NBA Bound? Why Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis Should Declare for the Draft

Domantas Sabonis was key to the Zags’ success in March and should be a NBA first round pick this upcoming draft.

If you want to understand how the Zags were a minute away from going to the Elite Eight, look no further than the triumvirate of guard Eric McCllelan, forward Kyle Wiltjer and center Domantas Sabonis. In the six games the Zags played in March (in which they went 5-1), the three players all took Ken Pom MVP awards in the games they played, with McCllelan earning three (Utah, St. Mary’s and Portland), Sabonis earning two (Seton Hall and Syracuse) and Wiltjer one (BYU). The combination of McCllelan’s streaky scoring and tough defense, Wiltjer’s offensive versatility and Sabonis’ post scoring and rebounding presence made these Zags tough to beat in March, and after Syracuse’s upset win over Virginia to earn a spot in the Final Four, it definitely makes you wonder what could have been possible had the Zags took better care of the ball in the closing minutes in Chicago.

While there is no questioning the three’s impact in the past month, one of these players will be the sole focus of Gonzaga fans’ attention and that is Sabonis. McCllelan and Wiltjer have exhausted their eligibility and will now be transitioning to professional careers in some kind of capacity this summer (Wiltjer could be a second round pick; McCllelan most likely will be looking D-League or overseas). Sabonis on the other hand has just completed his sophomore year, and still has two years left to wear a Gonzaga uniform.

That is if he wants it. Because to be perfectly frank, not only is he a much more sought after NBA prospect than either of the graduating seniors, he also is one of the Zags’ best pro prospects in a long time, and has a chance to be the Zags’ first First Round pick since Kelly Olynyk in 2013.

Now, make no mistake, Sabonis is not really a bonafide lottery pick by any means and this is a pretty loaded draft (unlike Olynyk’s where there wasn’t really a consensus no. 1). There is top “one and done talent” in Ben Simmons from LSU (the consensus No. 1), Brandon Ingram from Duke, and Jalen Brown and Ivan Rabb from California. Polished college scorers like Buddy Hield from Oklahoma and Kris Dunn from Providence. And high-upside European prospects like Dragan Bender from Maccabi Tel Aviv and Timothe Luwawu from Mega Leks of the Adriatic League. Without elite height or wingspan, and average to slightly below athleticism, there is no question that Sabonis’ pales at first glance in comparison to many of the eligible prospects who are expected to enter this summer’s NBA Draft.

Many college coaches would not encourage Sabonis to declare considering his circumstances. To most college coaches, if you’re not a lottery pick, the risk is too high and the reward is too great. Famously, Tyler Ennis declared for the NBA Draft though he was guaranteed to be a first round pick, but not a lottery one, much to the chagrin of his head coach Jim Boeheim. Boeheim argued that Ennis would go into a tough situation without much financial security if he was drafted outside the lottery. And, as much as I dislike the whiny Boehiem, he has proven to be right. Ennis has been flip flopped around the league and has probably spent as much time on a D-League floor than a NBA one.

But, Sabonis is a special player, and while his natural gifts and athleticism may not be “first round” worthy, other aspects of his game make him a great value that will not only be seen and recognize by a NBA team, but perhaps even utilized in some kind of playing role as early as next year. Sabonis is not a project by any means, and that alone will give him a lot of value to teams that are looking to build immediately competitive teams through the draft.

So, why should Sabonis leave and not stay for perhaps another “March Run”? Here are two reasons why Sabonis should stay not just for the benefit of himself but to the benefit of the Gonzaga basketball program as well.


Reason No.1: Sabonis’ stock is probably as high as it ever will be and there really isn’t anything he can truly work on in 2017 to make him a better prospect

I’m not going to pretend to be a “draft” expert by any means. I watch a lot of basketball, college and NBA included (I subscribe to NBA League pass). I will let other, more qualified writers (like here and here) determine Sabonis’ exact stock in comparison to other eligible prospects for this draft. But the fact of the matter is this: nobody in college basketball has raised their stock more in the past month than Sabonis.

First off, look at the numbers: Sabonis averaged 17.3 ppg and 11.5 rpg on 61.3 percent shooting from the floor and posted a 76.9 percent free throw percentage in 33 games this year. If you go into the advanced numbers, the Lithuanian looks even better: he posted a 120.0 adjusted offensive rating according to Ken Pom, with a 115.0 adjusted offensive rating against Tier A competition, much better marks than McCllelan (110) and Wiltjer (105). His 28.2 defensive rebounding rate was 14th best in the nation, and his 65.1 true shooting percentage ranked him 21st in the nation. And to wrap it all up, according to Ken Pom’s national player of the year ranking, Sabonis ranks eighth, putting him in the same class with other more heralded players such as Perry Ellis (who ranks 5th), Georges Niang (who ranks 6th) and Virginia’s Anthony Gill (who actually is behind him at 10th). In a game and professional league that is becoming more and more reliant on analytics and advanced numbers, Sabonis satisfies the requirements as a legitimate first round pick and possible sleeper lottery pick.

