Transition game: Former Gonzaga great Przemek Karnowski shifts from player to coach after reuniting with Tommy Lloyd at Arizona
Feb. 7, 2023 Updated Tue., Feb. 7, 2023 at 6:56 p.m.
Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski signs autographs at a homecoming rally after the Zags came up short against North Carolina in the 2017 national championship game. (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
Przemek Karnowski has been on the sidelines way more than he’d planned on since helping Gonzaga reach the 2017 national championship game.
His pro career became a constant cycle of injuries and lengthy rehabilitation around short stints of the court – the last a nine-game stretch nearly a year ago for Twarde Pierniki in his native Poland.
When it became clear he wasn’t going to be ready this season while healing from another surgery, Karnowski started plotting a return to the sidelines. On his terms, this time.
Karnowski had stayed in contact with Tommy Lloyd, the former Gonzaga assistant who recruited the big man to Spokane and is in his second year as Arizona’s head coach.
Those conversations led to a new opportunity: grad assistant coach with the Wildcats.
“We started talking about it after summer,” Karnowski said. “I didn’t know what to expect because I’ve had a bunch of injuries over the last four, five years. When I saw which way I was going with rehab and I wasn’t even feeling 80% of myself and you’re trying to come back for the third or fourth time, I reached out to Tommy and talked it through with him.”
The process took a while. Beyond the obvious challenges of joining a program midseason, there were delays with his visa paperwork, which meant delays with booking a flight for the near 6,000-mile trip. Karnowski, with an assist from former Zags teammate Rem Bakamus, Arizona’s director of player development, enrolled in three courses in Arizona’s Master of Business Administration program, lined up a new phone and set up a bank account.
Karnowski also had to find a home for his dog, Koda. That was one of the easiest tasks, thanks to his parents.
“I got the dog when I was playing in Poland and didn’t even tell my parents,” Karnowski said. “I got her from an animal shelter. She was really young and someone had left her on the street. Now she’s part of the family. My dad didn’t like dogs because when he was younger a dog bit him. Now he loves my dog.”
Karnowski misses Koda, but he’s excited about his new job. He hasn’t closed the door on pro basketball when he’s fully healthy, but his focus is learning the ropes of coaching.
The 7-foot-1 Karnowski’s background as a deft passer and defensive force on the low block should assist the transition from player to coach.
“Whatever they need me to do, most of the time it’s the big guys and individual work with them,” the affable Karnowski said. “I try to give our bigs any tips I can see. Playing in this offense before, I know sometimes what Tommy expects you to do or wants you to do.”
Fourth-ranked Arizona (21-3) has one of the best frontcourts in the country. Azuolas Tubelis leads the Pac-12 in scoring (20.8) and rebounding (9.5). Former Zags center Oumar Ballo, yet another international recruit brought to GU by Lloyd, is eighth in scoring at 15.0 points and second in boards (9.0) in his second season as a Wildcat.
“I watched some (Arizona) games when I was in Poland. My expectations were high for (Ballo) and he’s exceeding those expectations,” Karnowski said. “I’m really proud of him for going from his role at Gonzaga to here at UA.”
Arizona’s system under Lloyd has similarities to Gonzaga’s. The Wildcats are No. 8 nationally at 83.3 points per game.
“The basics are very similar,” Karnowski said, “but obviously you change a lot of stuff preparing for different opponents and different players. It took me some time to adjust when I first came to Gonzaga, so it’ll be helpful for me.”
Back issues at Gonzaga
Karnowski became a fan favorite during three healthy seasons at Gonzaga, but his senior season was derailed by a back injury. It was diagnosed as a slipped disc and he tried all types of treatment.
He played in five games, but the pain worsened to the point that simply getting out of bed some mornings was a chore. In December 2015, he went in for tests that revealed a staph infection in his back.
“That’s when they said go straight to the hospital,” Karnowski said.
Surgeons removed the disc, fused L-5 and S-1 vertebrae and put two screws and a plate in Karnowski’s back. There was no guarantee he’d resume his career, but the big man slowly made his way back for a second-chance senior season after receiving a medical redshirt.
He averaged 12.2 points and 5.8 rebounds while earning the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award as the nation’s top center. The Zags advanced to the 2017 Final Four when the injury bug made an untimely return.
Karnowski’s eye was scratched by a South Carolina defender and Nigel Williams-Goss sprained his ankle during Gonzaga’s semifinal win. Two days later, Karnowski had nine points and nine boards in the title-game loss to North Carolina. Williams-Goss, who sprained the same ankle with 90 seconds left, finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
“Obviously, I didn’t feel 100%, maybe some blurred vision,” said Karnowski, quickly adding that he wasn’t using it as an excuse for the outcome.
Painful pro journey
Karnowski played in the NBA Summer League before signing with MoraBank in Andorra. He missed nearly two months with a badly sprained ankle. He finished the season with Fuelenbrada in Spain and returned to his native Poland.
He played through some injuries only to suffer a torn Achilles tendon.
“I was doing rehab and when I was ready to come back and sign with the next team, COVID hits and everything gets canceled,” Karnowski said. “So I wasn’t playing for another six months.”
There was more rehab on his knee after playing last spring for Twarde Pierniki, which factored into his decision to join Lloyd’s staff at Arizona.
“I’d already lost two, 2½ years,” he said. “It had been a lot of pain and rehab.”
Homecoming trip to Spokane
Karnowski arrived in Tucson in mid-January and roughly a week later was on a flight with the team to Spokane.
It was mostly a business trip – Arizona swept Washington State and Washington on a two-game road swing – with a bit of a Gonzaga reunion.
He caught up with coach Mark Few, assistant coach Brian Michaelson and familiar faces in the athletic department and across the campus from his GU career (2012-17)
“It was great to hug everyone and say hi,” the 29-year-old Karnowski said. “These people helped me so much throughout my time at Gonzaga.”
Karnowski’s spirits are high entering a new chapter in his career. As an added bonus, he’s working out and his body feels better.
“It’s been awesome, but at the same time, I have to flip a switch and look at the game differently,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be good at it, but I’ll do my best to develop and learn. Obviously, I have great coaches and mentors. I’m learning from the best. I’m embracing a new role and seeing how I fit in it and how I can help the guys around me.””
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