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Gonzaga Basketball

‘It can definitely catch you off guard’: Former Gonzaga stars Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert and Rui Hachimura reflect on season’s tests, achievements

Their games look nothing alike, but Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert and Rui Hachimura still traveled common ground during an NBA season filled with unique challenges and growth.

Especially for the rookies. Suggs, the fifth overall pick, and Kispert, selected 15th overall, learned the NBA comes at you fast, so fast it tests the fortitude of first-year players competing against the best players on the planet.

“This league is so much more different than AAU, high school and college. It’s a monster,” Suggs said in a video on Orlando’s website. “Coming into it without the mindset or understanding of it, it can definitely catch you off guard night after night. You start to lose track of the days of the week.

“The biggest growth came from my mindset and the way I began to approach each day and the way I took advantage of each day and consistently learned. I had my high moments and my low moments, but I had to go through that to really understand who I was and really get some footing in this league. I wouldn’t trade or go back because I needed this year.”

Kispert offered similar thoughts.

“It’s hard to see the progress you make when you’re in it,” Kispert said. “Things happen game after game, it kind of blurs together and all the work done off the court blurs. Now that you’re done, you can fully look back and appreciate the kind of progress you made. I’m proud to say I made some huge strides this year.

“Not everything went my way, but I overcame struggles and pushed myself.”

Hachimura took time off for team-approved personal reasons and spent the first part of the season getting into shape and practicing, first with individual work and then joining the full squad.

He essentially played the last half of the season after sitting out the first 39 games.

“I joined the team a little bit late,” the third-year pro said, “but overall I think personally it was a pretty good season for me.”

Washington forward Rui Hachimura returned to the Wizards’ starting lineup for the final 13 games of the season.  (Associated Press)
Washington forward Rui Hachimura returned to the Wizards’ starting lineup for the final 13 games of the season. (Associated Press)

The Japanese native hasn’t elaborated on the reasons for his extended absence, but shortly after the season finale he expressed appreciation for the support he received from the entire organization.

Hachimura also took to Instagram to thank fans and the Wizards for welcoming him back, adding, “I will come back stronger, healthier and better next season.”

Kispert had stretches with limited minutes early, including five games when he didn’t leave the bench, but his playing time increased dramatically over the final 50 games, including 36 starts.

He gained a ton of perspective along the way.

“There were multiple times this year where behind the scenes I thought the world was going to end because of the way we’re playing or I was playing,” he said. “It was crisis mode, but you have to step back and see the big picture and realize how long of a season it is.”

Suggs averaged 11.8 points, 4.4 assists and 3.8 rebounds in 48 games. His assists and turnovers (3.0 per game) were comparable to his lone season as a Zag (4.5 assists, 2.9 turnovers).

He was streaky behind the 3-point line, making one of his first 12 attempts before producing four 3s in back-to-back games with the season barely 10 days old. He finished at 21.4% from distance compared to 33.7% at Gonzaga. The 6-foot-4 guard hit 44.3% of his shots inside the arc vs. 58.8% at GU.

Those stats established an outline for his offseason agenda.

“Reps, reps and reps,” Suggs said. “That comes a lot with jump shots and getting comfortable with it, understanding when something is off I know exactly what it is and can go back and correct it. The biggest thing for me is my handle to where I feel comfortable in every situation, any spot on the court.”

Orlando rookie guard Jalen Suggs operates against Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball during an April 7th game.  (Associated Press)
Orlando rookie guard Jalen Suggs operates against Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball during an April 7th game. (Associated Press)

Both rookies felt more comfortable and gained confidence as the season progressed. Suggs suffered a fractured thumb in late November and missed about six weeks. When he returned, the 6-foot-4 guard responded with seven straight double-figures scoring games and later put together a string of solid performances before suffering an ankle injury that left him on the sidelines for the majority of the final five weeks.

Kispert’s strides came in areas that were question marks for some draft analysts during his Gonzaga career.

“Definitely putting the ball on the ground and playing off the dribble,” said the 6-7 Kispert, who averaged 8.7 points and made 35% behind the 3-point arc. “When guys run me off the line, I’m able to put the ball on the deck and finish at the rim. I think the whole league knew I was a shooter coming into the season, but being able to round myself out and playing inside the line was definitely the biggest progress.”

Hachimura buried 44.7% of 123 3-point attempts, repeating his third-season success at Gonzaga when he hit 41.7% from distance with an admittedly smaller sample size (15 of 36). He averaged 11.3 points in 22.5 minutes per game.

The 6-8 forward came off the bench for the first time in his NBA career. Hachimura returned to the starting lineup for the final 13 games and averaged 14.1 points, including 16.4 over the last eight games.

“I improved my 3s,” he said. “It was easier for me to kind of adjust and have better chemistry with the team. I’m just going to keep working on what I’ve been doing – 3-pointers, my midrange game, ballhandling.”

Several of those items are on Suggs’ checklist, too.

“The beginning of the year things were coming at me so fast and days really started to tie into each other,” he said. “I’m a firm believer you have to be in an uncomfortable state and be comfortable in that. Once you become comfortable in that state, that’s when you make growth and improvement.

“That’s what I had to go through this year. It’s not always going to be rainbows and sunshine.”