids so much credit for what they take on. It’s not like we’re speaking Polish to him, or adapting to him. It’s ‘This is how we do it’ – our ball screens, our offense, our way of approaching things.

“They’re very good at picking things up quickly. Right now, he’s just a young big guy with good hands who still hasn’t figured out how big he is yet.”

But as it’s been with all of GU’s giants, even the biggest need time to grow.

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