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Gonzaga Basketball

More meaningful moments: Months after Sweet 16 thriller, Gonzaga’s Julian Strawther returns home for Summer League debut

LAS VEGAS – Julian Strawther’s family didn’t have to drive far for his final game as a college basketball player.

It may have been an even shorter trip to watch Strawther make his debut in a Denver Nuggets uniform.

The early stages of Strawther’s professional career have brought him back to a familiar area code with the Nuggets playing five games over 11 days at the NBA’s 2023 Summer League event, held in Las Vegas at the Thomas & Mack Center and COX Pavilion.

“He always seems to make it home for meaningful moments,” Strawther’s father, Lee, said.

Meaningful moments including three West Coast Conference Tournament championships at Orleans Arena, marquee college matchups against UCLA and Duke at T-Mobile Arena and, of course, a suspenseful Sweet 16 game against the Bruins this March, when Strawther knocked down a trailer 3-pointer with seven seconds remaining to help Gonzaga punch a ticket to the Elite Eight.

Thirteen miles from Liberty High, where he became one of Nevada’s most heralded recruits from 2018-20 picking up offers from Gonzaga, Kansas, Arizona and more than a dozen others, Strawther was introduced as a Summer League starter at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center – another Vegas address with nostalgic importance to Strawther’s family.

Strawther’s sister, Paris, played home games there as a member of the UNLV women from 2015-19. All three of his immediate family members attended Denver’s Summer League opener on Friday, against Milwaukee and former Gonzaga teammate Drew Timme, and a handful of Strawther’s extended family members and friends occupied seats at the 19,500-seat venue.

“It’s definitely surreal,” sister Paige Strawther said. “Even them calling out his name, we got a little teary-eyed. He’s been thinking about this moment, and so have we, for so long. For this moment to be here, it’s just crazy.”

Strawther’s ties to the city didn’t seem to be lost on the Vegas crowd. The 29th-overall draft pick got a hometown ovation when his name was announced on the public address system before tipoff.

“We obviously love being at home, being able to be here and come and support him,” Paige said. “We feel blessed it always ends up in Vegas somehow.”

A group of family and friends attended Strawther’s draft party on June 22, at the Red Rock Resort and Casino in Vegas. Festivities from a luxury suite began as soon the Nuggets made their pick, at approximately 8:15 p.m. Most mock drafts suggested Strawther would have to wait deeper into the evening to begin those celebrations, pegging the All-WCC First Team wing as a mid second-round selection.

“Unless you’re a lottery pick or top-10, you might have an idea of what’s going to happen to you but at that range where Julian was, it’s really stepping into the unknown and you’re just praying he gets his name called,” Lee said. “Hoping for the best that he gets to a spot where they’re going to coach him up and make him better.”

Strawther’s family members and friends swelled with emotion when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver uttered his name from the podium at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York,

“We say this is surreal,” Paige said, “but that was a special, special moment.”

Former Gonzaga teammate and close friend Jalen Suggs, a former fifth-overall pick of the Orlando Magic, traveled to Vegas to take part in Strawther’s draft-night festivities. Suggs and Strawther have had a relationship since they both committed to the Bulldogs as part of Mark Few’s touted 2020 recruiting class.

“I’ll tell you, I cried more than I did on my draft night,” Suggs told The Spokesman-Review after Orlando’s Summer League game in Vegas on Monday. “Really emotional, but just happy for him. For him, his family. He deserves it, he’s the best. We’ve been through a lot together, so to see him accomplish that and be able to take that next step is great.”

Strawther stopped by his family’s home in Henderson to pick up basketball shoes and other items when the Nuggets arrived in Vegas last week ahead of Denver’s Summer League opener. With only two weeks separating the draft and Summer League, Strawther’s still in the process of moving into a new apartment in Denver.

“He’s trying to get acclimated right now and it’s going to be fine,” Lee said. “Everything’s right where it’s supposed to be right now.”

By halftime of Denver’s game against Milwaukee, Strawther’s family members had already watched him knock down his first NBA 3-pointer and convert a running floater. Strawther’s new reality – a first-round NBA draft pick of the reigning world champions – still hadn’t sunk in for a few of his family members.

“I’m the one taking him to the gym most of the time and doing all that. It still has not hit me yet,” Lee said. “I still have not had that moment like wow, he made it. I’m still dealing with so much outside, just making sure he gets settled and all that. I haven’t had a moment to really take it all in. But it’s just been amazing. The rest of the families are going nuts. Maybe I feel like I still have work to do.”

The only missing face from Strawther’s draft party, and Summer League debut, was that of his late mother, Lourdes, who died from breast cancer when he was 9 years old. Lourdes’ Puerto Rican heritage is why Strawther has represented Puerto Rico on the international stage and he pays homage to his mother with a tattoo on his left arm.

“She would literally be going crazy right now,” Paige said. “She loved going to every basketball game, she was loud, so I just know she would be probably out of her sit, probably sitting on the bench somehow. She’d find a way.”

Strawther’s latest Vegas homecoming may not be his last. The NBA’s brand new in-season tournament, debuting in 2023-24, will feature semifinal and championship games at T-Mobile Arena. Sports betting website BetOnline.com has given Denver the second-best odds of winning the in-season tournament, at +450.

“I’m glad he’s here for this and hopefully during that midseason NBA tournament, the games will be played here,” Lee said, “so hopefully they’ll be one of those four teams.”