Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi have experienced it. Every freshman entering Gonzaga’s program has experienced it.
It doesn’t matter whether they were top-10 recruits or outside the top 100, from Portland or Paris, pro-bound or probable redshirts.
“Coach (Mark) Few always says it, there’s this huge learning curve that you have to go through,” Kispert said during a GU season preview webinar. “That’s anywhere from people like me and Joel all the way down to our freshmen this year. When you come here, you have to learn a lot.
“That’s kind of what guys are going through (at early practices). Certain days are kind of rough and a little choppy and certain days we look really good. We’re going to be really, really good, and I really think we have a great shot to do something special.”
Gonzaga’s recruiting class was special, according to recruiting analysts. Presumed starting point guard Jalen Suggs, guard Dominick Harris and wing Julian Strawther form the highest-ranked recruiting class in school history. Suggs is the highest-ranked player to sign with GU.
“The thing I really appreciate about them is they’re so coachable, they’re so willing. They’re workers that want to get better,” Few said. “They’re tough, but there’s a learning curve, even when you’re the most celebrated level of high school player. This is a different level. Everybody’s good at this level.
“They’re in that mode where they’re starting to figure that out and having to make adjustments and learn that they just can’t walk out on the floor and out-athlete people or out-talent them, for that matter. They’re having to learn they actually have to have a plan and real attention to detail. The cool thing is they’re very open to that.”
The freshman trio is barely a week into preseason practices and part of a talented roster packed with first-year players and sophomores. Kispert and Southern Illinois grad transfer Aaron Cook are the lone seniors. Ayayi is a redshirt junior.
Sophomores Drew Timme and Anton Watson – prior to his season-ending shoulder surgery after 15 games – played significant roles last season. Seven-foot centers Oumar Ballo, who sat out last year as an academic redshirt, and Pavel Zakharov, who played limited minutes, are battling for minutes behind Timme.
Kispert earned a starting spot as a true freshman but lost it to Zach Norvell Jr. after suffering a sprained ankle. He returned to the starting five as a sophomore and had a huge junior year.
“It’s crazy how fast things go and its super cliché, but just kind of looking around I’m the old guy now,” said Kispert, an All-American candidate. “The game has slowed down for me. I can make reads a lot better. I feel like I’m in control and not trying to play catch-up. That’s where I found myself figuring things out last year, too, and had the year I had.”
Ayayi, then 17, redshirted in his first season. He barely saw playing time the following year before becoming a major contributor on a 31-win team last season. The French native said “the hype is real” surrounding the three freshmen.
“Corey and I really enjoy (being team leaders),” Ayayi said. “It’s kind of our time to give back, to take less and give back to others. Coach Few often talks about it: You get way more out of giving than you get out of taking and it’s our job.
“When we were younger, our leaders gave a lot to us and now it’s our job to keep on doing it. I think we have something special. Those guys are really into the teamwork and they’re really buying in.”
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