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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga rewind: Fresh off UCLA takeover, Anton Watson’s impact felt in other ways against Cal State Bakersfield

Anton Watson’s days of being a glue guy at Gonzaga didn’t necessarily end after a 32-point takeover against UCLA last week at the Maui Invitational.

Watson may have a better idea of what his offensive ceiling looks like now, but the fifth-year senior has enough experience – 122 appearances and counting – to know the rhythm, flow and structure of a game usually dictate what he needs to do to give the Zags the best chance to win.

Nov. 22, against UCLA, it meant putting up 15 shots, getting to the free-throw line and carrying the offense in a game in which the rest of his teammates combined to make just 23% of their field-goal attempts.

Six days later against Cal State Bakersfield, the Bulldogs didn’t need an assertive Watson on offense, but he may have still been Gonzaga’s most impactful player, posting an 11-point, 13-rebound double-double to help the Bulldogs win 81-65 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

“He’s huge for us. He’s the guy that gets us going for everything,” Gonzaga point guard Ryan Nembhard said of Watson. “If we can’t score the ball, he’s our biggest guy on defense. He just does everything for us. He’s a glue guy, but he started scoring the ball too, so he’s been amazing for us and is going to continue to be amazing for us because he’s just a vet and he knows how to play basketball.

“He knows this program and he just knows how to win games.”

Watson again takes center stage in our day-after rewind, but we also take a look at Gonzaga’s offensive balance in a game in which six players reached double digits and touch on the steady production of freshman guard Dusty Stromer.

All-around Anton

Watson’s outburst last week against UCLA was somewhat of a revelation for a player who’d tallied 20 points just one other time in his career against a Division I opponent.

That’s hardly the case when it comes to Watson’s rebounding, though.

“We’ve been after him to do that his whole career,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “He started his career I think as a freshman against Michigan State in a closed-door scrimmage, I think he had 15 (rebounds) and they had a huge front line back then. So we’ve been kind of on him ever since then to tap into that and it’s been hit or miss, so it’s certainly something he can do.

“Again, because he just has such good feel and he moves to the ball really well and instinctually very good.”

Reports from the scrimmage, a 103-87 Gonzaga win in Denver, confirm Few’s account of what happened. A 19-year-old Watson finished with 15 rebounds, outperforming the Big Ten’s second-leading rebounder that same year, Michigan State senior and current Memphis Grizzly Xavier Tillman, who finished with 10 boards in the scrimmage.

Watson’s activity level on the glass has taken a clear step this season, with the senior averaging a career-high 8.8 rebounds through the first six games. Watson matched his career high (13 rebounds) in two of the past three games, against Syracuse and Cal State Bakersfield, and had 12 in the season opener against Yale.

Coming off a 32-point outing, it took Watson almost all of 40 minutes to reach double figures on Tuesday – he got there on a short jumper with 21 seconds remaining – but he still finished a team-high plus-26.

“He was great, I told him afterward,” Mark Few said. “The way he competes and he’s just a winner. People will pick up this score tomorrow and, ‘Oh yeah, yeah,’ but he made a lot of winning plays when the game was still in the balance. … You’ve got to buckle down and play with heart. That’s what he does.”

Balancing the scales

Gonzaga’s offense predictably ran through All-American forward Drew Timme each of the past two seasons. In 2021-22, Timme was the Bulldogs’ leading scorer in 14 of 32 games – or 43% of the time.

Timme’s usage reached another level last season when the forward led the Zags in scoring in 24 of 37 (65%) games.

Five players led the team in scoring at least once last season, but it took 23 games to make it happen, with Watson becoming the fifth in a Feb. 2 game against Santa Clara.

Meanwhile, the 2023-24 Zags managed to reach that same milestone with three days left in November.

Nembhard had 22 points against Cal State Bakersfield, making him Gonzaga’s fifth different leading scorer in just six games. Graham Ike is the only Zag to lead the team in that department on multiple occasions (Eastern Oregon and Purdue), but Braden Huff (Yale), Nolan Hickman (Syracuse) and Watson (UCLA) have all done it once.

“I think that’s how our teams have always played,” Few said. “Obviously, we had Drew last year, but yeah, I think you look around and it’s a pretty even, balanced team.”

Gonzaga’s 2017-18 team was the last to have five different leading scorers in the first six games of the season, with Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell Jr., Killian Tillie, Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke all sharing offensive duties for a group that lost to Florida State in the Sweet 16.

Despite Timme’s production in 2021-22, that group was fairly balanced as well and had five leading scorers within the first eight games: Timme, Andrew Nembhard, Chet Holmgren, Julian Strawther and Rasir Bolton.

Stromer settles in

Stromer’s first shot attempt was a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from the right elbow. The freshman didn’t hesitate after receiving a kick-out pass from Nembhard, releasing a shot that fell right through the net to give the Zags a 9-2 lead.

Less than 2 minutes later, Stromer got his defender – CSUB’s Kaleb Higgins – to bite on a pump fake from the left elbow and drove to the rim for a right-handed scoop shot. A few more minutes passed before the ball found Stromer again, this time for a 3 from the left corner.

The freshman from Sherman Oaks, California, is gaining confidence and getting a better feel for the speed of college basketball with every game that goes by.

He now has a single-game high to shoot for after scoring 10 points, all in the first half Tuesday against CSUB, and continues to give Gonzaga a steady presence on both ends of the floor after being pressed into a starting role when Steele Venters suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

“Obviously, the more games I play, the more settled in I get,” Stromer said. “The offense, everything I’m doing out there. But no, game by game my confidence gets better and better.”

Stromer’s averaging 5.7 points and 4.7 rebounds and the Zags have relied on him to play at least 30 minutes in three of six games.

The freshman never subbed out against UCLA, giving the Bulldogs solid defense and rebounding (eight boards) in a game in which he struggled from the field (0 of 5).