To an outsider, it would seem Zach Norvell Jr. has the best and possibly most frustrating seat in the house at Gonzaga basketball games.
To Norvell, that’s not the case.
“It could be,” he said, “but I’m not a negative guy.”
Norvell, a freshman guard from Chicago, is redshirting. That means he puts in all the work – practice, conditioning, film study, travel – but doesn’t play in games.
On game days, he usually gets in a lift and a workout in with an assistant coach or manager and then takes a courtside seat to watch the No. 1 team in the nation.
Norvell tries to watch with a purpose. He monitors the guard line of Josh Perkins, Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews and Silas Melson.
“All those guys are veterans and they’ve been playing for a while,” said Norvell, who will have four years of eligibility remaining. “Just how much they work on their craft and how seriously they take it.
“They don’t take anything for granted – the treatment, the film, knowing the scout. They’re trying to perfect everything.”
The decision to redshirt came into focus when Norvell was slow to recover from summer knee surgery on his meniscus. The player and the coaching staff knew the 6-foot-5 wing wasn’t where he needed to be to perform at a consistent level.
Norvell still isn’t at full strength. He estimates he’s 85 percent. It was hard to tell in early November when he scored 18 points in 23 minutes in an exhibition win over West Georgia.
It was Norvell’s first surgery and he said that presented an early mental hurdle.
As time went on, “I think it’s been more of a strength thing in my whole lower body,” Norvell said of his lengthy recovery. “Even before I got injured, I felt like my whole lower body could have been stronger.”
Norvell arrived at Gonzaga after a decorated career at Simeon Career Academy in Chicago. He was No. 76 in ESPN’s Top 100 and nominated for the McDonald’s All-American game.
Norvell excelled over the summer and GU’s staff expected he would be in the mix for playing time until his knee starting swelling up after pick-up games.
Now he’s on the Red Squad, made up of redshirts and players who see limited minutes, helping prepare the starting unit and key reserves for upcoming games.
Redshirt seasons have been instrumental in the development of former Zags such as Kyle Wiltjer and Kelly Olynyk.
“It was tough early on because I’ve never sat out, but I kind of accepted it and I’m trying to go hard every day,” Norvell said. “You have to attack it like anything else.”
Norvell figures prominently in GU’s future plans.
“He’s a great kid, good instincts,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “He has size, shoots the ball a little bit. He’s really picked it up after Christmas. He’s made big progress. We like him a lot.”
Norvell’s competitive nature makes it hard to be spectator when the scoreboard lights up, but he takes satisfaction in seeing growth in his game. As he points out, he’s facing high-level competition every day.
”I’m getting a lot of reps in practice and I’m able to make the reads and have the game slow down for me,” Norvell said. “I’m getting my shots in the offense and learning how things are supposed to work.
“It’s going to work out in the long run.”
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