Gonzaga opens practice Friday, tipping off one of the most highly anticipated seasons in program history.
The Zags are expected to be in the top five, the highest preseason ranking in school history. They boast experience, All-America candidates and a talented frontcourt considered among the nation’s best.
Gonzaga will hold 30 practices, a closed scrimmage – expected to be against Michigan State – and a Nov. 1 exhibition game against Central Washington. Here are four questions that will begin to be addressed as the Zags prepare for their regular-season opener against Idaho State on Nov. 6.
How is Perkins’ health?
A healthy Josh Perkins is key to Gonzaga’s backcourt and promising season outlook. He is coming off shoulder surgery – there is no swift recovery from a shoulder operation – but the senior point guard has hit all the benchmarks during his recovery.
Perkins hasn’t played in a live game since the season-ending loss to Florida State last March. The Zags’ primary ball-handler and most experienced player will likely need time to shake off some rust and regain his strength and endurance.
Perkins’ workload and repetitions will be monitored closely, especially early on in practice, so he’s ready for nonconference showdowns, the West Coast Conference schedule and GU’s postseason push.
Who replaces J3 and Silas?
The Zags have an impressive roster, which makes it somewhat easy to forget that they lost Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson to graduation.
Williams, who is in training camp with the Los Angeles Lakers, led the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. He was the Zags’ top interior defender. Melson was a steady contributor and the team’s best perimeter defender. He was second in minutes played. He is second on the program’s all-time wins list with 126, behind NCAA all-time leader Przemek Karnowski.
San Jose State transfer Brandon Clarke appears to bring several of Williams’ qualities. The bouncy, 6-foot-8 Clarke is a productive interior scorer, quality rebounder and high-level rim protector. He’s roughly an inch shorter and 15 pounds lighter than Williams but possesses a similar ability to defend multiple positions.
The majority of Melson’s minutes could go to Geno Crandall, provided the North Dakota transfer completes his undergraduate degree and enrolls in Gonzaga’s B Session graduate classes, which begin Oct. 23. Crandall averaged 16.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists as a junior. He also led the Big Sky Conference with 67 steals.
Where do the transfers fit?
Clarke is expected to be in the starting lineup or play starter-like minutes. The San Jose State transfer joins Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie to give the Zags three accomplished bigs and an impressive amount of versatility.
Clarke was a big-time scorer (17.3 points), rebounder (8.3) and shot-blocker (2.3) as a sophomore for the Spartans. He earned first-team All-Mountain West Conference honors and made the MWC All-Defensive team.
Clarke has some ball-handling ability, and he’s worked hard on his perimeter shooting after attempting only nine 3-pointers in two seasons at San Jose State.
Gonzaga could opt to start three bigs, with the 6-8 Hachimura moving to the ‘3.’ The 6-10 Tillie has a soft touch around the rim and was the team’s most accurate 3-point shooter (47.9 percent). Hachimura struggled from beyond the arc last season, but has dedicated off-season time to expand his shooting range.
Crandall, if he becomes eligible next month, should add scoring, experience, ball-handling and playmaking to a backcourt that lacks proven depth beyond Perkins and wings Zach Norvell Jr. and Corey Kispert.
Freshmen/redshirt: Where do they fit?
True freshman Greg Foster Jr. and redshirt freshman Joel Ayayi could emerge in Gonzaga’s rotation, depending on Perkins’ health status and Crandall’s academic situation.
The 6-5 Foster and 6-5 Ayayi bring different strengths. Foster is considered more of a ball-handler/distributor while Ayayi has demonstrated scoring ability playing for French national teams.
Clarke, Hachimura and Tillie will gobble up most of the frontcourt minutes, but there should be some time available for a fourth big, particularly when/if Hachimura slides over to the ‘3.’ The candidates include true freshman Filip Petrusev, sophomore center Jacob Larsen and senior Jeremy Jones, who also plays wing.
The 6-11 Petrusev figures to have the inside track. The Serbian native who played last season for Montverde (Florida) Academy can play inside and has some perimeter skills. Does Petrusev carve out a role or redshirt?
That’s one of many questions greeting the Zags as they begin fall drills.