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Gonzaga Basketball

‘We’ve got weapons’: Gonzaga’s Nolan Hickman works through offseason, ready to take next step with loaded backcourt

Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Nolan Hickman (11) reacts against the Texas Tech Red Raiders during the first half of a college basketball game on Saturday, Dec 18, 2021, at Footprint Center in Phoenix, Ariz.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Nolan Hickman knows it’s too early to rush to conclusions, but the sophomore guard has also seen enough to know the hype and excitement surrounding Gonzaga’s backcourt in 2022-23 isn’t misplaced.

“Backcourt is going to be scary. We’ve got weapons,” Hickman said on Sunday after putting a group of young hoopers through ball-handling drills at the Shoot 360 facility owned by former Gonzaga guard Dan Dickau. “I don’t want to say we’re as equal as the last team, but it’s not far off. We will compete. We’ve got a good little mixture of vets and new guys. It should be dope. I can’t wait for the season.”

Hickman and Hunter Sallis, a fellow sophomore and former five-star recruit, are expected to take on expanded roles in a backcourt that also returns veteran Rasir Bolton, a WCC Honorable Mention choice in 2021-22 who started in all 32 games, and junior wing Julian Strawther, an 11.8 point-per-game scorer who could play at the “3” or potentially as a “4” in smaller, guard-oriented lineups.

In addition to the four returners, Mark Few has two more backcourt options at his disposal this year, with Chattanooga transfer Malachi Smith, the reigning Lou Henson Award winner, and former four-star recruit Dominick Harris, who’s fully recovered from a foot injury that kept him away from the court in 2021-22.

It’s a unique luxury that could turn into head-scratching dilemma for Few’s staff, which generally uses a seven- or eight-man rotation.

“Malachi, he is very unique,” Hickman said. “He does have great leadership and vocal point about him. He’s going to be a great addition to the team.”

Hickman also provided an update on Harris, who seemed to be nearing a return to the court last March, but wasn’t cleared in time for the postseason. The Zags held their first official practice on Sept. 26 and the public’s first viewing opportunity will come this Saturday at Kraziness at the Kennel.

“He’s doing fine, he’s doing good,” Hickman said of Harris. “He’s just trying to work his way back into practice and getting his foot back in order. So, he’ll be fine.”

Many fans and analysts have already tried their hand at fitting the puzzle pieces together, but that exercise comes with a few looming questions. How many guards will Gonzaga use in the starting unit? Who’s the first option off the Bulldogs’ bench? Will someone have to sacrifice their natural position so Few can put his best players on the court?

Whether it’s as a starter or primary backup, Hickman, a longtime point guard, doesn’t expect his role to change much. He was Andrew Nembhard’s understudy as a freshman, averaging 17.2 minutes off the bench while scoring 5.1 points and dishing out 1.7 assists.

“I’m pretty much the point guard,” Hickman said. “Just try to set my team up, the best way to win. Try to set them up to get buckets, whatever it is to be successful.”

There’s a good chance Hickman competes for point guard minutes with Smith, who told The Spokesman-Review this summer he projects as a point guard at the next level and would ideally play the position in Spokane. Smith also described himself as “versatile” and someone who’d “do whatever it takes to win” if it meant playing off the ball.

Rather than return home to Seattle, Hickman elected to spend the majority of his offseason – “grind season” in his own words – close to Gonzaga’s state-of-the-art basketball facilities, explaining “I have a routine up here, gym’s right around the corner, everything is at my disposal here.”

The 6-foot-2, 185-pound guard took a measured approach to the offseason, not necessarily looking to overhaul any aspects of his game, but instead with the goal of making some minor tweaks to his shooting and ball distribution.

“The day you think your game can’t grow is the day you should stop hooping,” Hickman said. “That’s what my dad always told me. I’ve honestly been locking in on the little things like my form shooting or where I need to pass the ball.”

Hickman did spend two weekends on the west side of the state, returning home for his fourth-annual kids’ camp, organized through his nonprofit foundation “The Give Back.” More than 200 attended the one-day event, which also had appearances from two of Hickman’s more popular friends: No. 1 draft pick/Seattle native Paolo Banchero and No. 2 pick/Gonzaga teammate Chet Holmgren.

Dickau hosted Hickman for Sunday’s offensive skills clinic in north Spokane. The 90-minute clinic drew approximately 30 boys and girls ranging from third to eighth grade – one of whom came wearing a Gonzaga T-shirt bearing the sophomore’s name and number. Hickman delivered a brief speech to the group before running a ball-handling station for the first hour of Sunday’s clinic.

Gonzaga players Rasir Bolton, Anton Watson and Ben Gregg have also held clinics at Shoot 360, something that was made possible through NCAA legislation that allows college athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness. Notable Spokane natives such as Lexie Hull, now with the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, and Tyson Degenhart, a sophomore at Boise State, have also held clinics at Shoot 360.

“I just try to put myself out there for kids, ask questions and let them know I’m open to them and just to let them know I’m there for them,” Hickman said. “I try to do that everywhere I go, every area I touch. Spokane is a part of me now that I’m here at Gonzaga, so it was only right to try and be here for the kids.”

The charitable side of Hickman has been present from a young age, and as a recognizable figure representing one of the nation’s top basketball programs he’s eager to use his platform to help the next generation of players.

“I just feel like you can always grow with your knowledge and the knowledge I do receive, I want to give it back to the kids as much as possible,” Hickman said. “I feel like a lot of older guys, they like to keep the knowledge under wraps and not really let the kids know how hard it is and how difficult their journey may be. I just try to at least give them that opportunity to come speak to me whenever they need to.”