But if you’re one of those guys who doesn’t buy into all the stats (i.e. Seth Davis), then look at what Sabonis has done on the floor. His footwork is impeccable for a post player, and his bevy of fakes and pivot moves makes up for his lack of length and athleticism. Furthermore, his motor is non-stop and without a doubt, Sabonis carried the Zags numerous times this year emotionally, especially in big games such as the WCC Championship and in the NCAA Tournament. But the biggest crowning achievement? His defensive shutdown of lottery pick Jakob Poeltel of Utah in the second round. Poeltel came into the game as one of the best offensive post players in the country, as evidenced by his 17.3 ppg and 8.9 rpg in 34 games and 124.1
adjusted offensive rating for the year. But against Sabonis? The Austrian center was limited to 5 points on 2 of 5 shooting and only nabbed 4 rebounds, good for an offensive rating of 77, his second lowest rating of the year (his lowest was 66 in a contest against Colorado on January 8th). Despite giving up a couple of inches and some considerable weight to Sabonis, the Lithuanian pushed Poeltel off the block on constant occasion and made him a non-factor whenever he was on the floor. If critics needed confirmation that Sabonis could handle himself against NBA bigs, then they were given a rude awakening after his sterling performance against Utah (he also scored 19 points, nabbed 10 rebounds and sported an offensive rating of 134).

And that’s the issue with Sabonis coming back. Unless he leads Gonzaga to the Final Four next year, I can’t imagine his stock getting any higher. He really has done all he could do to prove that he can play at the NBA level. Furthermore, there is nothing major that he needs to work on that another year of college would help him with. He has played well against good competition in high-pressure moments (the WCC and NCAA Tournament). He has put up good numbers. He has diversified his game, adding a sneaky good mid-range shot. Yes, Sabonis is left-hand dominant, and the athleticism isn’t there, but I can’t imagine Sabonis really getting considerably better in those categories with another year of college. For some players, coming back made sense. Olynyk needed to get stronger and he could put time in the weight room to do so. Sabonis is already pretty strong and has a NBA frame, and that will get more refined with more round-the-clock training at the professional level. Team-wise, yes, the Zags would be a heck of a lot better with Sabonis. But individually? There really is no incentive for Sabonis to come back, and I think he will realize that and enter the draft with his stock so high already (and could even go up more due to his father being Arvydas Sabonis).

Reason #2: The Zags will be garnering a lot of talent next year, and Sabonis returning could clog things up and result in potential transfers.

While we still do not know Przemek Karnowski’s off-season intentions (he probably has more to gain by staying after missing the year due to back injury but you never know), there will be an influx of talent this off-season that will lessen the loss of Sabonis. Center Ryan Edwards, though limited offensively, is a big body that will thrive with more minutes. And furthermore, the Zags will also add Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams, a stretch 4 type who could play small or power forward who has already been practicing with the team (along with Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss who could compete with Josh Perkins for the starting point guard spot). But the incoming freshman class will include McDonald’s All-American Zach Collins, a 6-11 center from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas that is the 37th ranked player according to ESPN, and European prospects Killian Tillie, a 6-8 forward from France and Jacob Larsen, a 6-10 F/C from Denmark. Considering the Zags’ success with European prospects, it would not be surprising if Tillie and/or Larsen are better than their initial recruiting rankings.

Add all that with Karnowski probably back and somebody’s feelings will get hurt on the bench and that could mean a potential transfer at the end of next season. As solid as Mark Few is, he definitely has his issues spreading minutes out, and that has definitely had an impact when it comes to players leaving the program (though for the most part, this hasn’t hurt the Zags with the exception of Ryan Spangler, who to be fair transferred more to be closer to home than any beef he had with Gonzaga). Yes, there is considerable risk going with more unproven commodities to fill in Sabonis’ spot, but if Karnowski is back it should soften the blow and allow the young guys to grow. Even if Karnwoski is back, the experience returning at guard in Perkins and Melson will also help the post players as they grow accustomed to the college game (though if Karnowski is not back, expect some early losses in the non-conference slate).

Yes, Sabonis would make the Zags a potential Final Four candidate and he would be a Naismith-watch player at the start of the season. But, in this day and age of constant transfers, the Zags would probably be best served if Sabonis declared, and that way, they could determine roles in the post positions this off-season during workouts.

Final thoughts on Sabonis

As a Gonzaga fan, I have to think that Sabonis probably was one of the best frontcourt players in Gonzaga history, up there with Olynyk, Robert Sacre and JP Batista. In fact, I would go out on a limb and say he may be the best post player in Gonzaga history as no other player flashed his combo of efficiency and intensity on a night in and night out basis. Sabonis was fun to watch, especially as he yelled after And 1’s and got after refs when he felt he was called. He was a guilty pleasure to watch as a Gonzaga fan, and it is a shame I wasn’t able to watch Gonzaga as much as I wanted to this year. If I had followed Gonzaga as closely as I did in years past, I probably would have a poster of Sabonis in my classroom.

But, I love and know the NBA game, and Sabonis is ready and would be a fool to stay. And to be honest, that’s okay not just for him, but for the Zags. Sometimes you need to move on, and by moving on, Gonzaga can go into this off-season forming their identity without him with the collection of young, though unproven, talent on the horizon.

As a Gonzaga fan, I know that is scary. After all, this year the Zags were so close to snapping their long-time NCAA Tournament streak, and without Sabonis’ the Zags might have been in the NIT losing to Valpo rather than Syracuse. But all good things come to an end, and even though Sabonis leaving would be bittersweet, it is best for both parties involved not just for next year, but the next few as well.

Good luck Domas. I know I’ll be enjoying seeing you get after NBA refs on League Pass next year.

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Why Adam Morrison is the Godfather of Hipster NBA Players

Morrison was a trendsetter for Hipster basketball players today.
Morrison was a trendsetter for Hipster basketball players today.

