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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Zags have big shoes to fill in front court

Blue team’s Johnathan Williams looks for a passing lane around the Red’s Killian Tillie during Kraziness in the Kennel last October. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Perhaps the biggest question on the minds of Gonzaga fans is how effectively the Zags can mix and match with a roster packed with talented transfers and freshmen.

The next pressing question might be the Zags’ ability to replace the one-two frontcourt punch of Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer.

The duo earned All-American honors during their two-year stints at Gonzaga. They teamed for 38 points and 19 rebounds per game and carried the Zags before the guard line stepped up over the final two months of last season. Sabonis was a lottery pick. Wiltjer signed with the Houston Rockets.

Senior Przemek Karnowski demonstrated in Saturday’s Kraziness in the Kennel scrimmage that he’s recovering nicely from back surgery and appears ready to resume being the center of attention.

His conditioning will be an on-going process, but there’s still a month before GU’s season opener against Utah Valley on Nov. 11.

“I really want to push it,” Karnowski said, “but I have to watch out so I don’t strain any muscles.”

The 7-foot-1 Polish native averaged roughly 25 minutes, 10.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game in 2014 and 2015, numbers that don’t fully describe his impact.

Karnowski has 115 career blocks, including 62 in 2014. Wiltjer and Sabonis combined for 60 blocks last season. Karnowski rarely requires help defending the opposing post and rarely gets in foul trouble. At the offensive end, he draws double-teams that create space for teammates. He’s an excellent passer.

“He’s a tough guy to go against,” freshman Zach Collins said. “He’s not only just a monster, but he knows how to use his body. He’s a veteran, he knows how to play college defense. But I love it, it’s only going to get me a lot better for the season.”

Karnowski’s performance drew praise from coach Mark Few, who also liked what he saw from Collins, Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie.

Redshirt junior Williams had eight points – on 8-of-10 free-throw shooting – and four rebounds. The 6-foot-9, 228-pound transfer led Missouri in scoring and rebounding two years ago. He swatted 57 shots as a freshman and made 22 3-pointers as a sophomore.

Collins is an active, versatile 7-footer who showed scoring ability in the post and from the perimeter at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas. He made 4 of 6 shots, including a pretty jump hook over Karnowski, and grabbed seven rebounds.

“He’s bouncy, he’ll be good for us,” Karnowski said. “He probably has to put on some pounds, I’ll be down to give some pounds to him. He’s battling every day in practice, going hard, not complaining. That’s important.”

Tillie, a slender 6-10, 200-pound freshman forward from France, scored his first points on two free throws about eight minutes into the 20-minute scrimmage. He had nine points, including a tip-in and a 3-pointer, in the final six minutes as the Red team pulled away from Blue. He added five rebounds.

Ryan Edwards, a 7-1 junior from Kalispell who played limited minutes in 2014 and last season, had three rebounds and two points.

“Those other bigs were impressive,” said Few, after discussing Karnowski’s performance. “I thought Zach looked really, really good, which he has all fall. He’s athletic and fast, and really picking things up.

“J3 (Williams) got to the line a lot, even Killian stepped out and made a 3. We’re more athletic around the rim. We can really protect the rim and with the rules being the way they are, I think that’s a good thing.”

Freshman center Jacob Larsen, a native of Denmark, suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice last week.