A handful of Gonzaga players considered professional options versus returning to the Zags following the 2019 season.
So did a member of GU’s coaching staff, minus the fanfare and headlines.
Riccardo Fois found himself in Phoenix – staying at the same hotel where the Zags stayed at the 2017 Final Four – to interview for the position of player development coach with the Phoenix Suns. Fois, Gonzaga’s coordinator of analytics, was just days removed from the Zags’ season-ending loss to Texas Tech in the Elite Eight.
Fois faced a decision: Return to Gonzaga, the only program nationally to reach at least the Sweet 16 level the last five seasons, or join an incoming staff trying to rebuild a 19-win NBA franchise. He picked the Suns, but it wasn’t an easy call.
“Maybe one of the toughest decisions I’ve made,” Fois said. “I’ve been fortunate to be part of Gonzaga the last five years. It was the weekend of the Final Four and I was so emotional about the fact we didn’t make it. We were so close.
“But the moment I realized I was going to do it, that moment was hard. I stayed up all night. You really miss the guys that you work with. I really believe next year or in two years we’ll make it to another Final Four.”
Fois still uses the word “we” when talking about Gonzaga, but he has settled into his Phoenix apartment and he’s embracing his role on new head coach Monty Williams’ staff. It won’t include analytics, which was part of his responsibilities at Gonzaga. It will include long hours.
“Basically be there all the time for the guys if they want to get up shots and get better, help the coaches and help the players,” said Fois, who in the past has assisted former Zag and current Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis with offseason training. “It’s something that’s really fun to do, where you can always get better and learn more from players than they learn from you.
“Every player is different and I’ve been lucky enough to be around really good players the last five years.”
Several of those former Zags will be on opposing sidelines in Fois’ first NBA season. Sabonis is a rising star. Zach Collins should assume a bigger role with Portland in his third season. Miami’s Kelly Olynyk, who predates Fois at GU, is entering his seventh NBA season. Johnathan Williams, who played in 24 games for the Los Angeles Lakers last season, was on Houston’s Summer League squad.
Five Zags from last year’s team declared for the draft with forwards Killian Tillie and Filip Petrusev opting to return to Gonzaga. Brandon Clarke was the NBA Summer League MVP for Memphis while Washington’s Rui Hachimura was named second team. Both were first-round picks.
Zach Norvell Jr., who has a two-way contract with the Lakers, was solid in Summer League.
“It’s going to be cool to play them,” Fois said. “When they come to Phoenix, I’ll take them to good Italian food.”
Phoenix has promising young talent but the organization hasn’t posted a winning season since 2014. The Suns have averaged 21.7 wins over the last four years.
Williams was the head coach at New Orleans from 2010-15. He led the Pelicans to a playoff berth in 2011 with Chris Paul as the centerpiece and another in 2015 with one of the NBA’s youngest rosters after Paul’s departure.
“They’re everything you would expect, high character, really smart people,” Fois said of Williams and general manager James Jones. “I thought it was a great opportunity to create something special, like Gonzaga was, and be part of building something from the ground up.
“The plan is the same: develop a winning culture, players taking ownership of the team and getting better and create something sustainable. It’s really hard to win in the NBA so you have to start at the base. Monty did that in New Orleans so he knows how to do that.”
The Zags have made 21 straight NCAA Tournaments and they’ve won at least 32 games in four of the last five seasons. Fois doesn’t see GU’s success slowing down anytime soon.
“I was really excited about next year’s class,” Fois said. “I think Zag fans will love the things coming next season and two years down the road. This (move) was a great opportunity to be with a great head coach in a good city. It was the right moment to do this in my life.”
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