John Blanchette: Ol’ Doc Basketball has a wonderful mix of ingredients in creating the perfect Gonzaga player
Thu., Oct. 31, 2019
He copped parts from any old cadaver. Gave his creation the brain of a psychopath (here’s where a better assistant coach would have been helpful). Hit him with a jolt of electricity and called it good.
OK, so there were complications.
Still, ol’ Doc Basketball has it tougher. Especially if the assignment is something like this: Building the Perfect Zag.
More specifically, what qualities can be sampled from the best basketball players Gonzaga University has produced to construct the epitome of the species?
Whose heart do you pick? Whose athleticism? Whose skills?
Where do you even start?
Technically, such an endeavor would mean there are 114 years worth of basketball players to navigate, though given what’s transpired over the past two decades, this is going to be mostly a modern-era exercise.
And which attributes count? Is a wing jumper, say, as vital as will?
So, some ground rules:
• Dispense with the stat-sheet virtues like shooting, rebounding, passing, shot-blocking. You can’t win without them, obviously, but we all read the box scores.
• Likewise, we’ll not whittle down too specifically on the physical properties like best hands or best footwork. Or hair – no matter how much it’s meant to the fan base over the years.
• If we pluck a characteristic from one Zag, he’s eliminated from further use. We’re working with virtually unlimited resources. And everyone recycles at home, so no need to do it here.
• John Stockton is ineligible, just to keep it a sporting exercise.
“The easy answer for a lot of these is Stocks,” said Matt Santangelo, one of a handful of Zag alums whose advice was solicited for this project. “We’ve all been trying to live up to that standard.”
With all that understood, let’s step into the laboratory, where the first of our 12 ingredients is …
Athleticism. As prized as some of these mental markers are, your Perfect Zag can’t get by without phone-book vertical — especially as thin as phone books are these days. If the Bulldogs aren’t renowned for uber-athletes, they’ve had a few – from Erroll Knight to Micah Downs to Jeremy Pargo.
“For a guard to be able to elevate and play above the rim and through contact like Jeremy did was impressive,” said Dan Dickau, another Zag alum with a TV analyst for nine years.
And he’d be the guy, except there are eyeballs still AWOL from their sockets after Brandon Clarke’s block of Tennessee’s Yves Pons last season – just a tiny sample of Clarke’s athletic wonder on both ends that makes him the choice here.
Leadership. Lots of choices here – the Bulldogs have never lacked for leaders. Don Baldwin, whose career ended in 1981, was an old-school alpha too rarely remembered in GU’s back-loaded basketball history. Jeff Brown set a tone when the program made its first hard turn upward in the mid-1990s. Santangelo was the driver when the Zags burst into the national consciousness. And the tandem of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell were maybe the most adaptable: they grew up fast because they had to, subjugated themselves as scorers to NBA-bound big men and simply kept the program grounded as the talent level surged.
But there was always a different vibe to Nigel Williams-Goss, coming as he did from the “outside” and assuming command of an eight-man rotation that had five Zags wearing the uniform for the first time. Insisting on defending West Virginia’s Jevon Carter on the final shot in the 2017 Sweet 16 was a leadership moment. And getting to the Final Four looks pretty good on the résumé.
Competitiveness. It’s in the Gonzaga DNA, borne out by the rise from little engine that could to bullet train. There are, simply, too many possibilities to mention, which makes it the perfect field for a dark horse: Quentin Hall.
Just go back to that transformational 1999 NCAA Tournament. At 5-foot-8, Hall – spelled by Mike Nilson – hounded Minnesota’s 6-7 scoring machine Quincy Lewis into a 3-of-19 shooting nightmare. In the Elite Eight, he tied Connecticut great Khalid El-Amin in an 0-of-12 knot. In the game that got the Zags there, he ignored an order to foul and badgered Florida’s Brent Wright into the game-turning traveling violation, took it upon himself to hoist the potential game-winning shot, and while Casey Calvary was tipping in the miss, jousted with the 6-8 Wright to do it himself.
