The first indication came at Kraziness in the Kennel with four blocked shots in a 15-minute team scrimmage.
The next came in the form of 11 rejections in Sunday’s blowout over Eastern Oregon. That would have equaled a Gonzaga school record achieved five times, the last against Pepperdine in 2010, but exhibition games don’t count in the record books.
It’s advisable to avoid snap judgments from stats compiled against an overmatched NAIA opponent, but the lane figures to be much tougher to navigate for Gonzaga’s foes this season.
“It’s going to have to be an asset for this team,” assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “It’s going to be key to how we play.”
All five bigs blocked shots against Eastern Oregon, led by Drew Timme’s three and two each by Chet Holmgren, Kaden Perry and Ben Gregg. Anton Watson added one block.
“You have to stop open 3s and layups, so when you have that rim protection from multiple guys you don’t have to focus on keeping one person down in the hole all game,” Holmgren said. “It can come from multiple different guys to go contest a shot late at the rim.”
Gonzaga limited the Mountaineers to 30.4% shooting, 32% from distance and just 22 points in the paint. The 7-foot Holmgren got beat off the dribble by 6-foot-9 Ismael Valdez, but quickly recovered for his first block as a Zag.
“He’ll be in practice and he’ll just grab someone’s shot out of the air,” wing Julian Strawther said of Holmgren. “Not even block it, ‘I’m just going to grab it and I’m going to go coast to coast and dunk the ball.’ There’s nobody like him in the country.”
Rim protection hasn’t necessarily been a prerequisite for Gonzaga’s finest teams. The Zags’ two national runners-up were on opposite ends of the rim protection scale.
The 2017 squad, led by 7-foot freshman Zach Collins, swatted 183 shots, second only to the 2019 team’s 204 in the past decade. Brandon Clarke broke the school record by 47 with 117 blocks in 2019, putting him sixth on the program’s career list, despite only playing one season.
Last year’s Zags were thin on frontcourt bodies in the rotation and finished with just 90 rejections, fewest in the past 10 years and just one more than their opponents. Timme led with 23 blocks and Watson had 20.
“I think Drew’s better than he gets credit for,” Michaelson said. “Especially last year, we didn’t have a lot of options to back him up and spell him so he had to be pretty smart with his fouls. Anton’s a very good defender. Obviously, Chet is a really unique shot blocker, a totally different entity in there. Ben and Kaden come in and they fly around.
“Kaden’s athleticism is up there with anybody we’ve had and he’s going to go get it. Ben does a great job, putting his body on the line. He’s probably more versatile than people realize. The thing about Ben is he just makes plays. He comes up with the ball. He had deflections, blocks, rebounds.”
The 2017 Zags had an imposing frontcourt with 7-1 Przemek Karnowski, bouncy 6-9 forward Johnathan Williams and Collins, which allowed the guards to be more aggressive on the perimeter knowing there was help in the lane. Collins, third on the single-season list with 69 blocks, swatted six shots in a Final Four win over South Carolina and had three more in just 14 minutes against North Carolina in the national title game before fouling out.
The current Zags could adopt a strategy similar to the 2017 crew if the bigs can provide consistent rim protection.
“We’ve got a lot of long, athletic dudes,” Strawther said. “You have ‘KP’ (Perry) and Hunter (Sallis) putting their head on the rim whenever they want. We’ve got a bunch of guys that can climb up into the ball and put ball pressure on.
“The shot blocking is great. You can almost funnel some dudes in there and just let Chet, Kaden and Drew just beat it up.”
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