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Gonzaga Basketball

Strategic transfer portal efforts helped Gonzaga add ‘different aspects,’ rebuild roster around returning core

Mark Few will have plenty on his plate when he links up with Team USA in Las Vegas a few weeks from now to start preparations for the Summer Olympics, but the Gonzaga coach shouldn’t have many concerns about the state of his program back in Spokane as he begins an international tour that includes stops in Abu Dhabi and London before a late-July arrival in Paris.

Early projections featuring Gonzaga as a top-five team entering the 2024-25 college basketball season are largely based on the group’s returning core, but Few’s confidence in the team he’ll return to this August after wrapping up Olympic duties also stems from a transfer class that was strategically selected to fill in various gaps and holes.

“The best thing I think we did during this offseason was we added pieces that bring different aspects to the program that we don’t have,” Few said Tuesday during an availability with local media at McCarthey Athletic Center.

The Zags got to work in the transfer portal earlier than they ever have under Few, picking up a commitment from Pepperdine transfer Michael Ajayi on March 26 – roughly 72 hours before GU took on top-seeded Purdue in the Sweet 16 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

Ajayi went through the NBA Draft process, and impressed as one of 78 players invited to the NBA Combine, but ultimately decided to put a career in professional basketball on the backburner and withdrew his name from the Draft just hours before the 9 p.m. PT deadline on May 29.

An athletic, high-upside wing from Kent who led the WCC in scoring (17.9 ppg) and finished second in rebounding (9.9 rpg) last season, Ajayi arrived in Spokane last week and has already gone through a handful of summer workouts with his new team.

“We had great communication, which is how those things really turn out the way they should whether they go or stay or whatever,” Few said. “We had great communication and he ended up making a good decision. Everyone was on the same page and he was able to get some great feedback, he was able to get some great experience going to the Combine and also getting a bunch of workouts. Now he’s back here and he’s got a couple of practices under his belt and he’s doing great.”

When it came to Gonzaga’s offseason rebuilding efforts, another key date was May 5. Arkansas guard Khalif Battle, an explosive scorer who averaged 26.6 points through the final nine games of the SEC season, announced he was committing to Zags, choosing Few’s program over Villanova and Kansas State for his sixth and final year of eligibility.

“Khalif’s going to help us a bunch. He’s different,” Few said. “His ability to get fouled is at the highest level I think in college basketball. … Just to have that kind of guy he’s a different kind of body than we have on the wing, so I think he’ll being all of that.”

Battle’s 213 free throws attempted, or 6.7 FTA per game, would’ve led the West Coast Conference last season. By comparison, Gonzaga’s free throw leader in 2023-24, Graham Ike, only shot 134 free throws in 35 games.

Whether he’s the third guard in a small-ball starting lineup alongside returners Ryan Nembhard and Nolan Hickman or a dynamic scorer off the bench, the 6-foot-5 Battle gives the Zags a look they didn’t have last season as a bigger guard who’s able to create off the dribble, shoot from the perimeter and make frequent trips to the foul line.

“I think he recognized that and we communicated that,” Few said. “That’s what we needed him for. So it was something, we had a need and he was looking for a program like this that wanted him and needed him, so it worked out perfect.”

Gonzaga’s transfer class also includes forward Emmanuel Innocenti, a defensive ace from Tarleton State, and point guard Braeden Smith, who’s vowed to redshirt in 2024-25 and would likely only see the court in an emergency situation.

Innocenti could also be more of a future investment for a GU team that’s particularly deep at the wing/forward positions and the sophomore is one of two players not currently on campus, along with recent signee Ismaila Diagne.

Smith, who also visited Washington, California and Davidson, bought into the redshirt idea after winning player of the year honors in the Patriot League and starring for a Colgate team that made its second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

“Emmanuel, he’s still doing some things over in Italy with their team,” Few said. “With Braeden, again it was great communication, great openness about what was out there but also looking forward to next year and our roster and what was available there. To his credit, I think he sees big picture and made a decision to go in with that being the plan. So far, so good there.”