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Gonzaga Basketball

Breaking down the situation for 13 former Gonzaga and Washington State players as the NBA season gets underway

Rui Hachimura of the Los Angeles Lakers prepares to shoot in front of Kelly Olynyk of the Utah Jazz during a 128-117 Lakers win at Crypto.com Arena on April 09, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.  (Getty Images)

It’s not a certainty that there will be a former Gonzaga basketball player on the court when you flip on the NBA on these days, but it won’t take too much channel surfing in 2023-24 to find one of the 11 ex-Bulldogs who’ll be on an active roster when the regular season starts up Tuesday.

There are plenty of Zags-related storylines to follow this NBA season.

Will Chet Holmgren challenge Victor Wembanyama for NBA Rookie of the Year honors?

Can Rui Hachimura help LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers compete for an NBA title?

How do Domantas Sabonis and the Sacramento Kings improve after a historic 2022-23 season?

And it’s more than likely a handful of others will prop up over the course of 82 games.

When we did this exercise last season, nine Gonzaga players were on active NBA rosters. That number is now 11 after the Philadelphia 76ers signed Filip Petrusev and reigning champion Denver Nuggets selected Julian Strawther in the first round of the 2023 NBA draft.

Below we dissect and break down the situation for all 11 former Zags, along with a pair of former Washington State Cougars, as the NBA season gets underway.

Gonzaga

Julian Strawther, Denver Nuggets

Experience: Rookie (Drafted No. 2 overall by Denver in 2023)

2022-23 numbers: N/A

The situation: Relative to his peers selected in the first round of the recent draft, there shouldn’t be an overwhelming amount of pressure on Strawther to produce in his first NBA season. Through an 82-game season – and particularly for a team that anticipates making another deep playoff run – there should be ample opportunity for Strawther to see the court for the reigning champions, but it’s not widely expected that he’ll figure into the rotation Denver will use most nights and in the postseason. Coming off a summer league stint in which he averaged 18.2 points over five games while shooting 34% from the 3-poine line, Strawther still has an opportunity to be a valuable catch-and-shoot weapon off Denver’s bench. It’s easy to imagine him thriving on the perimeter in lineups with Nikola Jokic given the attention the reigning NBA MVP commands down low.

Filip Petrusev, Philadelphia 76ers

Experience: Rookie (Drafted No. 50 overall by Philadelphia in 2021)

2022-23 numbers N/A

The situation: Coming off a solid appearance at NBA Summer League and championship game run with Serbia at the recent FIBA World Cup, Petrusev shouldn’t be lacking confidence as he enters his debut season in the NBA. The European big man was stashed overseas for two seasons after being drafted in 2021 and most recently played for Crvena Zvezda in his hometown of Belgrade, Serbia, following a turbulent season with the Anadolu Efes of the Turkish Super League the year prior. Philadelphia signed Petrusev in mid-July, shortly after his third summer league stint with the organization, but it’s unclear how, or if, the 76ers plan to use him this season. Petrusev could theoretically play the power forward, but at his natural position, center, the 23-year-old is likely fourth in Philadelphia’s rotation behind reigning NBA MVP Joel Embiid, Paul Reed and Mo Bamba. Nonetheless, Petrusev fulfilled a dream of making an NBA roster and after waiting two years, will have an opportunity to work for a role with the Sixers.

Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City Thunder

Experience: Rookie (Drafted No. 2 overall by Oklahoma City in 2022)

2022-23 numbers: N/A

The situation: Oklahoma City was one game from a postseason berth in 2022-23, upending New Orleans in one play-in game before dropping its second to Minnesota. Now the Thunder get to add Holmgren’s 7-foot-1 frame, shot-blocking instincts and general versatility on offense to a promising young core that also features All-Star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, All-Rookie selection Jalen Williams and former sixth overall pick Josh Giddey. Provided he stays healthy after recovering from a Lisfranc injury that delayed his rookie season, Holmgren should be an instant-impact starter for the Thunder and a legitimate contender for NBA Rookie of the Year. If it’s a tight race between him and Spurs rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama, voters might consider the win-loss record of both players – an area in which Holmgren should have a clear advantage. There haven’t been any setbacks in Holmgren’s recovery to this point and he averaged 20.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in two games at Vegas Summer League.

Andrew Nembhard, Indiana Pacers

Experience: Second season (Drafted No. 31 overall by Indiana in 2022)

2022-23 numbers: 9.5 ppg, 4.5 apg, 2.7 rpg in 75 games

The situation: Nembhard earned a lucrative contract for a second-round pick and then demonstrated why he probably warranted being selected a round earlier, picking up NBA All-Rookie votes at the end of the season after averaging 27.7 minutes per game. With Tyrese Haliburton entrenched as Indiana’s primary point guard, Nembhard should again captain the Pacers’ second unit and make spot appearances in the starting lineup when Haliburton doesn’t play. Nembhard started in 63 of the 75 games he played last season, averaging an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.71 while proving on a few occasions he can be effective not only as a primary facilitator but also as a lead scorer at times. The Ontario native had four 20-plus point games, including a 31-point outburst against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco on Dec. 5.

