Who made the biggest offseason jump? Varied answers reflect Gonzaga’s depth
Oct. 19, 2022 Updated Wed., Oct. 19, 2022 at 8:29 p.m.
Gonzaga guards Nolan Hickman (left) and Hunter Sallis get pumped before the semifinals of the WCC Tournament last March in Las Vegas. (TYLER TJOMSLAND/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The question to three Gonzaga players and coach Mark Few recently at West Coast Conference media day: Which player made the biggest offseason jump?
The answer: Depends on who you ask. Four players were named, including a probable starting point guard, a starting wing, a reserve big and a possible starting guard/wing.
There were no wrong answers, just different responses that underscored the Zags’ depth.
“I’d probably say Hunter (Sallis),” junior wing Julian Strawther said. “Just improvement in all aspects. Obviously, he showed flashes as an elite defender, like a defender that could win defensive player of the year in the conference.
“You have that and he’s been adding a jump shot. He’s been in the gym working relentlessly, so I’m really happy to see him grow and I’m really excited to see what he can do this season.”
Sallis, a five-star recruit from Omaha, Nebraska, made an impression in his freshman season with his defensive work, in transition and on the glass – he ranked fifth in offensive rebounds despite being eighth in playing time. His sharp cuts to the basket were reminiscent of former Zags standout Joel Ayayi.
Sallis should see a bump in his playing time from a year ago (13.6 minutes per game) as he competes for a bigger role and possibly a starting spot in Gonzaga’s stacked backcourt. He made 63.4% of his attempts inside the arc but just 5 of 19 on 3-pointers.
Senior guard Rasir Bolton pointed out Ben Gregg’s offseason development.
“Just kind of watching him get more comfortable, get his confidence up and just kind of do what he’s already capable of doing, showcasing his abilities and playing hard and rebounding,” Bolton said. “I’m excited to see him out there this year.”
The 6-foot-10, 225-pound Gregg has actually had two freshmen seasons. He was in GU’s 2021 recruiting class with Sallis, Chet Holmgren, Nolan Hickman and Kaden Perry, but he graduated early from high school and joined the Zags in December 2020, when the pandemic pushed the prep season in Oregon back to May.
Gregg made his debut in GU’s ninth game of the season. He played 56 minutes in 18 games.
He returned last season as a freshman again with the NCAA granting winter sports athletes an additional year of eligibility due to COVID. He played in just 17 games but essentially doubled his minutes (108).
Gregg shined in the Kraziness in the Kennel scrimmage with eight points, including the deciding basket, but earning additional minutes will be a challenge in a frontcourt anchored by seniors Drew Timme and Anton Watson and the addition of LSU transfer Efton Reid III.
Strawther was Timme’s choice for the biggest offseason improvement.
“I would say just the leadership he’s shown and just the confidence he plays with,” Timme said of the 6-7 junior wing. “Last year, you could see it sometimes where he’d get down on himself, just like anyone normally would, but I think his sort of confidence and just mannerisms he carries himself (with), it’s something not easy to have.
“I think he’s doing a great job of being a leader for this team. We don’t have the luxury of him not doing that. He kind of got forced into that role, but he’s also embracing and taking it on. I think that’s the biggest growth I’ve seen from him and that’s something we really need on this team.”
Strawther was a reserve as a freshman, but he averaged 11.8 points, tied with Andrew Nembhard for third on the team, and 5.4 rebounds in a starting role last season. Strawther’s numbers figure to climb higher this season as perhaps the second scoring option behind Timme.
Coach Mark Few was next and he acknowledged that he liked what he heard from Strawther, Bolton and Timme.
“It’s interesting, those were all great points by everybody,” Few said. “I agree with them. I was thinking Nolan would be what everybody would say. I think Nolan has had a really good fall so far, really stepped it up, much more assertive and much more at ease with how his game fits in with everybody’s. So not only scoring it but dispersing it. I guess that’s good when we name four different players.”
“Yeah, I was going to say that,” Strawther added. “The fact that we named four different people shows how deep this roster is.”
Hickman appears ready to graduate from Nembhard’s understudy a year ago to starting point guard, but Few has indicated ballhandling options also include Bolton and Chattanooga transfer Malachi Smith.
The 6-2 Hickman contributed 5.1 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 17.5 minutes last season. He hit all three of his 3-point attempts and scored 11 points in the Kraziness scrimmage.
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