Gonzaga held its first men’s basketball practice Friday and it didn’t look anything like its walk-through before a road game against San Francisco last season.
Not in terms of numbers of players available or names of players available.
GU’s team picture requires a wide-angle lens with 17 players, including four walk-ons. The Zags lost center Przemek Karnowski early last season to a season-ending back injury, suited up just eight scholarship players over the final three months and often utilized a seven-man rotation.
Star forwards Kyle Wiltjer (foot) and Domantas Sabonis (ankle) were limping after a victory at Santa Clara, leading to a short-handed walk-through at USF.
“Last year we had about eight guys to practice every day,” coach Mark Few said. “Right now we’re at 17. There’s quite an adjustment going on in a lot of areas. That one day at USF, I think we were down to five, plus ‘B-Mike’ (assistant coach Brian Michaelson), two managers. I just looked at my staff like, ‘We’re not doing this again.’”
The Zags welcome back Karnowski, an important contributor in 2014-15, and Josh Perkins, who is coming off a fairly solid freshman season at point guard. Also returning are wing Silas Melson, a strong presence over the second half of conference play, reserve center Ryan Edwards and wing Bryan Alberts, who lost his starting job midway through the WCC schedule.
Transfers Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Johnathan Williams (Missouri) and Jordan Mathews (Cal) should fill primary roles. Williams-Goss was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2015 while Williams led Missouri in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. Mathews played in 102 games at Cal, averaging 11.8 points and connecting on 41.7 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Zach Collins, a 7-footer from Las Vegas, leads five freshmen. The newcomers include forward Rui Hachimura, who has packed on 20 pounds since arriving at Gonzaga, center Jacob Larsen, forward Killian Tillie and wing Zach Norvell.
“In pick-up games in the fall and over summer I’ve seen a lot of potential and I was shocked how well we jelled,” Collins said. “Everyone likes each other on and off the court and I think that’s huge. I really expect a lot from us and I think we can go pretty far.”
Collins, Edwards and Karnowski are 7-footers. Larsen is listed at 6-11 and Tillie at 6-10.
“There are a lot of question marks,” Few said. “We do have a lot of experience doing this and putting it together but that’s what we’re going to have to do with a lot of different pieces. There’s quite a bit of balance and not much separation between a lot of the guys, where in years’ past we had some pretty definitive separation.
“Figuring that out and figuring out who plays best together, and then solving some of our health issues are probably the biggest things.”
Karnowski has been on the mend since a Dec. 31 surgery.
“We’ve seen some real flashes. It’s encouraging and it’s heartwarming when you know where he was at last December,” Few said. “As far as plugging him into a full season of college basketball, he has a ways to go. We have to get him in shape.”
Norvell (knee), Mathews (ankle), Williams (knee) and Williams-Goss (ankle) are practicing but had periods were they were limited during the last several months.
“It’s not as if we’ve been sitting here watching these guys for three months,” Few said. “Literally it’s been a couple of weeks.”
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