Jalen Suggs, Orlando Magic

Experience: Third season (Drafted No. 5 overall by Orlando Magic in 2021)

2022-23 numbers: 9.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.9 apg in 53 games

The situation: In what’s been characterized as a critical year for the former Zags guard, Suggs will have to show Orlando he’s worth a long-term investment in his third NBA season. That should start with something mostly out of Suggs’ control: his health. The former five-star recruit and lottery pick has played in just 101 games over two seasons as a result of thumb, knee and ankle injuries. When he’s played, Suggs has shown he has the ability to defend at a high level in the NBA with his athletic play and active hands. Maintaining a starting role in Orlando, and potentially securing another contract with the organization, could come down to how he progresses on the offensive end of the floor. Suggs has averaged 10.8 points over two seasons (25.3 minutes per game), but his shooting numbers are still troubling even after slight improvements in 2022-23. While his field-goal percentage improved, Suggs still shot just 41% from the field and 32% from behind the arc in year two while watching his assist numbers drop.

Corey Kispert, Washington Wizards

Experience: Third season (Drafted No. 15 overall by Washington Wizards in 2021)

2022-23 numbers: 11.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.2 apg in 74 games

The situation: The good times keep rolling for Kispert, who married longtime girlfriend and former GU standout Jenn Wirth this offseason and recently received an endorsement from former NBA sharpshooter JJ Redick, who said of the ex-Bulldogs wing, “I think he is going to have a really good career. I’m excited to see him develop.” Kispert seems to be on a trajectory toward being one of the NBA’s top 3-point shooters after making 42% of his attempts last season – a stark improvement after shooting 35% as a rookie. Kispert’s been durable for Washington, playing in 151 of 164 possible games (92%) during his first two seasons and he should again be a vital piece for the Wizards, who sent All-Star shooting guard Bradley Beal to the Phoenix Suns as part of a three-team trade. Kispert’s started in more than half of the games he’s played since entering the league and will likely compete with Deni Avdija for starting small forward duties this season.

Rui Hachimura, Los Angeles Lakers

Experience: Fifth season (Drafted No. 9 overall by Washington Wizards in 2021)

2022-23 numbers: 11.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 0.9 apg in 63 games (33 with Lakers, 30 with Wizards)

The situation: The 25-year-old was at the center of Los Angeles’ rebuild midway through last season and one of the reasons the Lakers advanced to the Western Conference Finals despite sitting six games below .500 on Feb. 9. Hachimura was the team’s top scorer with 29 points in a playoff opener against Memphis and had at least 20 points in three other postseason games. The Lakers made a few notable moves in the offseason, including the addition of Christian Wood, but Hachimura seems poised to claim a starting role in Los Angeles’ accomplished frontcourt alongside perennial All-Stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. James had high praise for the fourth-year pro at the Lakers’ Media Day on Oct. 2, telling reporters, “We’ve worked out together pretty much all summer … I see a lot in him. … I call him my Daniel-san and I’m Mr. Miyagi” – a reference to the popular 1984 film, “The Karate Kid.”

Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies

Experience: Fifth season (Drafted No. 21 overall by Memphis Grizzlies in 2019)

2022-23 numbers: 10.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.3 apg in 56 games

The situation: Memphis will be missing more than All-Star guard Ja Morant (suspended) when the Grizzlies open Wednesday against New Orleans. Clarke tore his Achilles tendon last season, forcing the bouncy forward to miss a chunk of the regular season as well as the playoffs. The former Gonzaga standout had a minor “cleanup” procedure in the offseason and Grizzlies General Manager Zach Kleiman said, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “If Brandon is able to get back at some point this season, that’ll be great. But we’re not going to rush it.” Clarke’s been effective as a spark plug off Memphis’ bench each of the last four seasons – especially as a rim protector on defense – but continues to be derailed by injuries, never playing more than 64 games in a single season, including the playoffs. The estimated recovery time for an Achilles injury is eight to 12 months.