Adam Morrison generates all kinds of different opinions depending on who you ask. The most common viewpoint on Morrison is “bust“, and you would be totally in the right to say that. After being drafted third overall in the 2006 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Bobcats (and being personally selected by Michael Jordan), Morrison had a decent rookie season which really wasn’t as good as it seemed. Yes, he averaged 11.8 ppg and 29.8 mpg his rookie season, but the advanced stats don’t paint him in quite as positive a light. His PER was 7.9 that season (i.e. horrendous) and he was worth negative-1.5 Win Shares as well. That’s right negative-1.5! That basically means the Adam Morrison COST the Bobcats victories when he was on the floor.

It is not surprising that Morrison was so ineffective his rookie year. He struggled from beyond the arc (33.7 percent 3-PT % on a 27.3 3-PT attempt rate), and he didn’t have the strength or ballhandling to consistently get to the rim (only 11.9 of his shots came between 0-3). Add that with little-to-no post game (which he didn’t have at Gonzaga), and Morrison basically turned into a jump shooter who wasn’t good at jump shooting (and his 45 percent True Shooting Percentage proved that). And, Morrison was terrible defensively. Very, very bad. At 6-feet, 8-inches, Morrison had the potential to be a matchup nightmare for small wings or stretch-fours. The only problem? He lacked any lateral quickness whatsoever. I mean, Hedo Turkoglu looked like an all-NBA player compared to Morrison. And thus, despite advantageous height, his total, utter lack of athleticism killed him from ever being a slightly-below average defensive player (and that is putting it nicely).

But, I love Morrison. Yes, Morrison only played 83 more games and 952 more minutes in the NBA over the next three seasons (he missed his entire sophomore campaign to a knee injury, which only further killed his lack of athleticism). He did win two titles as a bench warmer with the Los Angeles Lakers, but safe to say he had as much contribution to those Lakers teams as Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times did. Case in point, his “contribution” was so ridiculed, that Jimmy Kimmel had a segment on his show featuring “Adam Morrison Highlights“.

That being said, I love Morrison for two reasons. First off, I am a Gonzaga alum, who saw the heyday of the Morrison era my freshman season. The shaggy hair, the thin mustache, the retro socks, the crying on the court after the loss to UCLA in Oakland, etc. I loved all that, and even to this day, that still remains the most enjoyable Gonzaga season I have ever followed in my lifetime as a Gonzaga Bulldogs fan and alum. This recent team was awesome. Kevin Pangos, Kyle Wiltjer, Domas Sabonis (who’s slowly climbing up the ladder as my favorite Gonzaga player ever), Przemek Karnowski (with him and Sabonis forming “Low Bloc” the best nickname for a pair of post players ever)…that team was certainly the best and most talented in my lifetime. They didn’t have the charm of that 2005-2006 team. They didn’t have the big Brazilian JP Batista who literally couldn’t jump. They didn’t have Mamery Diallo who earned a technical foul before a game for dunking in warmups. They didn’t have PMAC, whose mixtape still earns legendary status amongst hardcore Gonzaga fans (please watch it…it is a DELIGHT!). They didn’t have David Pendergraft, the redhead who was completely and utter position-less and yet still somehow contributed. They didn’t have the Battle in Seattle where Morrison banked in a three pointer to beat Oklahoma State, despite having 3 defenders on him (it also happened to be one of the all-time great Gus Johnson-Bill Raftery called games, which are now a relic of ancient times; also, check out Pendegraft and Morrison yelling at each other during the timeout at the :50 mark; I have no idea if they are yelling at each other to get each other pumped up or if Morrison said something to piss Pendergraft off; one of the great mysteries of our time).

So yes, Morrison brings all kinds of nostalgic memories for me as a Gonzaga fan. However, another reason I love Morrison? Morrison was in my mind, the ultimate basketball hipster. He was the ultimate basketball hipster in college, the NBA and even abroad when he was playing for Serbia Belgrade. Whether it was his style, his antics, his game, Morrison embued “hipster” in every conceivable sense of the word in basketball circles, and to me, that is something I have grown to appreciate about his legacy, even if every other aspect (i.e. being the next “Larry Bird”) deteriorates each passing day. Here are the three major reasons why Morrison will always be the “forefather” of “Hipster” basketball players in my mind.

1. His college days were against-the-grain from what was typical of a college basketball player

Morrison stories are somewhat legendary at Gonzaga. Even before I stepped on campus as a freshman in August of 2005, everyone and their mother had a Morrison story about his freshman and sophomore years living in Desmet, the primary All-Male dorm. Let’s take a look at some of the stories.

