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Gonzaga Basketball

New Gonzaga transfer Steele Venters said committing to Bulldogs ‘felt like a no-brainer’

For about 48 to 72 hours, Steele Venters struggled to get away from his cellphone.

The Eastern Washington standout wasn’t sure what to make of it. The persistent buzzing. The sudden attention. The train of high-major coaches forming a line to speak with someone who, four years earlier, accepted a preferred walk-on just to get his foot in the door as a Division I basketball player.

“Probably the first two to three days,” Venters said, “I couldn’t put my phone down type of thing, which is crazy.”

Venters hadn’t been in NCAA’s transfer portal long – “5-10 minutes,” he estimated – when the first of a few dozen calls came in.

Gonzaga assistant Stephen Gentry was alerted Venters had submitted his name to the portal and immediately dialed up the Big Sky Player of the Year, beating 25-30 other Division I coaches who’d eventually make contact with him.

Over the next handful of days, Venters spoke with high-major college programs across the country – from Washington to Florida and USC to Creighton – but none of them was able to build a sales pitch that could stack up with Gonzaga’s.

“We had a good conversation and we kind of just created a relationship and kind of just hit it off the bat right from the start and they called my parents,” Venters told The Spokesman-Review earlier this week. “I don’t know, it just seemed like a very natural relationship was forming.”

Gonzaga, of course, had the built-in advantage of proximity, both to Venters’ current residence in Cheney and hometown of Ellensburg. It didn’t hurt the Bulldogs were in the market for a score-first wing with Julian Strawther likely bound for the NBA as a projected first- or second-round draft pick.

“I had a feeling they were going to call at least, but I think it just showed their interest in me was really high, just because they were my first call and they’re the top program in the nation,” Venters said. “Always growing up, coming from Washington and a small town in Ellensburg, you always want to play at Gonzaga. That’s the main team we watch growing up, watching basketball or college basketball.

“It just kind of felt like a no-brainer, I move 20 minutes down the road, all my family and friends can still come watch me at one of the best college basketball settings in the nation.”

Venters officially committed to Gonzaga last Friday, giving head coach Mark Few an experienced reinforcement at the shooting guard/wing position. The 6-foot-7 guard is also testing NBA draft waters, but Venters is expected to return to college with two years of eligibility remaining.

Eastern Washington guard Steele Venters shoots against North Dakota State guard Jacari White on Dec. 3 in Cheney.  (By James Snook / For The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington guard Steele Venters shoots against North Dakota State guard Jacari White on Dec. 3 in Cheney. (By James Snook / For The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

The Bulldogs will make a few other moves this offseason to fill out the 2023-24 roster, but Venters has a chance to start immediately for GU, which could be losing up to six players from its core eight-man rotation, along with two other reserves who recently entered the transfer portal.

Gonzaga coaches have sold Venters on taking over Strawther’s role as a catch-and-shoot perimeter player who’ll also have the opportunity to create his own offense and handle the ball in pick-and-roll situations.

“They like to play fast, they like to get up and down, they shoot a lot of 3s and they’re a very offensive-minded program,” Venters said. “I think that just matched my game super well and I think the role of what Strawther played, I think I can come in there and make a big impact just like he did. The coaches have a lot of trust in me.”

Venters, who averaged 16.7 points in 2021-22 and 15.3 points in 2022-23, has the ability to be a high-volume scorer at Gonzaga – similar to Strawther – and was one of the top perimeter shooters in the transfer portal, making 43.4% on 3s in 2021-22 and 37.3% in 2022-23.

In three seasons at EWU, Venters made 176 of 437 (40.3%) on 3-pointers. By comparison, Strawther was a career 38.4% 3-point shooter in three years at Gonzaga.

“I’m sure I’ll play the 2, 3ish most of the time,” Venters said. “I think we’ve seen with Gonzaga they’re pretty interchangeable throughout their guards, whether it’s the 1 bringing it up or the 3 bringing it up. It’ll all just kind of be interchangeable, I think.”

Over the next two months, Venters will split time between Cheney, Ellensburg and Los Angeles, where he’ll go through predraft training with his agency, the Wasserman Media Group. The marketing company’s client list also includes Strawther and NBA Zags such as Jalen Suggs, Rui Hachimura and Domantas Sabonis.

Venters said he’ll stress improving on the defensive end this offseason – something GU’s coaching staff has also encouraged him to do.

“I need to get better on the defensive end and show that I can defend guys at the highest level,” he said. “Then just coming off more ball screens, I think. Being a better ball-handler, being able to score with the ball as opposed to off the ball. Obviously, I think I’m pretty good at scoring off the ball, but they want to expand my game in the pick and roll and just being able to trust me with the ball in big-time moments.”

Growing up less than a 3-hour drive from Spokane, Venters monitored Gonzaga’s program through his childhood, naming Kyle Wiltjer and Corey Kispert as two of the former Bulldogs he admired. Venters has worked out with Kispert at John Stockton’s Warehouse gym a few blocks away from the GU campus.

“A lot of people have already compared me to him, but I watched a lot of Corey’s game,” Venters said. “That was always the person I looked up to and kind of modeled my game after.”

Venters has connected with a few future Gonzaga teammates, speaking extensively with forward Ben Gregg during his unofficial visit on April 6.

“That was really good, just to kind of pick his brain and just tell him we want to come and win a national championship,” Venters said.

The 21-year-old was accompanied by his mother Erin and father Wade, an ex-Central Washington basketball player, on his Gonzaga visit and said both parents were overwhelmed with emotion when Venters gave his commitment.

“So that was a cool moment to share with them and they started tearing up when I committed,” he said. “… Seeing what I’ve become from where I started.”

Venters didn’t obtain a star rating from recruiting service 247Sports.com coming out of 2A Ellensburg High.

He played in 17 games off the bench as a redshirt freshman and didn’t earn a scholarship at EWU until the 2021-22 season, blossoming into an all-conference talent over the past two seasons under coach David Riley.

“I think it just goes to show what hard work can do,” Venters said. “I know it’s cliché, but I came in as a redshirt preferred walk-on and now I’m going to go be a huge part of Gonzaga basketball. For me, it’s just showing my hard work has paid off and you get out of it what you put into it.”