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The Force Awakens: Zach Norvell Jr. starts to heat up for Gonzaga

One of the big offseason questions for some Gonzaga followers wasn’t all that big to the coaching staff.

Who would be the starting wing? The topic drove discussion in the Websphere but GU coaches downplay who starts and concentrate more on the entire rotation and who plays when games hang in the balance.

Turns out the Zags essentially have two starters at wing. True freshman Corey Kispert was rock solid in the first seven games before spraining his ankle against Incarnate Word on Nov. 29. That opened the door for Chicago native Zach Norvell Jr., who has been an explosive scorer in three starts.

“It’s really unfortunate, but I know he’s a soldier and he’s fighting to get back,” Norvell said of Kispert. “I’m just stepping in and trying to be aggressive and natural.”

Norvell has responded with 21, 22 and 21 points.

“Unbelievable the way he shoots the ball with confidence,” Kispert said of Norvell. “And he plays with big, tough Chicago swagger than not a lot of people have.”

Norvell is the first Zag with three consecutive 20-point games since Nigel Williams-Goss last March. That’s a meaningful connection for Norvell, who said Williams-Goss was an important mentor during his redshirt season.

Norvell is the first Zags freshman with three consecutive 20-point efforts since Elias Harris in 2010. Norvell is the first Zag to record 20-point games in his first two starts since Josh Heytvelt’s redshirt sophomore season in 2006.

“I’ve been looking for growth on the defensive end and growth in shot selection and kind of understanding what’s good and what isn’t so good,” GU head coach Mark Few said. “I think we’re making some ground there.”

An ensuing query about whether Norvell would stay in the starting five drew a response Few has repeated often in the last decade.

“We’ll see how it all plays out,” Few said. “I never have been really concerned with starting. I know my kids are, other people are. It’s not that big a deal to me.”

Norvell says it’s not a big deal to him, either. He’s shown scoring ability whether he’s in the starting unit or coming off the bench.

“I feel like I’m a natural when it comes to scoring,” said Norvell, third on the team in scoring (12.3) and sixth in minutes (22.8). “I never come in thinking I’m going to shoot when I’m coming off this (screen). I never premeditate it. It just happens.”

Norvell’s emergence isn’t a surprise. He was on the preseason watch list for the Julius Erving Award (best small forward), in part because of his credentials when he arrived at Gonzaga.

Norvell, a standout at Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy, was ranked No. 76 in ESPN’s Top 100, but his first year as a Zag took a detour. He was slowed by a meniscus injury that led him to redshirt.

There wasn’t much playing time available on last year’s deep roster, but that didn’t make the decision any easier.

“It was really eye-opening,” Norvell said. “Coming in being really big-headed, being a guy really excited to play on a national level and having to sit down was a reality check for me.

“Seeing all the hard work those guys put in, all the film, all the shots Jordan (Mathews) and Nigel got up, taking care of their bodies, how to approach practice. Coming from Chicago, we just went out and played.”

Norvell discussed it with family and friends who advised him to do what was best for him. In retrospect, he said he made a “smart, mature decision” to redshirt.

Norvell leans on several influential people – his father and Chicago natives Jabari Parker and former Zag Jeremy Pargo – to keep making wise decisions.

Parker, a Simeon product who is with the Milwaukee Bucks, coached Norvell at the AAU level.

“He’s been through a lot of stuff I’ve been through,” Norvell said, “being from the same neighborhood, going through the same school and the same family background.”

Norvell was in elementary school when he met Pargo, who is playing in China.

“Really tight,” Norvell said. “I can call him anytime and he’ll give me straight, real answers. I can count on him for whatever.”

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