  • The most popular one was that Morrison listened to Rage Against the Machine and considered himself a communist. Never mind that he probably was the furthest thing from a communist because he was the one that built up his image as the next Larry Bird for marketing reasons which is probably the least communist thing you could do. But Morrison, in his eyes, was a damn hammer and sickel flag-waving commie up there with Ivan Drago. His communist views (as well as his battle with type 1 Diabetes) were so widespread that they were intimately featured in a SI profile about him his freshman year, a bigger deal in retrospect than when I initially thought (I mean, to have a Gonzaga player, let alone a freshman, profiled in Sports Illustrated was really rare since Gonzaga was known more as the “chic” mid-major school rather than the budding powerhouse that they are known as today). I don’t know if Morrison still holds his communist views as passionately as a 30-year-old today as he did as an 18-year-old freshman, but his political views definitely pushed his hipster-meter to the max.
  • Morrison also was widely known for a lot of his personal upkeep quirks. If you have not watched “The Season” profiling Gonzaga basketball in 2004, drop what you’re doing and start watching Episode 1 NOW (it’s free on Youtube…as I say that, it will probably be taken off soon). One of the most underrated joys of watching the series is how the team and even Few constantly bash Morrison for his dress and his hygeine. Consistently, they bash him for the shirts, he wears, not showering, not wearing a tie, etc. It really is hilarious, especially since Mark Few just does it in the most dry, “Mark Few-esque” way possible. And Morrison really plays with it, and sorta gets annoyed with their comments, but keeps his whole routine because he likes to be noticed, even if he acts like he doesn’t care, but you can tell that he probably does (sound confusing? Yeah it is, but that is the case with most hipsters).
  • Morrison really brought back the whole retro style thing, which to be honest, was kinda cool. Yes, were the Larry Bird comparisons unfair in terms of his game? Probably. But, you had to love the “Larry Bird”-style he brought back to the college game. The striped, mid-socks, the baggy jersey, the shaggy hair, the mustache, etc. Morrison harked back to a style of the 70’s that was widely missed. Morrison reminded you of ABA, Dr. J, and a time where wearing black socks with sneakers was considered sacrilege. Did Morrison look ridiculous at times? Absolutely. His hair always bordered between aging beatnik and possible “Thomas Harris-esque” serial killer. But I liked how unabashed Morrison was in being a “throwback” without actually overtly mentioning he was going throwback while he was in college.
  • And speaking of “throwback” Morrison’s game goes totally against the grain of what is expected today. Morrison struggled to get to the rim both in his college and professional career. He wasn’t the greatest ballhandler or playmaker, and he really wasn’t that much od a dead-eye beyond the arc (yes he did shoot 42.8 percent from beyond the arc his final season at GU, but this was before they extended the line back; and only 28 percent of his shots were from beyond the arc too). Morrison in all ways was a mid-range shooter, and man was he an entertaining one. And it wasn’t like he had some great “Kemba Walker”-esque step back or some great Iso move. He just would catch take a dribble and shoot over in the mid-range, and somehow be really effective offensively. Yes, that kind of game is archaic in today’s “3 or Key” style of basketball play, but it was pretty retro, since many NBA players in the 70’s and 80’s made their bread on mastering the mid-range jumper. Thus, was Morrison probably in retrospect inefficient? Most likely. But you can appreciate the artistry and nostalgia his game summoned.

I could go into way more “Why Morrison was a hipster before hipster was a fad in college” here, but we need to move on. Some highlights I didn’t mention: his affinity for Halo 2 (even as a junior, he would come to the frosh-soph dorms and play Halo 2 on the network against all of us); living in an all-male college dorm for two years (pretty unheard of since most college star basketball players would live in an apartment with just basketball players); and chewing tobacco (yes, he dipped…Grizzly I believe was his preference).

2. Morrison seemed content, but uncaring he was a bench player in the NBA

I am sure being a bench warmer gnawed at Adam Morrison following his rookie year. I know he and Larry Brown struggled to co-exist, and he went to a loaded LA Lakers team that really had no spot or plan for him (really, they just acquired to get Kwame Brown the hell out-of-town before Kobe Bryant murdered him). But, it seemed Morrison seemed content with being a bench guy, and I think that is refreshing because if I were in his boat, I’d be pretty content too making almost 10 million dollars over two years to be courtside to two NBA championships. Seriously. Sign me up for that now.

But the one thing that was pretty “hipster” of Morrison was that he gave off an “uncaring” cool about being a bench warmer. He wasn’t pouting, but he wasn’t that Mark Madsen-Mateen Cleaves-esque bench warmer who was always the first one out, slapping butts, waving towels, etc. I mean, to be honest, those guys are annoying, and they get way too much fanfare in my opinion. We know you suck. We do not need you to make us feel less bad about your sucking because you’re the first to give high fives to the starting 5 off the bench. And we certainly don’t need to go batshit crazy when you come in just so you can throw some airballs and bricks from beyond the arc and maybe make 1 out of 10. Whether its college or pro, the lovable end of the bench guys is an overrated arc in our basketball society.

Morrison never seemed to buy into that. Sure, there were a couple of times he got fired up, but for the most part, he was simply a “Well, I’m happy to be here, but I’m bored and I wonder what I am going to do after the game” kind of player. Even in practice, it seemed like Morrison toed the line between “caring” and “not caring”, so much so that he never seemed to get called out on it, but he never really was recognized as the “Ollie from Hoosiers” type of player that coaches recognized or sung the praises of. Check out Morrison toeing that line in a fight that breaks out in practice between DJ “Tacos” Mbenga and Chris “How the Hell Do I make this Much Money” Mihm.

Starting at the :30 mark, you can see that Morrison comes in, tries to break it up as if he cares, but then five seconds later just walks off in a “screw it…this is stupid…I’m breaking up a fight between DJ Mbenga and Chris Mihm” fashion. It’s really the perfect, totally hipster ploy: show you care enough for just enough time to look good in the eyes of your teammates before you are able to do what you really want, which is walk away because the whole moment is asinine in the grand scheme of things (after all, it’s two backup centers fighting).

But, the crown hipster jewel of Morrison’s NBA campaign? His legendary NBA Live commercial which aired on draft day. Bask in its glory below:

The whole things feels like the ultimate fantasy of every middle-aged white corporate executive who wished they could play basketball, but can’t beyond their night rec-league. (“Let’s create a commercial that echoes what really matters to us in basketball! Not dunks! Not great play! Not athleticsm! But EMOTION! PURE COLLEGE BASKETBALL EMOTION PEOPLE! THE NBA DOESN’T GET THAT!”). Even Morrison seems not really in the whole thing, but is doing it a.) because he knows its part of his image and b.) because he’s probably getting paid bank to do this commercial. The whole “I appear I care, but I don’t really” persona of Adam Morrison. And you wonder why I consider him the “Godfather” of Hipster basketball players. That ad above should clinch it for you.

