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John Blanchette: After forgoing early entry into the NBA draft, Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie must go about reinventing – and improving – his game

On draft night, he saw two teammates chosen in the first round maybe an hour apart and reveled in their moment.

“Congrats brothas!” came the tweet on Killian Tillie’s timeline. “It’s just the beginning, show them what Zags do.”

Now the cattle call audition that is the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas is in full roil, and his retweets track the Gonzaga-related action. “Zach Norvell with the game winner vs the Kings!” reads one. “Rui Hachimura stole the show tonight in Vegas,” comes another.

They are there and he is here in Spokane, but if it bothers Killian Tillie even a whit it is undetectable – even if he fully expected to be there, too.

“But it’s strange,” he allowed. “I miss being around them.”

Midsummer at the McCarthey Athletic Center this year has been kind of a lonesome ol’ dog all the way around. A handful of the new kids on Gonzaga’s kid-heavy basketball roster were off in Crete lighting it up at the U19 World Cup, where four current or future Bulldogs were among the top seven scorers. Now four 2019 Zags are in Vegas on the post-school job hunt – only Tillie remains as a senior from an incoming group in the fall of 2016 that included Hachimura, Norvell and Zach Collins. And a 2020 roster takes shape with only four players who’ve worn the Gonzaga uniform.

None more central to the plot than Killian Tillie.

One could hardly be sure of that when Tillie joined the early entry draft pool back on April 21, despite a junior season that saw him play only 15 games with his averages – for minutes, points, rebounds – virtually cut in half.

Then came even more twists – an ankle sprain in his first workout for an NBA team, a withdrawal from the league’s prospect combine and, as the clock ticked toward the deadline, the announcement that he’d be returning for his senior year.

“Staying is the best decision,” he said. “And I’m ready for that.”

In the new normal that seems to send one or two – and now three – Zags into early departure to the pros every year, it’s pretty much a given that the fan base lets go reluctantly and regretting any could-have-beens for the upcoming season.

In the case of Tillie, it was more complicated.

Mostly they seemed of a mind that, returned to the Zag cocoon, they could good-vibe him to a year without injury misfortune, regardless of the won-lost record.

Tillie’s a little more pragmatic than that.

He went forward with the NBA exploration feeling fully recovered from the two injuries that interrupted his 2019 season – the stress fracture in his right ankle that kept him out until West Coast Conference play, and the partially torn plantar fascia that sidelined him a month before the postseason. But the ankle sprain – left ankle, this time – in his Atlanta workout changed the dynamic.

“I thought my chances (of being drafted) were really high,” he said, “even though I’d had a tough season. I was serious about the process and worked hard for it. I was ready.

“After spraining my ankle, it turned into a day-to-day thing and it just wasn’t getting better fast enough. Obviously, we didn’t have a lot of time. I just didn’t want teams to get a bad view of me.”

When that’s the very thing he was trying to erase.

Tillie’s injuries didn’t change the arc of GU’s 2019 season, only the details. In his absence came the revelation that was Brandon Clarke, college basketball’s most efficient player not named Zion Williamson, in a power pairing alongside Hachimura. It’s fun barstool debate imagining what might have unfolded with a healthy Tillie – for instance, does Clarke blossom quite so spectacularly, enough to make him the sure-thing first rounder he was? But there was no debate that the Tillie who returned to the rotation was something of a lost knockoff of the 2018 version.

Now he must go about reinventing – and improving – that player.

Back home in France, he enlisted the help of renowned strength coach Christophe Keller for routines to strengthen his ankles, knees and hips. That work carries over with Gonzaga strength coach Travis Knight and trainer Josh Therrien.

“With all Killian has been through, he’s got a pretty good feel for what works for him, “ Knight said. “And when he goes home to France, he always comes back with a couple things. When I write a workout for him, he’ll have a lot to include on that.”

But for all that, there’s not a lot of narrative from Tillie himself about simply staying healthy. He’s more conscious of his role growing and being a leader to Mark Few’s youngest version of the Zags yet – without a lessening of expectation.

“With the talent we have,” Tillie said, “if we build a good team, we can do anything.”

And that sprained ankle that derailed the biggest of plans just a couple months ago?

“It was a bad thing then,” he admitted, “but I think it’ll come to be a good thing.”

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