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Sports >  NCAA basketball

‘The sky is the limit’: Gonzaga’s newcomers make strong first impression

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 14, 2021

This is the fourth recruiting class Andrew Nembhard has been around, including the one he was part of as a freshman at Florida.

Florida’s 2018 class was ranked No. 19 by 247sports. The Gators backed that up in Nembhard’s second season with a No. 8 rating, including 2021 NBA Draft picks Tre Mann (18th overall to Oklahoma City) and Scottie Lewis (No. 56 to Charlotte.

After transferring to Gonzaga, Nembhard has had a close-up view of the highest ranked classes in program history – No. 6 in 2020 and No. 3 in 2021.

“This one is very special,” Nemhbard said of freshmen Chet Holmgren, Hunter Sallis, Nolan Hickman and Kaden Perry after Kraziness in the Kennel last Saturday. “I’ve been telling my dad when he calls, this is a very talented group that we have this year. The sky is the limit as long as we buy in and mature at a quick rate. I think we’ll do that.”

The newcomers become even stronger when factoring in guard Rasir Bolton, a grad transfer who played 83 games in previous stops at Penn State and Iowa State.

So how much can the fivesome realistically contribute this season? Plenty. That much was evident from the Kraziness scrimmage, 3-point contest (won by Hickman) and dunk competition (won by Sallis).

“I don’t know if there’s a time limit on how long it takes (for the team to mesh together),” Nembhard said. “I think it’s just keep working, keep working and playing together every day. I think it’ll come.

“A lot of the young guys might not be exactly what you want at the beginning but during the season we’re going to keep getting better. By end of the season we’ll be clicking at a high, high level.”

The Zags were ready at the outset of last season with veterans Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi, Drew Timme and Anton Watson, and Nembhard and freshman Jalen Suggs making swift transitions to GU’s system.

The current roster lacks extended minutes in a Gonzaga uniform beyond Timme, Nembhard and Watson, but the newcomers have been willing students.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys that even when they make mistakes, they’re so eager to learn and take constructive criticism and they’re resilient,” Timme said. “I think that’s a huge characteristic and something that can define us.

“I’m excited how we learn and learn from our mistakes. We have a long way to go, but we’re going in the right direction, that’s for sure.”

The five newcomers are battling for playing time – Holmgren, rated No. 1 in the 2021 class, is a virtual lock to start and could be joined by Bolton and possibly Sallis – with six returners, once Dominick Harris returns from surgery to repair a ruptured plantar fascia in his right foot.

Highlight videos tend to make every recruit look like future All-Americans as players swish every shot, elevate for dunks and hand out assists on the break. Even with modest stats in the scrimmage – all five scored between 5 to 7 points – the newcomers displayed their strengths.

Bolton, Iowa State’s top scorer last year, is a blur in the open court. The 6-foot-3 guard raced past Blue teammates and defenders to finish a lob pass from Hickman late in the scrimmage.

In the closing seconds, Bolton penetrated on an isolation play and was fouled by Ben Gregg, who had a foot inside the restricted arc. Bolton, an 85.6% career shooter at the line, calmly made both to put Blue up 38-35. He had two assists and zero turnovers in nearly 14 minutes.

The 7-foot, 195-pound Holmgren didn’t put up big numbers – he misfired on two 3-point attempts, but his performance in high school and AAU shows he’s an accomplished perimeter shooter – but he swatted a pair of shots, meeting Perry at the rim on one, during the 15-minute scrimmage.

Hickman connected on a 3 and a high floater after driving into the lane. The 6-2 point guard showed his nose for the ball by collecting five boards, matching Julian Strawther for most on the Blue team. The former Kentucky commit had two assists.

The 6-5 Sallis and 6-9 Perry showed off their hops in the dunk contest. The rangy Sallis filled the stat sheet with six points, a scrimmage-best six rebounds, two steals and an assist.

Perry rejected Timme at the rim and then finished with a dunk at the offensive end, shortly after Timme had used a jab step to drive past the freshman for an and-one layup. The 225-pound Perry finished with six points in just under six minutes and his lone rebound was an impressive one in traffic.

“Hunter is very diverse, can cut, can move off the ball, super athletic,” Nembhard said. “Nolan is mature beyond his years when it comes to handling the ball and making decisions. Rasir, you can tell he’s a vet. He’s played multiple games. Chet is just so versatile that you can plug him in at play him at so many different spots. It just helps our versatility.

“And KP (Perry), he’s really one of my favorites to play with. He just plays super hard. He’s raw right now, but he’s only going to get so much better with his mentality.”

Nembhard added a shoutout to Gregg, who was in the 2021 class, but graduated early from high school to join the Zags last season in late December.

The newcomers impressed Timme at Kraziness in the Kennel.

“They all as a group have really bonded together and really just learning so much so fast, they’re kind of getting thrown into the fire,” the junior forward said. “I remember as a freshman it was crazy for me playing in (Kraziness). It was really nerve-wracking and I felt like I was so tense. And the way they all were just calmly out there, letting the game come to them and letting things flow, I think it was a big testament to all of those guys’ character.”

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