3. His Tenure with Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade

Some people will say that him playing in Serbia was an absolute sign of failure. Personally, I loved it. Euro ball is so underappreciated in general. I would rather watch the Euroleague championships than any high-major conference tournament nowadays. Euro ball is actually great ball to watch, and the fans are so “soccer-esque” that the environment are more batshit insane than soccer games because it is all happening indoors and seems like a firehazard to the max. If you have not seen any European games, Google it or Youtube it or something. I guarantee you that if you’re a basketball fan you’ll slowly come to love it.

And with that being said, Morrison playing in Serbia just seemed like the perfect fit. It was counter-cultural and he seemed to be truly appreciated for his throwback style and game. In the highlights below, check him stepping inside the arc for a highly inefficient long two, get in the face of opposing players who probably don’t speak English, and get all kinds of Serbian fans riled all up. All this, while looking like a guy who plays Magic the Gathering in Comic Book shops but hits the gym five times a week and is in really good shape. Truly a sight to behold and take some time to do so below

The Legacy of Morrison

Again, Morrison without a doubt was a disappointment at the NBA Level. But he needs to be appreciated. Appreciated as the true NBA Hipster pioneer that he is. He cared, but not cared about style, both his personal and playing before it became cool to do so. He was unapologetic for who he was and he left us a lot of great memories and anecdotes to associate him with. There probably will never be another player like Adam Morrison, simply because players will be too self-conscious to ever pull the stunts and stuff he did.

I will write more posts about hipster basketball players in college, the NBA, D-League and even abroad. But in all honesty, I doubt any of them will ever touch the heights of hipster-ism that Morrison set before them.

Recruit Report: Domantas Sabonis, PF, 6-11, 200 pounds, Gonzaga Commit

Though it’s been almost a couple of months since he has signed, no player has been more fascinating this recruiting class than Domantas Sabonis, a power forward prospect from Lithuania. Sabonis comes with all kinds of fanfare already, as he is long, lanky athletic power forward who arrives to Gonzaga with an impressive basketball pedigree. Let’s take a look at why Sabonis should be highly anticipated by Zag and WCC fans this upcoming season.

Solid International Experience

Sabonis has been a long-time product of the Lithuanian national basketball program, a major power in the FIBA universe. Remember, this is a country that has recently produced NBA players like Linas Kleiza, Donatas Montiejunas and Jonas Valanciunas. Additionally, as a national program, the Lithuanian team earned the silver medal in the 2013 FIBA EuroBasket tournament, and the bronze medal in the 2010 FIBA World Cup in Turkey. The fact that Sabonis is involved in such a international powerhouse program means that he has had the proper development in his younger years, especially in comparison to other national basketball programs, where coaching and development is a little more uneven.

As for his actual playing experience at the international level, Sabonis has excelled representing Lithuania on the court. He averaged 14.1 points per game 14.4 rebounds per game and 2.6 assists per game for Lithuania in the 2012 U-16 FIBA World Championship (the team finished 11th), and 14 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game for Lithuania in the 2013 U-18 FIBA World Championship (his rebounding mark was a high for any player in the tournament). In terms of international competition, not only has Sabonis faced some of the world’s best young talent, he has displayed he can excel against the top international talent at his age level as well.

But, the international experience doesn’t stop there, as like many international talent who end up playing in college in the United States, Sabonis played with a competitive international club last season (you can play for a club as long as you do not sign a professional contract; this is touchy since some try to test how much compensation they can receive, as was the case with Kentucky recruit Enes Kanter, who didn’t sign a professional contract, but earned more money playing than allowable by the NCAA and lost his amateur status and didn’t play a minute for the Wildcats). Last year, Sabonis played for Unicaja Malaga, one of the top Spanish teams in the ACB league (a league Ricky Rubio also played for before coming to the NBA) that also qualified for the Euroleague (basketball’s answer to the Champions League in Soccer). While Sabonis did not play much (he played 10.5 minutes per game in ACB league action and 9.3 minutes in Euroleague play), he was one of the youngest players in the league in general (playing mostly as a 17-year-old) and earned rave reviews from coaches and players for his work ethic and development in his time with Unicaja Malaga. Watch the video below to see some interesting interviews with coaches and players about Sabonis (many interviews are in Spanish, but there are some English ones too).

Furthermore, one of the more endearing traits of international coaching and play is their willingness to “experiment” with young players in terms of positions. Unlike in the United States, where players are primarily placed at a position early on depending on their size and athleticism, Europe is known for having players play at multiple positions regardless of height or size. This has led to taller players displaying skills that is more expected of perimeter players (such as Dirk Nowitzki for example). It sounds like the coaching staff for Unicaja Malaga was willing to try Sabonis out in different positions to improve his development as an overall player, according to this report by Eurohopes, a Euroleague scouting site. Here is a quote from the writer of the report:

“After dominating European Championship U16 as a clear-cut up-front player, Unicaja’s coaching staff has decided to transfer him into tweener, so not surprisingly that in Rome Sabonis is seeing his playing time mostly at SF spot in Unicaja’s packed with sized lineup.”

