Early season takeaways for Gonzaga basketball

Exciting freshmen, questionable minutes and sturdy defense have defined the Zags' season thus far

click to enlarge Early season takeaways for Gonzaga basketball
Erick Doxey photo
Ryan Nembhard found his shot on Tuesday night, but his massive minutes load is still a concern.

ROTATION READY

In the age of the transfer portal, programs like Gonzaga can reload rather than rebuild by snatching up established college players every offseason. The impact that freshmen are having on the game has waned for many programs, but Gonzaga has not abandoned the youngsters.

Braden Huff (11.5 ppg) made his presence known from the jump, putting up 19 points in the season opener against Yale. Under Mark Few, 16 Zags have scored double-figures in their freshman-year season opener, and Huff’s 19-point performance ranks behind only Jalen Suggs’ 24, Przemek Karnowski’s 22 and Austin Daye’s 20. Very solid company.

Dusty Stromer (5.7 ppg) hasn’t been as dominant in the scoring column as Huff, but the 6-foot-6 wing has been impactful nonetheless. Thrust into the starting lineup after the season-ending injury suffered by Eastern Washington transfer Steele Venters just days before opening night, Stromer has been a consistent presence on the floor for Gonzaga. Only Nolan Hickman and Ryan Nembhard are averaging more minutes per game than Stromer thus far (but we’ll get to those two shortly.)

Stromer played all 40 minutes against UCLA. According to Steven Karr, a broadcast coordinator at Gonzaga, that 40-minute performance was the first by a Gonzaga true freshman since Kevin Pangos in the 2012 WCC Tournament Championship.

It's worth noting that Stromer was held scoreless over those 40 minutes, and Huff put up a goose egg against UCLA as well. They may not be ready to shine on the biggest stages yet, but they’re certainly ready to appear on them.

GUARDED MINUTES

Speaking of playing all 40 minutes…

Ryan Nembhard (35 minutes per game) has done that twice through six games and Nolan Hickman (34.2 minutes per game) has done it once. On Tuesday, against a severely overmatched Cal State Bakersfield, those two starters played 36 and 37 minutes respectively. Both were on the floor for the entire second half.

Noted college hoops analytics website KenPom.com gave the Roadrunners a 0.9% chance to win that game at tip-off. From the 11-minute mark in the second half, at no point did they have better than a 0.1% chance to win per the statistical model.

Did Gonzaga really need to put that kind of minute load on their two lead guards for a game that wasn't particularly close? It's a question worth exploring because of the long-term ramifications on this Zags season.

Freshman guard Luka Krajnovic did not make an appearance in Tuesday’s game. It was his second consecutive zero-minute outing.

"Luka is a guard that can really help us," Gonzaga Head Coach Few said in a statement when Krajnovic signed with the team over the summer.

That doesn’t seem to be the case right now, despite winning the skills contest at Kraziness in the Kennel back in October and playing 20 minutes against Eastern Oregon in the second game of the season.

The 6-foot-5 Croatian hasn’t looked great in his limited minutes, but then again he’s a true freshman getting limited minutes. Would he look better with extended minutes and more experience? Maybe. It's probably worth at least trying.

Because aside from gaining experience, another reason to give Krajnovic some run is to keep Nembhard and Hickman fresh. There have already been multiple stretches in games — especially in Maui — where the two main guards have looked like they really need a break.

Nembhard has made just 4 of 19 threes so far this season. While he did seem to find his shot on Tuesday night with his best shooting numbers overall on the season, it's often thought that tired legs can lead to poor shooting, and Nembhard has spent much of the year sprinting up the court with little time to rest. Hickman has been better from the field, but is still shy of 30% on the season from three. Both have been turnover prone as well, though considering they’re the "only ball handlers on the team," that isn’t particularly surprising.

The thing is, they’re not actually the only ball handlers on the team, they’re just the only ones in the rotation right now.

DEFENSIVE DOGS

For years now, decades even, the Zags have been one of the sport’s best and most exciting teams for their high-scoring, offensive-minded approach to the game. That’s no different this year — Gonzaga is top-50 nationally in points per game at 83.0 and rates as the 14th most efficient offense nationally per KenPom.

What is different, especially compared to last season, is the Zags are looking like one of the sport’s best defenses as well — KenPom pegs them as the 18th most efficient defense in the nation this season.

Through five games against Division I competition, only Cal State Bakersfield has managed to outscore its season average when facing the Zags. Every other team they’ve faced, including the offensive juggernaut of Purdue, has been held at least 5 points below their average.

“It’s been really good,” Few said of the team’s defense after holding UCLA to 65 points. “It’s definitely ahead of our offense right now.”

While that quote came after the UCLA game, it could have just as easily been said after the Purdue game.

The Zags held the Boilermakers to just 37% shooting on 1-of-6 from deep in the first half and led by five points. While Purdue got things going inside in the second half, and ultimately won by 10, the Zags' defense was strong for the full 40 minutes.

Were it not for missing their final 16 three-point attempts, including all 13 in a dismal second half, the outcome could have been different. Defense was not the reason Gonzaga lost to Purdue. In fact, it was the main reason the Zags were in that game at all.

While not the only reason for this defensive renaissance, Wyoming transfer Graham Ike is the biggest single contributor. Both for his play, and for the play of the player he’s replaced.
No disrespect to Gonzaga’s mustachioed goat, but Drew Timme wasn’t exactly a positive contributor on the defensive end over his four years on campus. We can choose to remember his play on the other side of the floor and leave it at that.

Replacing Timme with Ike has completely changed Gonzaga’s ability to switch, bringing increased mobility to the defensive end. Braden Huff, Ben Gregg and Anton Watson all provide that same ability, which makes finding a mismatch difficult for opponents regardless of who is on the court.

NEXT UP

Men
Gonzaga vs. USC (in Las Vegas) • Sat, Dec. 2 at 7 pm • ESPN
Gonzaga vs. Arkansas Pine Bluff • Tue, Dec. 5 at 6 pm • KHQ & ROOT

Women
Gonzaga at Eastern Washington • Wed, Nov. 29 at 6 pm • SWX & ESPN+
Gonzaga vs. Stanford • Sun, Dec. 3 at 1 pm • SWX & ESPN+

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