Drew Timme ended last season with an unnecessary apology. And he started this one with a surprise announcement.
With those two acts, Timme may have redefined the concept of being a Zag.
Is he the best-ever Gonzaga player? He’s certainly in the pantheon. Given the number of previous All-Americans and national award winners, there are others to consider. Although he could put the issue to rest with another massive season.
I would argue that he already stands, uniquely, as a Zag for all eras. If we accept “Zag” as a collective noun, combining those contributing to or supporting the Gonzaga basketball phenomenon, we may choose to consider Timme the quintessence of Zag.
Why? Timme is an amalgam, carrying the ultra-competitive DNA of Zag Founding Fathers while also playing at the level of the elite alums now sprinkled across NBA rosters.
A recognizable character and national icon of performative facial-hair maintenance, Timme plays with consistent excellence and contagious joy. He takes the game seriously, but not himself.
The junior forward showed it all on the national stage last spring, averaging 27 points and 11 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament, altering games with scoring spurts and lane dominance against high-level opponents.
He personally commandeered tough first weekend contests against Georgia State and Memphis, and put up 25 points in the loss to Arkansas in the Sweet 16, an obvious disappointment for the No. 1 seeded Zags. Asked what he had said to his teammates in the locker room, he took time to catch his breath.
“I just said that I was – sorry.”
He bore no culpability, but he shared the pain as a team leader does. Much had been invested and much had been expected. Losing to Arkansas was not in the plan.
His post-game message sounded like a valedictory, a sad but inevitable farewell. He next would be drafted into the NBA because that’s what draft-worthy players do.
Not Timme. He had nothing to prove by returning to GU, but he did anyway. “I’m back,” he announced laconically, electronically.
With his Name, Image, Likeness contracts in hand, the lure of the NBA was not as fiscally compelling as in past years. He could make a load of money either way. He explained: “I really enjoy being a college kid.”
No kidding, who doesn’t? What can make being a college kid even more enjoyable? Being a college basketball star with a lot of money.
His return makes college basketball better. Timme and Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, who will square off Nov. 20 in Spokane in an early must-watch matchup, were both unanimous preseason All-Americans. The meeting will be classic.
Just a theory here, but part of Timme’s fan appeal in Spokane may be that he’s such a stylistic descendant of the old-time Zags from back before the NCAAs became an annual expectation. Maybe a root of how Gonzaga basketball got to this point could be traced back to the way those early players made Zag hoops different and special.
That series of underdog Zags passed down serious attitude, believing that every possession be conducted as a vendetta, and each loss an insult to their bloodline. John Stockton’s NBA fame after graduation helped spur GU’s early recognition, of course.
But vintage fans will recall so many others contributing to the rise, some perhaps detecting bits of the McPhees and Matt Santangelo and Blake Stepp in the aggressive play of recent star Jalen Suggs.
And maybe Timme’s dominance in the post blends and amplifies the best Casey Calvary ferocity, Jeff Brown intelligence and Cory Violette creativity.
Maybe it’s working too hard to add hints of nostalgia to the modern business that is college basketball at Gonzaga.
But I guarantee coach Mark Few reveres the contributions of those guys from when he first got to Gonzaga as an unknown assistant, when effort and grit were mandated but ego deemed unacceptable.
Few shops for the highest talent across the country these days, but if he sees a spark of the old Zag determination in some prospects, you know he’s going to recognize it.
Timme certainly has a strong streak of it.
Example: Few and the Zags were sweating out a potentially disastrous upset in their NCAA opener against 16th seeded Georgia State last March. But Timme went full-Timme, scoring 22 points in the second half with a low-block master class of moves.
When Timme came off the court, a relieved Few approached him and poked his finger at his chest a few times, which had to mean, “I appreciate what you did there for us, big man.” And Timme, because he is Timme, and this was a chance to mess with his coach and entertain his teammates at the same time, patted Few on the head.
It was poignant and comical and perfect.
And it adhered to a basketball truism: Zag recognize Zag.
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