For Gonzaga, this bodes well considering that small forward may be a position of need for the Zags, and they should be in good shape in the post with center Przemek Karnowski returning, and Kentucky transfer power forward Kyle Wiltjer being eligible right away. It is certainly in the realm of possibility that Few could throw out a huge front line with Sabonis at the 3, Wiltjer at 4 and Karnowski at 5. Now, whether or not Few would employ such a lineup on a regular basis is to be determined, but from the report listed above, it seems like Sabonis has worked on playing at the small forward position in his time in Europe, and this should give him a chance to earn minutes and be an impact player immediately for the Zags.

Impressive Basketball Lineage and Skills

Another aspect that should entice Northwest WCC basketball fans is the fact that Sabonis is the son of Arvydas, the legendary Lithuanian player who dominated in his time with the Soviet Union basketball squad and carved out an impressive career with the Portland Trailblazers. While his son Domantas doesn’t have the size of Arvydas (Sabonis was a bear literally speaking at 7-3 and 279 pounds) and it is to be determined if he has the overall skill prowess of his father (Arvydas would constantly dazzle fans with his soft shooting touch and excellent passing skills), he does come to the United States at a much younger age (Arvydas was 31 when he came to the NBA).

While some may not agree, basketball pedigree is an important trait that bodes well for player success. Having a father who played at a high level usually results in some of those skills and “instincts” being passed down to the younger generation. The Zags saw this with David Stockton, who while not physically gifted, inherited the excellent passing skills from his father and hall of famer John. Furthermore, the WCC has seen many talented players who came from NBA families carve out good careers at the college level including Luke Sikma of Portland (son of Jack who played for the Sonics), Austin Daye of Gonzaga (son of Darren who played for the Celtics) and Mychel Thompson of Pepperdine (son of Mychal Thompson who played for the Blazers and Lakers). While Sabonis will obviously have the help of the coaching staff to aid his development at Gonzaga in preparation for the next level, having his father’s input most likely will also be key in terms of adjusting to life and basketball play in the United States.

But, while having a NBA father has some intrinsic value, it also is a good sign physically as well, as players usually inherit many of the physical gifts of their fathers. That seems to be the case with Sabonis, as he is a tall athletic player and has the same excellent footwork, rebounding skills and tenacity that was characteristic of his father. If you watch the video below, Sabonis finishes especially well at the rim, and is able to display a flurry of post moves and drives that constantly results in easy points. Furthermore, he is able to get rebounds at a good rate, and isn’t pushed out easily by opposing players. If there was one quality that was endearing about Arvydas, it was his toughness, strength and tenacity in the paint that complemented his dazzling passing and ballhandling skills. While the strength isn’t totally there yet, it seems like Domantas has the motor and the toughness to handle himself at the college level. As he continues to develop muscle strength and fill into his body, it is possible that he could garner the strength down the road as a player that could resemble similarly to his father. Check out the video below and see how Domantas as a 16-year-old held his own and then some in International competition for Lithuania.

What CCH Overall Thinks of Sabonis

There have been a lot of ballyhooed recruits that I have gotten excited about at Gonzaga. Daye came in with an impressive high school pedigree and lofty recruiting rankings. Karnowski was known for his international experience as well as his participation in the Nike Hoop Summit, which in my opinion, is the best high school showcase currently (I think its more competitive than the McDonald’s All American Classic or Jordan Brand Classic). Kevin Pangos got on the map for holding his own against future Top-3 pick Andrew Wiggins in Canada. But Sabonis could possibly top all of them in my anticipation of him simply based on his physical skills, international experience and basketball pedigree. I can’t remember a player from Gonzaga who had this much development at such a young age, and faced so much elite competition as well before they even set foot in Spokane. Yes, he hasn’t gotten the hype that Daye or even current Top-50 recruit Josh Perkins received in the Recruiting media, but Sabonis probably went under the radar because I’m sure many didn’t think he was going to college initially. I’m sure many felt that Sabonis would play for Unicaja Malaga for a couple of more years and then make the jump to the NBA like most international players. Instead, Gonzaga gets an interesting player who could potentially have an impact on an even more loaded squad next season.

And I’m not alone in this feeling. Here is what Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports said in a piece that mentioned that Domantas Sabonis will have an impact for the Zags next season:

“One person that watched Sabonis in the past said he would have been a McDonald’s All-American had he played in the United States. Sabonis is only 17, but will be relied upon right off the bat for Mark Few and the Bulldogs.”

As stated before, it will be interesting to see how Mark Few will utilize Sabonis considering that Karnowski and Wiltjer are more experienced at the college level and will be more established with Few’s philosophy in comparison (Karnowski will be in his third year at Gonzaga and Wiltjer had a year in the program after sitting out due to transfer rules). But that being said, Sabonis has tremendous upside and potential, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him making a strong impact and making a name for himself in the college game in his first season with the Zags despite how loaded this Gonzaga team already is.

Data Sheet Analysis: A Look at How WCC Coaches Utilize Their Benches

If bench minutes history over the past four years means anything, those Gaels in the warm ups know their time on the floor is few and far between with coach Randy Bennett

I was looking up some data on Ken Pom.com (I know I’m addicted to that site), and I found something interesting. This season, many WCC programs rank near the bottom of the nation in terms of utilizing their bench. Only one team ranks in the Top-100 in terms of bench minutes percentage (Pacific), a stark contrast in comparison to years past from WCC teams. While you can access the Data Sheet on Bench Minutes on the “Data Sheets” Page, I’ll post the numbers right here to give you a context of the lack of time the bench players see in the WCC.

