In about 4½ months, Gonzaga, possibly as the preseason No. 1-ranked team, will line up for its season opener with perhaps the deepest roster in program history.
It’ll be close, but that should be just enough time for armchair coaches to pore over every possible combination of starting lineups and rotations.
So, who’s in your starting five? Who is the first guard off the bench? The first big? Who stakes out a spot in the rotation, which is typically seven or eight deep? Could it expand to nine this season?
OK, we’ll go first.
Set in stone
There’s an easy part and a difficult part to this exercise. From our perspective, three-fifths of the starting lineup seems to be set in stone. Mapping out the last two starters and next three or four options is set in fluidity.
The best part is there’s no wrong answer because as dialed in as the coaching staff is, even they are probably curious to see how this plays out.
Forward Drew Timme, a favorite for national player of the year, lead guard Andrew Nembhard and Chet Holmgren, the top-ranked recruit in the 2021 class, appear to be locks to start.
The pairing of Timme, the best interior scorer in the nation, and Holmgren, a 7-foot-1 forward with perimeter skills, could be a nightmare for opponents. The Zags tend to operate inside out, which should continue with both being willing passers.
Timme has put in time to expand his perimeter game. Holmgren should provide rim protection that was often missing from last year’s defense.
The 6-5 Nembhard deftly working off ball screens became a staple of the offense last season. His decision-making, passing and midrange game is elite. He’ll probably lead the Zags in minutes played.
It’s not a stretch to suggest Nembhard could give Gonzaga two entries in the player of the year conversation.
Now comes the hard part. There are two starting jobs left and as many as seven candidates: Anton Watson, Rasir Bolton, Hunter Sallis, Nolan Hickman, Julian Strawther, Dominick Harris and Ben Gregg.
From that list, it’s apparent the Zags have versatility and numerous options. What they don’t have is a ton of experience returning. Older teams have become a blueprint for success in college basketball.
The Zags could go big with the 6-7 Strawther, the 6-8 Watson, who has 22 career starts, or even bigger with the 6-10 Gregg, who skipped his senior season of prep basketball to join Gonzaga in December.
They could go with three freshmen from their heralded recruiting class in the starting five. Hickman is an accomplished point guard who thrived at the Iverson Classic, which included most of the nation’s best prep players. (We’re obligated to mention that GU traditionally has success playing two point guards together.)
Sallis, at No. 18 in 247sports.com’s composite rankings, is rated higher than Hickman (No. 30). For that matter, he was ranked higher when he committed in March than Jalen Suggs was when the one-and-done point guard committed to the Zags.
Strawther and Harris have the benefit of a year in Gonzaga’s system. Strawther missed his first eight 3-point attempts last season before hitting nine of his last 20. The 6-3 Harris is athletic, shot 39.1% from distance last year and has the tools to be a strong defender.
Both have ample opportunity for bigger roles if they make an offseason leap and become more consistent.
Our guess is the remaining two starters will be a mix of experience and a promising newcomer.
We’re giving a starting nod to Bolton. The Iowa State grad transfer has been a steady scorer, and he was pressed into point guard duty at times. He averaged 15 points, 4 rebounds and 3.3 assists in two seasons for the Cyclones.
Bolton, who began his career at Penn State, provides much-needed experience (59 starts, 83 games), even if it’s not in a Gonzaga uniform, against high-level competition (Big 12 and Big Ten). He projects as a secondary ballhandler that can score in multiple ways. He’s a career 34.2% shooter on 3-pointers and 85.6% on free throws.
He has the ability to get to the rim and the foul line. He led Iowa State in free-throw attempts by a wide margin the last two years.
That leaves one starting spot and we’ll pencil in Sallis. The athletic, 6-5 combo guard can score at all three levels and should be a great fit in Gonzaga’s transition game. The five-star guard figures to impact the game at both ends of the court.
Watson projects as the first big off the bench, but there’ll be competition from Gregg and incoming freshman Kaden Perry, if he’s healthy from a back injury that sidelined him most of his senior season at Battle Ground (Washington) High.
Watson is a versatile defender who can play the 4 or 5. If he develops a dependable perimeter shot, his minutes could climb significantly. Gregg has size, versatility and should be a 3-point threat. The bouncy, 6-9 Perry has been compared to former Zags standout Brandon Clarke.
The battle for minutes in the backcourt will be intriguing. It wouldn’t be a major surprise if Nembhard was joined in the first unit by any of the five guards/wings (Bolton, Sallis, Hickman, Harris and Strawther).
That’s a lot of bodies, all seemingly bringing different strengths, competing for a limited amount of playing time. The Zags could squeeze out more minutes with a four-guard lineup, similar to last season with Corey Kispert at the 4, but that seems unlikely if Holmgren and Timme mesh as well as anticipated.
Coach Mark Few’s teams generally have a seven- to eight-player rotation. That was the case with the two best teams in GU history.
Last year’s team (31-1) used a seven-man rotation with grad transfer Aaron Cook and eventually Watson, replaced by Nembhard in the starting lineup in February, coming off the bench. The 2017 squad (37-2) typically played eight – four guards and four bigs.
It’s easy to envision nine, maybe even 10 players, seeing court time this year, but that will be up to a handful of players proving they can carve out roles and minutes.
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