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Gonzaga Basketball

John Blanchette: The generational talents keep coming Gonzaga’s way, and we’ll keep watching

Chet Holmgren, who averaged 20.8 points and 12.6 rebounds in 2020-21, was part of four state championship teams at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis.  (Courtesy of Carlos Gonzalez/Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

Is there a vaccine for whiplash?

Following the basketball developments at Gonzaga anymore feels like putting in a full day on Dinosaur at Animal Kingdom. It’s all jerks and jolts. A 40-foot buzzer beater to escape disaster. From the cruise of an unbeaten season to a calamitous crash in the championship game. Losing the heart-and-soul assistant coach to a program the Bulldogs once aimed to emulate.

And now one-and-done ping pong.

Out the revolving door to the NBA is Jalen Suggs, the delightful freshman who parlayed his Monday announcement with an auction of something called a non-fungible token and a pair of game-worn shoes. Hey, he might have only been at Gonzaga for one season, but apparently managed to pick up a business degree.

In is 7-foot ganglebeast Chet Holmgren, who announced on ESPN that he’d be signing with the Zags – not just another recruit, but ranked No. 1 nationally by all the folks who do that sort of thing. Wicked shot-blocker, 3-point marksman, a big man with guard skills, Holmgren is generally – and way too often – heralded as a “unicorn.”

Is that anything like a non-fungible token?

High school teammates a year ago in Minneapolis, Holmgren and Suggs were again for a couple of hours Monday. But what they could have achieved together at Gonzaga will forever be starbursts confined to the imagination.

Such is the rent in Gonzaga’s new high-rise.

Considerable air has been expended hyperventilating over this new altitude in the Zags’ recruiting, and it is remarkable. Prior to Zach Collins’ arrival in 2016, exactly one Gonzaga recruit had been positioned among the yearly top 50: Austin Daye back in 2007. Landing Collins didn’t immediately signal a makeover, but in 2019 both Anton Watson and Drew Timme were top-50 recruits, and in the team recruiting rankings the Zags broke into the teens for the first time.

Then came the bottle rocket that was Suggs, and now Holmgren on top of another top-10 signee in guard Hunter Sallis. At the moment, the Bulldogs have the No. 2-ranked class in the country behind Michigan.

Funny thing about that: Fans often seem more jazzed about recruiting rankings than the ones based on actual, you know, results. The thrill of anticipation and all.

But the thrills don’t end there, of course. Suggs revealed himself to be what’s popularly known now as a generational talent. And with Holmgren, the Zags have procured another.

Generations now lapse in a matter of months, apparently. Like COVID immunity.

Like a lot of things about Gonzaga basketball, this was something a long time in the making that nobody saw coming, except maybe the guy running the store.

Whose job just gets trickier with every development.

The flip side to Monday’s giddiness may be a bit of gloom next April when perhaps both Holmgren and Sallis follow the Suggs timetable, but it figures to last only until the next phenoms sign. But the cautionary tales are already being anthologized.

The Zags’ rise and success in the NCAA Tournament came on the backs of “program guys” – players who paid dues and served apprenticeships or simply stayed, and all too often outplayed big-name schools with better talent but less experience. No, not all completed their eligibility, but only Suggs and Collins were one-and-done freshmen.

Coach Mark Few managed any dramatic churn with a deft use of transfers, even if some of those only suited up for a season. But they did help the Zags get old and stay old, the handy mantra for success on college hoops.

And simply put, top 10 recruits don’t do old – getting or staying.

The one-and-done gold rush of the early-and-mid 2010s has petered out somewhat. Kentucky and Duke cashed in for titles that way, but it should be noted that of the top 10 schools in 247sports’ 2020 recruiting rankings, only the Zags and Arkansas made it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky and Duke, notably, didn’t so much as sample the madness.

Meanwhile, in another blow for the stay-old crowd, Baylor showcased its wiles and will in the title game. The Bears’ top five players: redshirt senior, two redshirt juniors, a junior and a redshirt sophomore. Only Davion Mitchell was a top 50 recruit – but for Auburn, not Baylor. MaCio Teague didn’t make the top 500 when he signed with UNC-Asheville.

This is hardly lost on Few, who has lived through enough roster hiccups to know all the ways to build a winner. Along the way, the Zags mastered the developmental piece, international recruiting and the transfer market.

Now comes a different sort of crossroads. The program will tackle it without the two most recent program guys – Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi – and without assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, not just an institutional memory but an institution.

But the Zags will have the nation’s No. 1 recruit, and more. That’s another thing Few grasps: great players want to play with other great players, and he certainly wants to coach them.

And we’re going to want to watch.