Team Bench Min % Nat’l Rank
Pacific 37.3 65
Santa Clara 34.2 120
Loyola Marymount 33.8 130
Pepperdine 33.7 132
Portland 30.6 201
San Francisco 30.1 217
Gonzaga 28.7 253
BYU 28.6 256
San Diego 27.5 274
St. Mary’s 23.1 333

 

Now, there are a variety of reasons why certain coaches utilize their bench less than other rival coaches. For some, it all can depend on a coaches’ style. A team that presses more, plays more in transition is more likely to use their bench to keep fresh legs on the court to play to their system. This is the case for a program like Arkansas who leads the nation in bench minutes percentage at 45.3 percent. Mike Anderson, a former Nolan Richardson disciple, plays a full court, high-pressure defensive style (i.e. “40 Minutes of Hell”). In order to maximize his team’s effectiveness (especially on the defensive ends), constant bench usage is necessary. Of course, the correlation between tempo and bench isn’t always the case as BYU plays the fastest tempo in the nation (77.6) but is in the bottom when it comes to bench minutes usage.

One big misconception though is that talent depth is a reason for more bench minutes usage. Teams who have more talent on the roster, should surely use their bench more than programs who are thin talent wise. So, if this thought is true, a team like Duke would be utilizing their bench than say a program like Montana State. That isn’t necessarily the case. When it comes to the Top-50 for teams who use their benches the most, only six (Arkansas, Purdue, Iowa, Texas A&M, Houston, Georgia, Louisville, Oregon State) came from major conferences, and only one (Louisville) made the NCAA Tournament a year ago (though Iowa was certainly deserving). The same proves to be true in the WCC. The top-3 favorites (Gonzaga, BYU and St. Mary’s) in the conference rank in the bottom of the conference in terms of bench minutes percentage while the ones at the top were relative afterthoughts going into the season (though Pacific did make the NCAA Tournament a year ago albeit as a Big West representative, a much weaker conference than the WCC).

But one year is just one year, right? After all, talent changes quite often and systems may differ depending on personnel. So, I wanted to take a look at which coaches tended to use their benches the most, and which ones did the least. To find this out, I went to Ken Pom.com, found each team’s bench minutes percentage from 2011-2014 and then averaged out the four year span. The results are shown in this graph:

As you can see the four year results provide some interesting trends. For starters, Randy Bennett seems to be the leading coach in the WCC who trusts his bench the least. His 26.4 percent four year average for bench minutes percentage correlates to the 23.1 percent bench minutes percentage we have seen from his squad this year (though even for his standards he trusts his bench even less so this year, as it is 3.1 percent below his four year average). Rex Walters has sort of employed the same “shallow rotation” with his Dons squads, as his 29 percent four year average is was second-least in the conference. Considering the amount of transfers Walters has seen in his tenure on “The Hilltop” it’s interesting to wonder if his “strict rotation” (or lack of bench utilizaiton) was a reason for a lot of his transfers or just one of the effects.

LMU leads the WCC in bench minutes percentage over the four year span with an average of 34.1, barely edging out Eric Reveno and Portland who finished with a four year average of 34. Portland’s finish is interesting because they never led the conference in bench minutes percentage from 2011-2014, but they finished second in the conference in 2012 and 2013, so that explains their close finish to LMU, who led the conference in bench minutes percentage in 2012 (they had the 37th highest bench minutes percentage in the nation that year as well).

The most eye-popping case is at Gonzaga with Mark Few as his bench minutes percentages have fluctuated wildly over the past four years. As you can see by his four year average, Few obviously numbers and minutes-wise utilizes his bench a decent amount, but that sharply contrasts from what we have seen this year (hence, their third-place finish in the four year average with an average of 33.7). In 2011, the Zags led the conference in bench minutes percentage at 38.5 percent (30th highest in the nation). Last year, they ranked fourth in the conference but still finished 81st in the nation (2013 was a year for bench players in the WCC as only BYU was outside the Top-200 in terms of bench minutes percentage) with a percentage of 34.8. But Few at times has showed years where he has relatively little trust in his reserves. In 2012, he trusted his bench less than the 4 year average, as the bench only averaged 32.7 minutes and this year, he showed even more of a lack of trust, as the Zags reserves are averaging only 28.7 minutes per game. Now, the lack of depth in the front court could be the main cause of this, but it is interesting to see how minutes have plunged at times in the Zags program, compounded by the fact that they have had many transfers over the past few years which ultimately led to this lack of depth for this Zags squad (just look at Gonzaga transfer Ryan Spangler who is starting for Oklahoma now). Few has showed a short leash with players on the bench, even though his teams have been the deepest in the conference talent-wise for years. Even this year’s team has a lot of depth on the perimeter, but as displayed from the numbers, he doesn’t utilize them as much as other, lesser-talented teams in the conference.

All these numbers are up for interpretation and as stated before, there are lots of reasons why certain coaches utilize their bench more or less. Whatever the reason, it is interesting to see the numbers laid out, and see how each coaches’ process will fare out for them over the conference season and into conference tournament play and beyond.

Analyzing Gonzaga’s Defensive Play Against WCC Foes

Przemek Karnowski (24, white) has helped the Zags be one of the best squads defensively in the WCC

Mark Few has always earned his reputation as an “offensive” coach. Regularly, his teams rank in the top 20-30 in terms of offensive efficiency according to Ken Pom’s ratings. He has produced offensively efficient players from the well-known like Adam Morrison and Kelly Olynyk to the lesser-known JP Batista and Kyle Bankhead. This year, the Zags continue to be efficient in the offensive end, as they are rated 10th in the nation with a 117.4 offensive rating this year (which has helped them be rated as the 18th best team in the nation according to KenPom).

