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Gonzaga’s Eric McClellan motivated to excel

Gonzaga guard Eric McClellan is grateful for the second chance he got with the Bulldogs. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

What a difference one year has made for Eric McClellan, not to mention two, three or four.

McClellan and fellow guard Josh Perkins have supplied third and fourth scoring options, respectively, behind the frontcourt firepower of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis. McClellan is averaging 9.5 points per game – 11.4 in conference – to go with 3.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 46.3-percent shooting.

“He’s an energy-giver,” coach Mark Few said. “He’s a fabulous defender, probably as gifted as we’ve ever had, and been really functional on the offensive end.”

Roughly a year ago at this time, McClellan was freshly eligible for second semester only to discover that the nagging pain in his right foot was due to a broken bone. His debut was delayed two weeks and he saw limited time on an eventual 35-win team with an established rotation.

“It was extremely difficult for me as a competitor and someone who loves the game,” McClellan said. “I just used it as a learning experience.”

Those have been frequent in McClellan’s unique five-year collegiate journey. His career began with great promise at Tulsa alongside current Los Angeles Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson. When Hurricanes coach Doug Wojcik was fired, McClellan transferred to Vanderbilt, sat out the required one season and then was the Commodores’ leading scorer through 12 games.

The low point came in Jan. 2014 when Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings suspended McClellan for an undisclosed violation of academic policy and then dismissed him after a misdemeanor theft charge came to light. McClellan, who has been up front addressing the topic in several interviews, found his way to Gonzaga and a crowded backcourt.

Vacancies were created by the graduation of guards Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley, and McClellan claimed a starting job. He averages 26.3 minutes and typically defends the opponent’s top perimeter threat.

“I always think about this: Why did (assistant coach) Tommy (Lloyd) and Coach Few take a chance on me after what panned out, what surfaced on the internet,” said McClellan, who is on track to graduate this spring. “My story isn’t the best story. To take a risk on a kid you knew nothing about but that story, it says a lot about those guys as men and their character. I can’t really put it into words.”

The Zags didn’t just take McClellan on a whim. One of the phone calls Few placed was to long-time friend Wojcik, who recruited McClellan to Tulsa.

“Mark asked me about him, now keep in mind initially Jordan Clarkson would have been great fit here, he ended up at Missouri,” said Wojcik, now a special assistant to Few. “The fact that Eric had played for me, I think Mark felt comfortable with my relationship with Eric but ultimately it was their and Eric’s decision.”

Wojcik has a unique vantage point on the 6-foot-3 guard. He recalls a “wonderful” home visit and McClellan’s mom, Kim, as personable and supportive. He coached McClellan for one season. He kept up with McClellan at Vandy through texts with Commodores assistant David Cason, who was on Wojcik’s staff at Tulsa.

“I think there’s maturity, accountability, he’s a better leader now. He finds the positive in the day rather than the negative,” Wojcik said. “I couldn’t be more proud of him, for him to bounce back. It’s a real pleasure to be reunited with him. He’s meant a lot to my two boys so it’s nice for them.”

McClellan was so eager to prepare for his senior year that he was in the gym the day after Gonzaga’s loss to Duke in last season’s Elite Eight.

“I was in here with two of our managers, just hitting the ground running,” he said. “My body wasn’t sore, I wasn’t worn down. I was thinking about the next season and where I wanted to be and what I wanted to improve on. Obviously a lot of my offseason time was shooting and just trying to eat right.”

The latter has been an issue for McClellan, who is lean and sculpted. Relatives send care packages that often contain his candy kryptonite – wild berry Skittles in the purple pack.

“I have about seven of them in my cabinet and I haven’t touched one since maybe this summer, September,” McClellan beams. “I’m really taking my diet seriously.”

He likes where his game and his life are headed but he’s not satisfied on either front.

“There’s a lot left for me,” McClellan said. “I try to stay as consistent as possible and be more disciplined in every area of my life. I’m at a point where I’m playing pretty consistently. I understand there are going to be bad nights but I feel like I’m learning and growing, more mentally than physically.

“Just continue to get better every single day. I have to be my best when my best is required for this group, whether it’s shootaround, practice or games. I have to be great for my teammates.”