After a string of comfortable wins, Gonzaga was in a scrap against St. John’s. The crowd at Madison Square Garden was energized, sensing an upset.
The Zags needed points.
Byron Wesley didn’t seem to be an option. He had scored two points and just committed an offensive foul away from the ball. But the ball started to find the sturdy, 6-foot-4, 206-pound senior and he took it to the rim.
Short bank shot, good. Floater in the lane. Fouled on a drive from the right wing. Split two defenders for a layup. Pair of free throws. Wesley scored 10 of GU’s last 15 points, helping preserve a 73-66 victory in the NIT Season Tip-Off championship.
It was one of the reasons Wesley’s video from USC had caught the eye of Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who was in search of difference-maker on the wing last spring.
“Those were tough-guy plays,” Few said. “It showed his size, how strong he is, how confident he is. A lot of his baskets (at USC), it was him in the lane, finishing kind of not in standard ways. Taking a hit and finishing.”
It was the very reason Wesley left essentially his hometown university for Gonzaga.
“I was blessed to start since my freshman year and play in that many games,” Wesley said. “At the same time losing is never fun, even if you’re producing and putting up numbers and playing basically the whole game.
“I’m just excited, finally, to get that chance to win.”
No. 9 Gonzaga, which has opened with seven straight wins, faces the biggest obstacle on its schedule against No. 3 Arizona (7-0) today. Wesley’s USC teams went 1-4 against the Wildcats, 0-2 at the McKale Center.
“We match up pretty darn good,” said Wesley, who had an 18-point performance in a 16-point loss in 2012 and an eight-point effort in a 24-point loss in 2013. “But it’s not about individuals for us. We need to focus on the team and everyone staying unselfish.”
Wesley and winning go way back but it wasn’t necessarily all about basketball. He played baseball, football and basketball – his order of preference – in middle school. He was a promising pitcher on a traveling baseball team.
His mindset began to change after he joined a powerful AAU basketball team and played in a national tournament in Orlando, Florida.
“He did really well,” his father, Byron Sr., said, “and he came home dead-set on being a basketball player.”
Father and son soon began working out together 5-6 days a week. Byron Sr. landed the varsity coaching job at Rialto High and his team needed an interior presence. His son handled the post, despite being undersized. The two could be found in the gym before school, working on Byron’s game.
“It was perfect, man,” Byron Sr. said. “As a parent you want to spend as much time with your kids as possible and I’m a basketball guy.”
The perfect picture ended when Rialto faced some budget cuts and eliminated teaching positions, including Byron Sr.’s. He could have continued as coach but left to find another teaching job.
The change sent Byron to Cajon High for his sophomore season and Etiwanda High for his final two seasons. His game continued to improve and prior to his junior season recruiting interest “literally took off overnight,” Byron Sr. said.
USC coach Kevin O’Neill and assistant Bob Cantu were frequent visitors at Byron’s practices and games. Wesley committed and O’Neill lived up to his word of immediate playing time, but there was a revolving door with players and coaches coming and going.
Wesley started as a freshman but the Trojans suffered several season-ending injuries, dropped 19 of their last 20 games and ended 6-26. O’Neill was fired midway through Wesley’s sophomore season. USC, under interim coach Cantu, finished 14-18, 9-9 in the Pac-12, with another first-round exit in the Pac-12 Tournament.
Wesley led the team in scoring (17.6) and rebounding (6.4) last season but the Andy Enfield-coached Trojans lost 17 of their last 19. Wesley wasn’t among the 20 players who received All-Pac-12 honors.
That stung, but not as much as the losing records. Wesley, like an administrator evaluating a coach following the season, sorted through pros and cons after each of his three years at USC. The outlook for his senior season wasn’t pretty.
“Looking at the depth chart and the players coming in, I realized I was going to be the only senior and I knew it was going to be tough to compete at a high level,” Wesley said.
He decided to leave USC and informed his parents. As a graduate transfer, he was immediately eligible to play.
“It definitely surprised me and initially I was a little disappointed,” said Byron Sr., who coaches at Summit High in Fontana, California. “But he’d fulfilled his commitment to his mom and I that he needed to get his degree. We know that degree holds a lot of weight down here.”
Coaches flooded Wesley’s phone with calls. His father vetted programs to become familiar with their tradition, style of play, personnel and player development. Gonzaga quickly ascended to the top of Byron’s Sr.’s list and eventually his son’s.
Within a week of Wesley’s decision, the family went through a similar process as Byron’s younger sister Monique decided to leave Cal State Fullerton. She eventually transferred to Kansas.
It’s been a near seamless transition for Wesley, who is averaging 11.3 points and 5.1 rebounds. His 182 minutes, 20 assists and nine steals rank second on the team. He’s attempted a team-high 33 free throws, many the result of drives from the wing.
“I’ve never been scared of contact,” he said. “I’ve always been able to beat guys on the dribble because I have a strong and quick first step.”
His stats are down from USC but that was expected with the surrounding talent at Gonzaga.
“Because of the situation at USC where we weren’t winning as much people overlooked me, put me in this box where he’s only good because his team is bad,” Wesley said. “I’m just really excited to show what I can do on a national level and hopefully just help my team win.”
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