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Guessing game: Projecting Gonzaga’s starting lineup and top reserves

Gonzaga forward Anton Watson, left, and Nolan Hickman wrestle for the ball against Baylor’s Flo Thamba during the first half of the Bears’ 64-63 comeback win last season at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  (By Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Some years this assignment is tougher than others.

For the upcoming season, it appears to be a little easier projecting Gonzaga’s starting five, thanks to the transfer portal, and rotation. Or maybe not.

Gonzaga has openings in its starting unit and rotation after the departure of four of last year’s top five scorers, including the school’s all-time point producer Drew Timme, first-round NBA draft pick Julian Strawther and sharp-shooting guards Rasir Bolton and Malachi Smith.

Hunter Sallis, who joined Smith as the first guards off the bench last year, and reserve center Efton Reid transferred to Wake Forest. Guard Dominick Harris, who saw minimal time in 35 career games, partly due to a foot injury, moved on to Loyola Marymount.

Timme, Strawther, Bolton and returners Anton Watson and Nolan Hickman started all 37 games last season, save for Smith getting a Senior Night nod in place of Hickman.

Gonzaga addressed several vacancies left by exiting players by landing transfers Ryan Nembhard (Creighton), Graham Ike (Wyoming) and Steele Venters (Eastern Washington).

Will all three transfers be in the starting five? Will there be a freshman? Will a starter from last season come off the bench this time around? Would coach Mark Few shake his head at the premise of this article, given his pronounced indifference when asked about starters in the past?

We can definitely answer the last one: Yup.

Anyway, here goes, and feel free to play along at home.

Locks to start, or close to it

Watson has heard his name announced just before tipoff in roughly half of his 116 games spanning four seasons, but it’s not 50-50 whether GU’s most experienced player will start. It’s pretty much assumed, considering the 6-foot-8 forward’s widespread impact at each end of the floor.

Watson is one of the nation’s best glue guys and he contributed a bigger scoring punch (11.1 points per game) last season with an improving 3-point shot. He’s a gifted passer, versatile defender and his basketball sensibilities allow him to operate seamlessly with teammates.

Next up as near locks: Nembhard and Ike, presuming the latter is fully healthy after missing last season with a stress reaction in his right foot that didn’t require surgery. The guess here is they end up being the team’s top two scorers, Ike the leading rebounder and Nembhard tops in assists.

The 6-foot Nembhard is a shorter version of his brother Andrew, a GU standout 2021 and 2022. Ryan, like Andrew, does it all. The younger Nembhard averaged 12.1 points, 4.8 assists, 4.0 rebounds and hit 35.6% on 3-pointers and 87.1% at the foul line for the Bluejays last season. His scoring average will likely increase in a Zags uniform.

It’s essentially impossible to replace the three-time All-American Timme, but Ike’s stats at Wyoming two years ago (19.5 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 31.6 minutes) were in Timme’s neighborhood last season (21.2, 7.5, 3.2, 31.5). Like Timme, the 6-9, 240-pound Ike does most of his damage inside (549 career attempts inside the arc, 12 3-point attempts) and puts foul pressure on opponents. He’s an accomplished rebounder.

So who joins Watson, Nembhard and Ike in the first five? That’s where it gets a little trickier.

Favorites for final two spots

We anticipate a starting position going to Hickman, who was fairly steady as the starting point guard last season at 7.7 points, 3.1 assists and a team-leading 2.42 assist-to-turnover ratio. He struggled in the last three games of the NCAA Tournament, but he was a reliable shooter overall (49% inside the arc, 35.6% 3-point, 81.3% FT).

“One word to describe my season, I think it was average,” Hickman told The Spokesman-Review after the Zags were bounced from the tournament last March. “There’s a lot more I need to do, I will do during the summer.”

Hickman seemingly has followed through on that pledge. Nembhard projects as the lead ballhandler, but Hickman could share some of those duties. Both can operate off the ball and pilot the break.

As GU history buffs know, many of the program’s best teams were guided by lineups with a pair of point guards.

That leaves one spot, essentially the wing position handled by Strawther the past two seasons and Corey Kispert prior to that.

The 6-7 Venters has 67 starts, a 16-point scoring average over the past two seasons, 40% career accuracy on 3-pointers and a Big Sky Conference MVP plaque. His experience and shooting prowess probably give him an edge over freshman Dusty Stromer.

The 6-6 Stromer’s game has some similarities to Kispert when the latter started as a freshman before Zach Norvell Jr. moved into the lineup in December 2017. Stromer is a quality perimeter shooter and appears to have the ability to score inside the arc. He’s probably not as strong as Kispert at the same age, but he made major strides on defense during his prep career.

Gonzaga has multiple options, but perimeter shooting is a potential question mark without Smith (50% on 3s), Strawther (40.8%) and Bolton (38.8%) – the top three by percentage that accounted for 175 of the team’s 279 3-pointers last year.

A first five of Watson, Nembhard, Ike, Hickman and Venters brings 378 career games, including 266 starts.

Rounding out rotation

The first big off the bench likely remains unchanged from last season. Ben Gregg earned the job a year ago and should be first in line when Watson or Ike come out.

Gregg’s hustle and spirited play endeared him to fans. The 6-10 forward connected on 37.7% from deep and swatted 24 shots, third on the team, while averaging 11.9 minutes, eighth on the team.

The next big man up appears to be redshirt freshman Braden Huff, who has a smooth left-handed shooting stroke and the benefit of a year in Gonzaga’s system.

Stromer, if he doesn’t crack the first five, projects as the first wing off the bench. He also could be summoned should Gonzaga go with a bigger lineup when Hickman or Nembhard get a break. South Korean Jun Seok Yeo, a 6-8 wing, could be another option. Another name to watch in the backcourt/wing rotation is Croatian Luka Krajnovic, a 6-5 guard with play-making ability and two years of professional experience overseas against older players.

Preseason chatter a year ago centered on the possibility of a small-ball lineups with Strawther at the ‘4,’ but GU stayed traditional with two forwards, a wing and two guards for the most part.

The 2023-24 Zags could play small ball, but they have the personnel to put tall-ball squads on the court with four frontcourt/wings joining Nembhard or Hickman.