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Gonzaga Basketball

‘This year was not a waste’: Former Zag Julian Strawther embracing the highs, lows of first NBA season

Julian Strawther, playing an early season game at Ball Arena in Denver, has experienced plenty of highs and lows during his rookie season.  (Tribune News Service)
By Stephen Hunt The Spokesman-Review

DALLAS – Julian Strawther knows that as far as great situations for an NBA rookie go, nothing can top breaking into the NBA with the reigning league champs.

That’s exactly what Strawther – the 29th pick in the 2023 NBA draft (his rights were traded from Indiana to Denver on draft night) after a three-year stay at Gonzaga – has in Denver.

So far with the Nuggets, Strawther, who earned 2023 All-West Coast Conference first-team honors, has played 49 games and averaged 4.6 points, 1.2 rebounds and 1.0 assist. “It’s been a lot of what you’d expect out of a rookie year, a lot of ups and downs,” he said.

“But I was blessed to get drafted to a team with a lot of veteran guys and a winning culture coming off an NBA championship. Having vets that believe in me and coach me to help me through my ups and downs, that’s been making my rookie year seamless.”

Strawther made his NBA debut Oct. 27 in Memphis, Tennessee, and his career high came on Dec. 11 at Atlanta when he had 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting from the field, hitting 6 of 11, with two assists and five steals in a 129-122 win.

His welcome to the NBA moment came five nights earlier against the Clippers in Los Angeles.

“A lot of our starters didn’t make the trip, so it was a lot of us bench guys playing heavy minutes. We were playing against Paul George, Kawhi (Leonard), (Russell) Westbrook,” Strawther said. “These are guys I grew up idolizing. It was crunch time, beginning of the fourth. Three straight times down the court, Kawhi, PG and Westbrook called me into a screen and tried to (isolate) me.”

With Denver, he’s playing for Michael Malone, who coached the Nuggets to their first championship in their 56 years as a franchise.

Malone, who never minces words with players, an honesty Strawther said the team admires, likes what he’s seen from the ex-Gonzaga player.

“He’s a rookie on a really good team. Had a chance to play the first half of the season,” Malone said. “Then, we moved Jamal (Murray) to play with that second unit and that’s cut into Julian’s opportunity to be a rotation player.

“It wasn’t anything he was not doing. It was us playing guys that have been here and helped us win a championship. In the games Julian has played, he’s shown the ability to shoot the 3. He can get his own shot. When teams run him off (the 3-point line), he’s very good getting downhill with his floater, finishing at the rim.”

Malone has been equally impressed with Strawther’s defense. “The thing I’ve enjoyed more than anything is when I watch him defensively,” he said. “(I can tell) he’s been very well coached at Gonzaga. He understands and has tremendous discipline in terms of what our gameplan is, knowing where he needs to be and his responsibilities. He’s learning a lot. Every chance he’s been given, he’s made the most of those. This year was not a waste. He has gotten rotation minutes for a lot of games. Hopefully, that will help him into the offseason and (next year).”

In turn, Strawther appreciates Malone ensuring his players always know where they stand with him.

“He’s super straightforward. He’s going to keep it 100 with you, tell you what he thinks,” Strawther said. “As a rookie, that’s what I need. I need guidance, to be put on the right path and everything else will take care of itself. To have a coach that believes in me and will coach me, show me things, and tell me things about the league, has also helped the transition.”

Even though his adjustment from Spokane to the NBA has gone well, he’s still a rookie. And as an NBA newbie, Strawther realizes he must pay his dues with his veteran teammates through rookie rites of passage, including getting items for the vets.

“Occasionally, here and there. I have a Powderpuff (Girls) backpack that I carry everywhere, and occasionally depending on the city, I have to run and grab breakfast or something like that,” Strawther said of his rookie duties. “But for the most part, they’ve been pretty nice to me.”

His three seasons in Spokane remain fresh in his mind because like most former Zags, those memories are nothing but positive.

“My time at Gonzaga was some of the best years of my life, honestly,” he said. “The relationships I built and the memories I gained are things I will cherish for the rest of my life.”

Strawther might be most remembered by Zags fans for two moments: the winner he hit in the 59-56 win against UCLA in the Sweet 16 of the 2023 NCAA Tournament and for the 40 points he scored against Portland in an 82-67 West Coast Conference win on Jan. 28, 2023.

“Yeah, that (shot against UCLA) is probably still the craziest moment in my basketball career. It’s hard to even put in words what that was like,” Strawther said. “That (40-point game) is one I forget about a lot. When I look back on it, it’s cool because not a lot of people, especially at Gonzaga, get to say that they had 40. With how good the teams are and how much we share the ball with each other, getting 40 off isn’t an easy task.”

He considers it a huge honor to not only be playing in the NBA but to be part of the ever-growing fraternity of professional players with GU roots.

“It’s super cool because, honestly, you don’t realize how many guys are up here,” Strawther said. “About once a week, you run into a Zag, meet them after the game, guys that I’ve played with like Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert or guys I never got to cross paths with like Kelly Olynyk and (Damontas) Sabonis. It’s really cool to meet everybody.”

Since technically, he and Chet Holmgren, a first-round pick in 2022 by Oklahoma City who missed what would have been his debut season with a foot injury, are both rookies this season, he’s enjoyed watching Holmgren’s strong play as he battles for NBA Rookie of the Year honors with San Antonio’s Victor Wembanyama.

“I’m super happy for Chet. He’s doing everything I expected. Just being his friend, knowing his work ethic and how much he strives to be great, this is exactly what I expected his first year to look like,” Strawther said. “I’m always rooting for him unless he’s playing Denver.”

Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.