More and more top talent is headed to Gonzaga

click to enlarge Paolo Banchero, a potential recruit from Seattle, watches the Zags from the sidelines. - ERICK DOXEY PHOTO
Erick Doxey photo
Paolo Banchero, a potential recruit from Seattle, watches the Zags from the sidelines.
As Gonzaga basketball has risen from obscurity to national prominence, the program’s approach to recruiting has evolved. Over the course of January, fans have had plenty of opportunities to marvel at just how much recruiting has changed.

A pair of high school juniors sat courtside as the Zags demolished the Pacific Tigers 92-59 on Saturday night: Nathan Bittle, a 6-foot-10 center from Central Point, Oregon, and Hunter Sallis, a 6-foot-3 guard from Omaha, Nebraska. Among prospects in the class of 2021, Sallis is ranked 31st by 247Sports and Bittle is ranked 12th.

The two are among the highest rated prospects who have expressed serious interest in playing for the Zags by making an official recruiting visit to campus. That said, neither is the highest rated prospect to make an official visit to Gonzaga this month.

One week prior to Bittle's and Sallis’ visit, it was Paolo Banchero who sat courtside to take in a blowout Gonzaga victory. Banchero, an in-state kid from Seattle’s O’Dea High School, is ranked fourth in the class of 2021 by 247Sports. This means Gonzaga’s got some serious competition in this courtship story as juggernaut programs like Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky are recruiting Banchero as well.

Even if none of those three players choose to commit to playing for Gonzaga, January won’t be remembered as an exciting month that turned out to be a tease.

On the first Friday of the month, at halftime of a high school game broadcast nationally on ESPN2 during prime time, Jalen Suggs announced he was committing to Gonzaga. Suggs, a five-star guard from Minneapolis, is listed as the highest rated commit in program history according to 247Sports. A couple weeks after he made his announcement, Suggs was named to the roster for the 2020 McDonald’s All-America Game. Suggs becomes just the second high school commit in Gonzaga history, after Zach Collins, to be named a McDonald’s All-American — Micah Downs was a McDonald’s All-American, but he only ended up at Gonzaga after transferring from Kansas.

Suggs’ commitment rounded out a 2020 recruiting class which goes down as the most highly touted in Gonzaga history. The “Tricky Trio,” as it has become known, consists of Suggs, as well as four-star guard Dominick Harris and four-star forward Julian Strawther. Those two are ranked 63rd and 65th nationally by 247Sports.

The players mentioned above are all notable because, simply put, they’re really good. According to national recruiting experts they’re all as good or better than the best recruits Gonzaga’s ever brought in. Also, all of them are American.

It’s a notable departure from how Gonzaga used to recruit.

Take a look at this season’s freshman class. Anton Watson came to campus from Gonzaga Prep while Drew Timme, a Texan, traveled a bit further. The rest of the class though, as has become Gonzaga’s brand, came from all over the world.

Martynas Arlauskas is Lithuanian, Pavel Zakharov is Russian and Oumar Ballo is Malian. There are six foreign-born players on the roster. That sort of international flavor has been a hallmark of Gonzaga teams for two decades now. Back when Gonzaga was on the rise, but not high-profile enough to battle for the top American recruits, the Zags were forced to look elsewhere.

In doing so they found Rui Hachimura, Domantas Sabonis, Elias Harris, Kelly Olynyk, Robert Sacre and Ronny Turiaf — all of whom made their way to the NBA — as well as countless other international players who were largely overlooked before arriving in Spokane.

Those international players, along with transfers like Brandon Clarke, Johnathan Williams, Nigel Williams-Goss, Kyle Wiltjer (who falls in both categories) and Dan Dickau — all of whom made the NBA — came to Gonzaga, as did numerous others, to achieve something they couldn’t at their previous college.

Those kind of guys are on the roster now, too. Admon Gilder spent most of his career at a power conference program in Texas A&M. Ryan Woolridge impressed at North Texas before jumping to Gonzaga for one final shot at glory.

This is the formula on which Gonzaga has built itself up from nothing and into an annual national championship contender. It hasn’t changed, and I don’t expect it will anytime soon. There’s just a new influx of talent coming to town, talent Gonzaga not long ago wasn’t able to access.