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Gonzaga Basketball

John Blanchette: Departure of Nigel Williams-Goss opens door for others

Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss signs autographs for fans during a homecoming welcome for the Gonzaga basketball team on April 4 at McCarthey Athletic Center. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

So make that two one-and-dones. Or is that ones-and-done?

Whatever. This spring, they’ve come in multiples, as have the mystery and possibilities that now attend Gonzaga basketball.

Technically, Nigel Williams-Goss was in the Bulldogs program for two years, and having a psychology degree and some masters credits in his academic quiver make him something substantially more than a hit-and-run scholar.

But as a practical matter – in uniform – his romance with Gonzaga followers was November-April.

This was not the sense imparted, however, in his Instagram adieu on Tuesday. When he broke it to the world that he was passing on his final year of eligibility to pursue his NBA muse, Williams-Goss’ sentiments left Hallmark in the dust.

“I cannot describe the incredible relationships I have formed in my time here and would not trade my experience for anything in the world,” he wrote. “I could not be more grateful or humbled to call myself a Zag for life!”

But, as they say, life is short.

Like last week’s declaration by freshman Zach Collins – Gonzaga’s true one-and-done – Williams-Goss’ decision came as no great surprise, unless you thought he was going to announce a run for the White House in 2020. Wait, coach Mark Few introduced him as the 51st president and not the 46th during one of those NCAA Tournament pressers. So that’s a few terms off.

And people seem to be handling it with more grace than they did Collins’ exit, even if the big teenager was amused enough by all the bile jockeys on the Haternet to cheekily retweet a few of them.

The truth is, both players did right by the school and the Zags’ many fans, and then did right by themselves, whatever uniforms they wear next winter.

Even if you still want to nitpick the early-entry Zags – a silly exercise – their comings and goings are yet another validation for Few’s adaptability to a different way of roster building and further establishing a track record (and a sales point) in player growth.

Whether in-program or transfer-driven, Gonzaga’s history in redshirting players midcareer – and having them making obvious personal gains in harmony with team success – is becoming unassailable. Kelly Olynyk and Kyle Wiltjer made for the first high-profile examples, but it’s just as true that Williams-Goss – and fellow 2015 transfer Johnathan Williams – made use of the NCAA-mandated sit-out year to add dimension to their games.

And to Gonzaga’s game. In Williams-Goss especially, the program benefited from a drive and edge that found little purchase in his previous stop. It’s difficult to overstate his force-of-will contribution to Gonzaga’s finest basketball season.

And, naturally, it took only a minute or so after he made his news public on Tuesday for national debate to start: Will the Bulldogs go from national runners-up to unranked in the very next poll?

Unlikely. Not since November 2009 have the Zags failed to crack the preseason Top 25.

Also premature. But possible.

The Zags have now lost four of their top five producers from 2017. These things happen – if anything, the exodus across the border at fellow Final Fourist Oregon has been more damaging.

But Final Four or no, this is still not Kentucky, where rearming is done with a speedloader and the help of ESPN “30-for-30” advertorials.

There is no reason not to expect increased productivity from the four holdovers from Few’s own elite eight – Williams, Josh Perkins, Silas Melson and Killian Tillie. There is also the splendid mystery that is Rui Hachimura, two talented injury redshirts in Zach Norvell and Jacob Larsen and promising freshmen in Jesse Wade and Corey Kispert. And likely more parts to come. On Tuesday, Few and his staff stopped by the practice facility of the Golden State Warriors to visit with, among others, assistant coach Mike Brown, whose son Elijah, is shopping himself a final year after graduating at New Mexico.

This is where the new era of roster cycling gets tricky. The better the program’s talent, the greater the chance for early departures, the greater the attraction for the ambitious and talented.

All those new pieces to the puzzle last fall? Get ready to do it again.

And that, as much as the talent, was the magic of the 2017 Zags: how quickly individual needs became common identity. And a big factor was Williams-Goss finessing some delicate balances – the alpha dog understanding what’s good for the whole pack, but also not deferring just to keep the peace.

Ensembles aren’t created in an instant. This one virtually was. But it’s never grandfathered in.

The glow still lingers from the March run to April’s title game, and should for a while. It had better. For if the Bulldogs made sustained excellence look easy over the past two decades, there’s no easy way to sustain what they just achieved.