Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now
Gonzaga Basketball

Formula for success: As the transfer portal and NIL disrupt rosters across the nation, Gonzaga adapts by trying to develop chemistry on the fly

Gonzaga's most experienced player, Anton Watson, is taking the lead in his fifth year and making sure the Zags build chemistry amongst their newcomers.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

Gonzaga coach Mark Few remembers what it used to be like to construct a roster every year.

It wasn’t that long ago that a whiteboard on the office wall featured the names of current players and their year in school. Another column contained a list of Gonzaga’s recruiting targets.

The Bulldogs generally were led by experienced upperclassmen and players rarely left for other schools. They replenished the roster with freshmen-heavy recruiting classes and an occasional transfer. One-and-dones weren’t even a consideration and players leaving early for the NBA draft were infrequent (Adam Morrison in 2006, Austin Daye in 2009 and Kelly Olynyk in 2013).

Along came the transfer portal’s wide-open turnstiles and name, image and likeness (NIL) and Few has important variables to consider facing significant roster turnover most offseasons.

“It’s so much different than it used to be,” Few reminisced at WCC Media Day earlier this month. “It used to be you’d have a freshman and he’d played behind somebody and you’d develop them. We used to even have up on all our boards the freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors. We don’t bother with that at all.

“When you get to our level, you’re hoping you move these guys on. It’s their dream to play in the NBA. You’re doing everything you can to get them to that spot. You’re hoping and praying you have a great season and have a great time while they’re at your place. We haven’t really been hurt by the transfer thing that much yet, but you have to then certainly add players through transfers, which has always been a great thing for us. It has really worked out well for us. It’s one of those things you just adapt to.”

Consider Few and company extremely adaptable. Gonzaga was accomplished at roster construction a decade or two ago and maybe even better in present-day college hoops.

Player development remains a program cornerstone, but developing chemistry quickly and blending newcomers – eight of the 11 scholarship players haven’t scored a basket in a GU uniform – with a small group of returners is equally as important.

And there’s not much time left to do it before big games arrive on another loaded nonconference schedule. No. 11 Gonzaga faces defending Ivy League co-champion Yale on Nov. 10 in the season opener. Ten days later in Honolulu, the Zags tangle with No. 3 Purdue to begin a three-games-in-three-days stretch with potential matchups against No. 9 Tennessee and No. 1 Kansas.

The Zags aren’t packed with returners, but they have a fair amount of on-court experience, courtesy of transfers Ryan Nembhard (Creighton), Graham Ike (Wyoming) and Steele Venters (Eastern Washington). The trio combined for 193 career games, including 171 starts at their previous stops. Returning starters Anton Watson and Nolan Hickman and reserve forward Ben Gregg account for 239 career games and 86 starts.

Those six players figure to be the core of Gonzaga’s rotation. There’s probably room for two or three more with Dusty Stromer, Braden Huff, Luka Krajnović, Jun Seok Yeo and Pavle Stosic in the mix for playing time.

The trick becomes meshing the old with the new – something GU has routinely managed to do with transfers making an immediate impact as starters or key role players over the last decade.

“They seem to be meshing pretty good,” Few said of his squad. “I don’t know if it’s meshing, it’s more some of the guys have to change their roles and things like that.”

The Zags got a head start on players connecting during summer school, pick-up games, individual workouts, conditioning, spending time at the lake and team retreats.

“Just spending time off the court,” Watson said. “It’s a different type of bonding when you don’t have your phone. You’re not focusing on that and you just spend time with your teammates. You build better connections and I feel like this team did that from the start.”

Watson called GU’s chemistry “crazy.” He should know since he’s been through five years of team building as a Zag. Phones weren’t banned on the retreat prior to his freshman season, but it didn’t matter because they were in areas with limited or no service.

Players were essentially phoneless for three days on their most recent retreat.

“So it wasn’t too bad, but in today’s world I feel like that’s forever,” Watson said. “The first couple days, I think I can speak for all of us, we were all reaching into our pockets (for phones). After Day 2, we were just spending time together and that’s really what it’s all about.”

Nembhard was familiar with GU’s blueprint from watching older brother Andrew’s two seasons in a Zag uniform. The older Nembhard transferred from Florida and now plays in the NBA for the Indiana Pacers.

Ryan spent time with Andrew in Spokane during the COVID summer before he went to Creighton for his freshman season.

“He told me a lot about the program, the coaching staff, but I feel like the best thing he did for me is kind of make it my own journey, my own path, and he wanted me to make my own decisions,” Ryan said. “Obviously he told me great things about the program.

“Just the trust he had from the coaching staff and freedom they let him play with … the main thing was just the culture we have and the culture Gonzaga has was the biggest thing he told me. It’s been a pretty easy adjustment. All the guys are kind of bought in, chemistry has been good over summer. We have a great coaching staff.”

Asked if it helps being a high-level player – Nembhard was a two-year starter at Creighton and the 2022 Big East Freshman of the Year – the projected starting point guard pointed to other factors.

“It’s just easy when you have a bunch of great guys with great character that are just good people on and off the court,” he said.

Stromer and Venters are competing for time at wing. Stromer, from Sherman Oaks, California, was ranked No. 47 nationally by 247sports in the 2023 class. Venters was an under-the-radar recruit at Ellensburg High, walked on at EWU and developed into the 2023 Big Sky Conference MVP as a redshirt junior.

Their backgrounds and experience levels are different, but they said similar things about their first few months at Gonzaga.

“The pace of play is much different (than high school),” Stromer said. “Way faster, especially here at Gonzaga we play fast. And college, just moving away from the fam and being in a new city for the first time, it’s definitely an adjustment, but these guys took me in right away and it’s been great. Loving (Spokane), loving the change of pace.”

Added Venters: “Being with the guys has been so fun over the summer, just nothing like where I came from.”

Gonzaga’s roster picture last season was almost the reverse of this year’s team. Three starters returned, led by Drew Timme, and nine had GU game experience. The newcomers were transfers Malachi Smith and Efton Reid, both starters at their previous schools, and Huff.

The coaching staff faced several hurdles formulating the current Zags. Forward Alex Toohey decommitted in late June, forward Kaden Perry stepped away from basketball in August due to persistent back issues and Marcus Adams Jr. left GU in late August, roughly a month after committing.

Gonzaga made late additions with Krajnović (Aug. 12) and Stosic (Sept. 25, nearly a month after classes started). Krajnović scored 11 points and showed playmaking ability while Stosic contributed seven points and five rebounds at the Kraziness in Kennel scrimmage in early October.

They weren’t around for summer drills, but seem to be adjusting to Gonzaga’s system.

“All of them will figure into the rotation,” Few said. “Outside of Watson and Nembhard and Nolan (Hickman) and maybe a couple others, we’re going to see a lot of bodies going in and out.”

Watson has seen a lot of players come and go during his career. The graduate student now handles multiple roles as a starter and leader.

“Just using my experience,” he said. “I’ve been here five years, I know how practice is going to go, I know what we’re going to do before games, so just helping (younger teammates) through that.

“We have a lot of new guys. Being able to be there for all of them, just show that experience while helping them, I think that’s my job.”