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Gonzaga Basketball

John Blanchette: Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi proof that question marks can turn into stars with time, attention

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

INDIANAPOLIS – In the winter of 2012, Kelly Olynyk caught rapid-fire volleys of tennis balls and did tip drills with heavy medicine balls and never suited up for a game. He came out on the other side an All-American.

And thus was Gonzaga’s reputation for player development born.

Oh, Bulldogs basketball players and coaches had been at the development thing for some time. But turning a 13-minutes-a-game reserve into the 13th pick in the draft tends to up the profile.

When Olynyk departed, Kyle Wiltjer arrived to test the process, and soon GU came to be thought of as kind of a finishing school for big men. And that, too, shortchanged the enterprise.

Everybody who wants a piece of it can profit.

Fact is, there are no greater examples of the program’s devotion to wringing out every last drop than two central figures on the current Final Four team, Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi.

“The other day I was watching games from my freshman year,” Kispert said not long ago, “and I didn’t recognize myself out there.”

Which is to say, he didn’t recognize a potential NBA lottery pick.

To recognize Ayayi that year, you would have had to sneak into McCarthey Athletic Center about 2½ hours before tipoff, when former assistant coach Donny Daniels would put him through various shooting and ball-handling drills, after which Ayayi would watch the game in street clothes – a redshirt with an uncertain future.

“We were all wondering,” Zags assistant Tommy Lloyd said, “is this going to work out?”

It has worked out spectacularly, for Ayayi and Kispert and the No. 1 Bulldogs, now two wins away from an unbeaten national championship. But then, it seems to more often than not.

It’s not that the Zags have reached some Zen plateau. They have a dedicated coaching staff, and a strength guru in Travis Knight who is just as adept on the mental side of sport. But every staff in college basketball tries to make its players better. The application of resources, time and concepts will vary, but if you don’t have the player’s best interest at heart, what are you?

And if the player isn’t invested in getting better, what is he doing there?

“One of the misunderstood things about college basketball is that there’s so much emphasis on recruiting – that’s all people focus on,” said Lloyd, whose own considerable reputation has evolved because of his recruiting chops. “But your most important job as a coach is to do a great job with the players you’ve got. You recruit your butt off, too. The two things have to work together. If you’re all in on player development, you’re probably not going to get very good developable players. But if you’re not making your players better, they’re usually not happy.”

Kispert was ranked 106th among recruits in the class of 2017 – which would suggest a player with both upside and a ceiling. And though he scored in double figures in his first five games as a Zag, an injury set him back and he struggled like any freshman.

“I wasn’t very confident,” he said. “I didn’t move my feet well. I was kind of a liability on defense, to be honest.”

But his gains have come across the board. He’s honed what was already a textbook shot. He’s added the component of playing downhill toward the rim. His lateral quickness no longer makes switches on to quicker guards an adventure on roller skates.

“And that part is hard to do,” Lloyd said. “I can’t imagine the amount of work he had to put into that.”

Ayayi’s natural gifts are on display every night – an uncanny rebounding nose for a guard and a feel for the game that can be seen in every subtle baseline cut. But he came Gonzaga as slender, 165-pound 17-year-old, and much of Daniels’ urgings in those redshirt workouts stressed aggression and urgency he wasn’t seeing. The lessons continued as Ayayi played sparingly in 2019.

“What we found out was that this kid has an amazing belief in himself and a vision,” Daniels said. “There was resilience and determination, but he didn’t make a show of it. He just didn’t let anyone get in his head about who he is, because he knows who he is.”

Head coach Mark Few likes to point to the “key to the gym” mentality among Gonzaga players that goes back to John Stockton, and Daniels recalled hearing the thump of the basketball hours after a game and seeing Ayayi getting up shots. And as Lloyd noted, “It’s the players that have to put in the work.”

But they need the environment to thrive.

“Even though I didn’t play a lot my first two years, I knew I was making progress and that’s what mattered to me,” Ayayi said. “And when they put me on the floor all the work showed up. It’s one of the reasons I chose Gonzaga.”

Not a finishing school. But a formative one.