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Gonzaga Basketball

‘It’s natural for him.’ Gonzaga’s Julian Strawther gaining confidence from sensational preseason, high-profile mentors

During his three seasons at Gonzaga, Julian Strawther was constantly urged by coaches and teammates to take any open shot that came his way.

Not that he’s ever needed much convincing.

In the biggest moment of his career, Strawther confidently rose up for a 30-foot 3-pointer with 7 seconds remaining in an intense Sweet 16 matchup against UCLA earlier this year. With Gonzaga in a similar jam against BYU earlier in the season, Strawther released a deep, go-ahead 3-pointer with 9 seconds left in a dramatic victory at the Marriott Center.

The message to Strawther hasn’t changed, but now it’s coming from Michael Malone, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and a cast of players who helped the Denver Nuggets claim an NBA championship in June.

“I know his capability of scoring and I don’t want him to think we don’t want him to do that,” Murray said after a preseason game against the Chicago Bulls.

The reigning champions haven’t dimmed Strawther’s green light, and the rookie has been a revelation in the preseason, leading the Nuggets in scoring twice while averaging 17.7 points over four games. What makes those numbers even more impressive? Strawther’s averaged just 23.2 minutes per game.

The 29th overall draft pick has been a dead-eye 3-point shooter in the preseason setting, making 14 of 31 (45%) from distance after a relatively inconsistent showing at NBA Summer League in his hometown of Las Vegas, where he made 40% of his shots from the field and 34% from 3-point range.

“Just love his aggressive mindset,” Murray said. “Miss, make, turnover, whatever it is. Just staying constantly aggressive, looking for his shot and not playing at his own pace.”

Probably thanks in part to his preseason efforts, Denver’s veteran players have quickly taken a liking to the easygoing Strawther, who quickly established a relationship with Murray when many of the team’s other players were scattered across the country, taking in what was left of an abbreviated offseason.

“I’ve been able to chop it up with him and get some advice from him,” Strawther told The Spokesman-Review after a Summer League game against the Atlanta Hawks.

It’s possible Strawther was even underplaying the role Murray’s had helping the rookie through the first phases of his professional career.

“A lot,” Murray said when asked how much time he’s spent with Strawther. “I’ve seen him more than anybody.”

Strawther’s getting his lessons and learning the intricacies of the NBA from a veteran guard who’s averaged 26.1 points, 7.1 assists and 5.7 rebounds in his postseason career and was the second-most valuable player for a Nuggets team that went 16-4 in the 2023 playoffs.

Not a bad choice for your first NBA mentor.

“Just trying to make him pick his shots – when to pump fake, when to shoot,” Murray said. “Just trying to give him the inside scoop of how these guys are trying to guard him, what the scouting report is and how he can adjust his game. I’m just trying to keep him thinking and let him play free.”

Can Strawther expect the tutoring to continue once regular-season games start?

“Oh yeah, it’s only been the third preseason game,” Murray said. “I’m not done talking to him.”

Strawther may not have NBA experience, but he doesn’t lack support from people who’ve been in the same position he’s in now as a first-year pro.

One of his closest friends is Jalen Suggs, who came to Gonzaga as part of the same 2020 recruiting class as Strawther before declaring for the NBA after his freshman season and being selected by the Orlando Magic with the fifth overall pick of the 2021 Draft.

Based on his own experiences through two professional seasons, Suggs anticipates his good friend and former college teammate finding quick success in the NBA, especially considering his range of offensive tools.

“He can really put it on the floor and score well,” Suggs told The S-R during Summer League. “Especially in the paint, he has really good touch on his floater, he’s really athletic. He’s just going to be one of those guys that’s a great person, a person that you want on your basketball team.”

Suggs and Strawther have already spent time visualizing their first experience on an NBA court as opponents. That’ll come Nov. 22 when Strawther and the Nuggets pay Suggs and the Magic a visit in Florida.

“We’ve joked around about it a little bit,” Suggs said. “He’s going to cook me, I’m going to cook him. But it’s going to be a dope moment. Definitely get a jersey swap after but just to share the court with him again, it’s going to be dope.”

Making an impact in his first NBA season – likely off Denver’s bench – will probably require more than soft shooting touch. Strawther’s conscious of that, which is why he’s put extra time into improving on the defensive end – a perceived knock on the 6-foot-7 wing coming out of the draft.

“Obviously as a young guy, that’s what’s going to get you on the court,” Strawther said. “Coach Malone really preaches defense and he’s a defensive-minded coach so obviously just speeding things up on that end of the floor. Obviously I’m known as an offensive guy so hopefully offense takes care of itself and I just continue to grow as a defender.”

The attention Strawther’s invested on that end of the floor since coming out of college was on display during a short stay at Summer League. His top highlight in Vegas was not a quick-release 3-pointer or a running floater, but a two-handed block in the paint as Atlanta’s Kobe Bufkin was elevating for a dunk.

“I see a little bit more defense, which is nice,” older sister Paige Strawther said at halftime of a Summer League opener against former GU teammate Drew Timme and the Milwaukee Bucks.

Strawther made a strong impression on Denver’s front office during a pre-draft workout where he showcased his elite shooting ability and soft touch in the paint.

One of the Denver staff members who evaluated Strawther during the workout was former Gonzaga walk-on Connor Griffin, who’s in his second year as an assistant video coordinator for the Nuggets.

“He’s always a guy I kind of watched, obviously being at Gonzaga, it’s a lot easier too,” Griffin said. “He came in for a pre-draft work out, and he shot the hell out of it, has an amazing floater. Was probably the best floater in college basketball and he’s had some good looks at it here in Summer League, so I just want to see him continue to develop that.”

Griffin took a more hands-on role in helping Strawther and Denver’s other young players during Summer League, where he was elevated to an assistant coaching role.

“He’s always been a guy I’m high on him,” Griffin said of Strawther. “I was kind of surprised with his ability to make simple plays as far as coming off the ball screen and reading the low man, skipping it over, just drawing two and finding the open man. That’s something that surprised me.”

After scoring 20 points in 21 minutes during Denver’s preseason opener at Phoenix, Strawther recalled an interaction with Nuggets acting coach David Adelman at the team hotel.

“Enjoy it,” Adelman told the rookie, “because I’ll never run that many plays for you again.”

Adelman reiterated the same message when Strawther scored 23 points in 25 minutes against the Chicago Bulls, telling reporters the Gonzaga product “owed him” because he drew up “like 90 plays for you tonight.”

“I don’t know how many times he’s going to keep doubling down on that,” Strawther laughed.

Considering the results it’s produced through four games, it doesn’t seem to be a bad strategy.

“Well, he’s from a great program, a well-coached program,” Adelman said. “… I think it’s natural for him and I think he’s seeing the gains where you just do the right thing. … He’s been doing it really consistently and it’s working out for him.