Zach Collins, San Antonio Spurs

Experience: Sixth season (Drafted No. 10 overall in 2017 by Portland Trail Blazers)

2022-23 numbers: 11.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.9 apg in 63 games

The situation: The Spurs aren’t expected to contend for a playoff berth in 2023-24, but Collins should get plenty of screen time playing alongside No. 1 draft pick and French sensation Victor Wembanyama. On most nights it’ll be the 6-foot-11 Collins starting at center alongside the 7-3 Wembanyama at power forward – a combination that allows San Antonio to stretch and space the floor with five capable 3-point shooters in the starting lineup. Collins went through a minor surgical procedure to repair a finger infection near the end of the 2022-23 season but shouldn’t have any restrictions entering his sixth NBA season. The 25-year-old appeared in more than 60 games for the third time in his career with a career-high 26 starts. He posted career-best scoring and rebounding numbers while also shooting a career-high 37.4% from the 3-point line.

Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings

Experience: Eighth season (Drafted No. 11 overall in 2016 by Oklahoma City Thunder)

2022-23 numbers: 19.1 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 7.3 apg in 79 games

The situation: In his first full season with Sacramento, Sabonis made the All-Star team for the third time in his career, had 14 triple-doubles in the regular season and led the Kings to the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06. Sabonis did most of it playing with an avulsion fracture in his right thumb, but the veteran center recently told reporters he’s healed from the injury and it won’t impact him as the Kings enter another season in which they’re expected to contend in the Western Conference. Relative to the regular season, when he made 61% of his field goals and averaged just 2.9 turnovers, Sabonis was slightly more inconsistent in the Western Conference quarterfinals against Golden State, connecting on 49% from the field while averaging 3.7 turnovers. Sacramento’s core didn’t change much this offseason and Sabonis, who often acts as a hub for the offense, should have another good opportunity to earn All-Star honors and help a young, talented group take another step in the playoffs.

Kelly Olynyk, Utah Jazz

Experience: 11th season (Drafted No. 13 overall by Boston Celtics in 2013)

2022-23 numbers: 12.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.7 apg in 68 games

The situation: There’s a strong chance Olynyk, who started in all 68 games he played last season, will concede his role after Utah acquired John Collins this offseason. Collins, Walker Kessler and Lauri Markkanen are expected to make up the Jazz frontcourt, but judging by the way Will Hardy has raved about Olynyk – Utah’s coach attended the player’s jersey ceremony at Gonzaga last season, along with CEO of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge – there’s no doubt he’ll play an integral role for the team, particularly as the oldest player on the roster. The 32-year-old’s 12.5 points per game signified the second-highest scoring average of his career and Olynyk’s 3.7 assists were a career high. Olynyk spent his summer captaining the Canadian national team at the FIBA World Cup, averaging 10.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. In the bronze medal game, he scored 11 points in 11 minutes to help Canada outlast the United States and former GU coach Mark Few, who served as an assistant under Steve Kerr.

Washington State

Mouhamed Gueye, Atlanta Hawks

Experience: Rookie (Drafted No. 39 overall by Charlotte Hornets in 2023)

2022-23 numbers: N/A

The situation: Gueye’s versatility should allow him to see the floor in some capacity as a rookie. A projected ESPN depth chart indicates the former Washington State standout will be Atlanta’s fourth option at power forward and center, and Gueye got time at both positions during Vegas Summer League, where he averaged 9.6 points and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 37% from the 3-point line. Gueye’s ability to play as a small-ball “5” makes him an intriguing NBA player, but he doesn’t have the mass or strength to guard opposing centers, let alone bigger power forwards around the league. When Gueye’s rights were traded to the Hawks on draft night, it’s unlikely Atlanta’s front office viewed the 20-year-old as someone who’d immediately help a playoff-contending team in the Eastern Conference. Gueye has an extremely high ceiling, but it might take anywhere from three to five years to reach it.

Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

Experience: 13th season (Drafted No. 11 overall by Golden State Warriors in 2011)

2022-23 numbers: 21.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.4 apg in 69 games

The situation: The 2022-23 season was a critical one for Thompson, who managed to play 82 regular-season and playoff games in his first full season since coming off consecutive ACL and Achilles injuries. The 2023-24 season may be just as important for the four-time NBA champion, who’s entering the final year of his contract and will be seeking a long-term extension. Thompson performed about as well as anyone could’ve hoped, making 41% of his 3-point shots while averaging more than 4.0 rebounds for the first time in his career. Due to age and injuries, Thompson has predictably regressed as a defender and isn’t expected to be the elite two-way player he was when Golden State made five straight NBA Finals appearances from 2015-19, but he’s still one of the league’s premier perimeter shooters and should continue to get quality shots playing alongside two of the game’s top point guards, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul, in his 13th season. Golden State coach Steve Kerr revealed an interesting wrinkle regarding the team’s defensive plans during media day, telling reporters Thompson would mostly guard opposing power forwards this season. How the 33-year-old handles that assignment should be one of the top Warriors storylines during the 2023-23 season.