At Gonzaga, competitiveness is spelled with a Q.
Peter Tormey / YouTube
Court vision. Stockton is the absolute here, but we have our rules. Blake Stepp’s many virtues tend to get lost with the march of time and this is one of them, and if he tested a fan’s patience, Josh Perkins “really did see things – and had a lack of fear to try it,” said current GU assistant coach Brian Michaelson.
But this was also a Dickau strength, even if his shooting touch often overshadowed it. Other than Stockton’s years as a starter, no Zag point guard assisted on a higher percentage of his team’s buckets than Dickau.
Strength. Always seen as the province of big men, though guys like Nilson and Ira Brown were notable exceptions. But there’s been an evolution in big-man strength. Watch Rui Hachimura or Domantas Sabonis in the post and they’re remarkably strong, “but the weights guys like Casey and Corey Violette would move around was something else,” Michaelson said. We’ll take J.P. Batista. They didn’t call him the Brazilian Beast for nothing.
Toughness. “Casey is the epitome for me,” said Santangelo of Calvary. “He’ll still get those blue eyes bearing down on you and you kind of go, ‘OK, Case, whatever direction you’re going, we’re there.’ ” Us, too. But somebody else break it to Bakari Hendrix, OK?
Decision-making. Five minutes into the second half of Gonzaga’s 2014 victory over Georgia at Madison Square Garden, something extraordinary happened: Kevin Pangos committed a turnover. It was the Bulldogs’ fifth game of the season, Pangos’ 118th minute of play … and his first turnover. Only Kyle Bankhead – unsung in this department himself – and Baldwin have better career assist-to-turnover ratios than Pangos, who handled the ball much more. “He just kept himself in a position where he made the correct play,” said Dickau.
Heart. Can’t measure it. Can’t necessarily define it, though watching Stepp grind through injuries was a moving picture. But in another category that could summon countless nominees, the high-motor Sabonis was a constant example of a burning will.
Confidence. “There are guys,” Michaelson said, “and I think of Kyle Wiltjer and Nigel here, who just say, ‘No, I’m better. I’m the best player, and I’m going to do this.’ ” But surely no Zag personified that more than Adam Morrison, whose confidence only amped up his competitive side and was central to his becoming, it can be easily posited, Gonzaga’s best or most accomplished collegiate player. Confidence, of course, is a requisite for …
Clutchness. Is that a word? Clutchitude? Clutchage? Whatever, the best teams need players who can deliver when needed the most. Morrison, Williams-Goss, Wiltjer, Dickau – all embraced the big moment and can look back on game-turning or game-winning baskets. The two most memorable in GU history, of course, were Calvary’s tip-in against Florida and Jordan Mathews’ 3-pointer that helped subdue West Virginia.
So why does Zach Norvell Jr. constantly come to mind? Well, because he made himself Big Shot Snacks his freshman year – cashing out BYU and San Diego with daggers, and continually erupting in the second halves of games after being punchless in the first. His biggest 3-pointer saved the Zags from the ignominy of a first-round loss to UNC Greensboro in 2018 – after he’d missed six in a row. So many times, he loomed as the unlikeliest hero.
“A lot of shots,” laughed Santangelo, “became clutch after he shot them.”
Passion. It seems as if a category had to be created for Ronny Turiaf, so here it is. Though Robert Sacre could fill it nicely, too. Which brings us, at last, to ….
Zagness. There’s not much of the underdog mentality left at Gonzaga, now a Top 25 perennial attracting top-tier recruits, but it was essential in launching the program’s incredible rise. So it’s worth preserving, embodied by those players who walked on to the team and made themselves indispensible, such as Geoff Goss, Mark Spink, Ryan Floyd and David Stockton, to name four. To winnow one out, it’s hard not to land on Mike Hart, a starter on GU’s first No. 1-ranked team, who once earned a mid-possession standing ovation for tracking down two offensive rebounds.
There you go. Mix them all together and there’s your perfect Zag.
And now, somebody flip the switch.
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