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Gonzaga freshman forward Corey Kispert makes immediate impact

Gonzaga freshman wing Corey Kispert dishes to freshman center Jacob Larsen against Howard. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Gonzaga senior forward Johnathan Williams considered the question – how comfortable does true freshman Corey Kispert look on the court? – and looked beyond Kispert’s birth certificate.

“He came in with a senior body already, so that helps,” Williams said. “Great player, and he’s going to continue to get better.”

Kispert considered the same question and acknowledged his smooth transition from prep standout to Zag starting wing has been made possible, in part, because of his sturdy 6-foot-6, 215-pound frame.

But he’s not as comfortable as he appears.

“I do put on a good mask,” he said. “I am nervous before every game. It helps being able to match the guys physically, to be on that level and let my skill set come up with that. But don’t get me wrong, it’s nerve-wracking every game.”

Gonzaga has never shied away from putting freshmen in key roles, but not many have cracked the starting lineup in the last decade. Kispert became the first Zag freshman to start a season opener since Elias Harris went for 18 points and seven boards in 19 minutes against Mississippi Valley State in November 2009.

Kevin Pangos didn’t start the 2012 season opener, but he settled in with the first unit by the second game with a 33-point effort against Washington State. He averaged 13.6 points and 3.4 assists. Gary Bell Jr. joined Pangos in the starting backcourt in the seventh game and averaged 10.4 points.

Domantas Sabonis came off the bench in 2015 to average 9.7 points and 7.1 rebounds. Josh Perkins was the backup point guard, but his freshman season was cut shot after five games with a broken jaw. He started as a redshirt freshman in 2016, averaging 10.1 points and 4.1 assists. NBA lottery pick Zach Collins didn’t start a game last season while averaging 10 points and 5.9 boards.

Kispert has been one of the Zags’ steadiest players, scoring 10, 13 and 12 points in the first three games, and 10 in an exhibition win over College of Idaho. He’s one of the team’s most efficient shooters (54.2 percent from the field, 41.7 percent on 3s, 4 of 4 at the free-throw line).

He has one turnover in 80 minutes, another sign of his ability to play beyond his years.

“Every game I’m feeling better and better,” Kispert said. “My nerves are calming down earlier and I’m able to shoot with confidence earlier. I’ve found if I can get a putback early my shot comes a little more naturally, too.”

Kispert contributed 12 points and nine rebounds in GU’s 79-66 win over Utah State on Saturday. He’s not immune to the ups and downs that all freshmen and upperclassmen experience, but he responded to an indifferent first half Saturday with a strong second half.

“We all know he’s a big-time shooter,” senior guard Silas Melson said. “Obviously, his shots weren’t falling the way he wanted them to, but he came in with nine rebounds. As a guard that’s big-time, especially in a game we needed some energy to help us out.”