But, the Zags wouldn’t be sitting alone on top of the WCC now with a 4-0 record if they were just good offensively. Much to its credit, there are a lot of good offensive teams in the WCC this season. St. Mary’s has continued their tradition of producing great offense under coach Randy Bennett (though he is sitting out the first 5 games of conference play due to a recruiting violation issue), as they are posting a rating of 116.5, 13th best in the nation. San Francisco and BYU have also been solid squads on the offensive end, as they are posting ratings of 111.0 and 110.4, good for 48th and 57th, respectively. If there’s one thing the WCC doesn’t lack, it’s an ability to score points (only San Diego is not rated in the top-150 in terms of offensive efficiency).

What has separated the Zags in conference play so far has been their defensive performance. Despite missing Gary Bell for three games and Sam Dower battling through injuries, the Zags have posted extremely stellar efficiency numbers on the defensive end so far in WCC play (just accounting WCC games). The Zags lead in six of the nine defensive categories on Ken Pom.com, and in two of them they finish second. They are the top team currently in terms of effective field goal against (39.2 percent), turnovers caused (19.4 percent), offensive rebounds prevented (22.3 percent), 2-point percentage against (35.8 percent), block percentage (18.2 percent) and Adjusted Defensive rating (82.2). To put into context how good their start has been from a numbers standpoint, their Adjusted Defensive rating is 19.7 points better than the second-best team (BYU), their eFG percentage prevented is 5.6 percent better than the next best team (Pepperdine) and their block percentage is 4.7 percent better than the next best team (Portland). The Zags have been absolutely dominating teams on the defensive end so far in conference play, and if you don’t necessarily buy into the advanced numbers, you can just look at the scores: against two teams rated in the top-40 in Adjusted Offense (USF and St. Mary’s), the Zags held them to a combined 92 points and 0.60 Points Per Possession and 0.80 points per possession, respectively. Additionally, against St. Mary’s, the Zags held one of the WCC’s best and most efficient players, Brad Waldow to only five points and a season low 48 offensive rating (his previous low this year was 103 against George Mason).

Yes, the Zags’ numbers are amazing. However, what makes it more amazing is that they’re succeeding in an area where they were supposed to be weak this season. They lost their top-two post players (Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris) from a year ago, and many pundits (including myself), figured the front court was going to be an issue for the Zags this season. While the scoring and offensive production has been inconsistent, defensively it has been a strength for them. Their 2 point percentage against is 5.1 percent better than the next best squad, and one of the reasons for that has been the defensive play of center Przemek Karnowski.

I tweeted this yesterday after the game:

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Karnowski has been a bit inconsistent this year on the offensive side (only a 100.2 Adjusted Offensive rating, compounded by a 48 percent free throw percentage and a 100.0 FT rate; lots of chances and low percentages don’t result in efficiency). On the defensive side of the ball though, he has given the Zags a true defensive presence that the Zags haven’t had before. At 7-1 and 305 pounds, Karnowski is a load in the post and makes it not only tough for opposing WCC post players to get position on him, but he is effective in taking away driving lanes for WCC guards as well. That was especially evident against USF and St. Mary’s as not only did he shut down an elite offensive player (Waldow), but he also provided a wall for the Dons and Gaels to get to the hoop, leading to the sub-par performances each team experienced in Spokane.

Additionally, the subtraction of Olynyk and Harris, while devastating on the offensive end has actually been good on the defensive end, as Karnowski may be a better post presence defensively than either of them, especially Olynyk (who was the true center last year). Numbers wise Karnowski bests Olynyk in terms of block percentage (8.6 to Olynyk’s 5.1) and defensive rebounding percentage (24.2 to Olynyk’s 20.5). But even on the tape, Karnowski shows excellent instincts for a post man, as he knows what to do well and understands how to use his body as a wall to protect the hoop, even if he may not be the most athletic big man in the WCC. One of the problems for Olynyk was that he would get out of position at times on the defensive end, which would not only hurt in terms of allowing points at the rim, but also make the Zags vulnerable to allowing second chance shots. That hasn’t been the case with Karnowski this year. He stays his ground well and is able to do just enough to get in the kind of defensive position to take away easy shots in the paint (something you couldn’t always say out Olynyk). And, to make things better, Karnowski doesn’t sacrifice rebounding position to defend shots, and this has been a reason why the Zags have been much better at preventing offensive rebounds this year than a season ago (32.2 percent offensive rebounds prevented rate, third best in the WCC).

That being said, Karnowski is not alone in terms of helping the defensive effectiveness of this Zags squad. With the Polish center taking away the middle with his solid frame, strong defensive instincts and ability to limit second chances shots (he has a team high 24.2 defensive rebounding percentage, 63rd in the nation), his presence has complemented the Zags’ perimeter defenders nicely. The biggest surprise contributor has been 6-5 wing man Kyle Draginis who has seen an uptick in playing time since Bell’s injury. Draginis has the length and speed to frustrate opposing guard, and it has been obvious that the defense has improved since he has earned more minutes in the absence of Bell. Furthermore, his 2.5 steal percentage has been a nice surprise for a team that leads the WCC in turnovers caused percentage. Of course, Draginis has not been the sole reason for their superb play on the perimeter defensively. David Stockton, though out matched at times physically, continues to be a pesky defensive player, as he is second on the team in steal rate at 3.3 percent. Gerard Coleman, who was buried for a while on the bench until he earned more minutes with Bell’s injury, leads the team in steal percentage (3.6 percent) and has the kind of wing span that belies his size (6-4) and makes him a matchup problem at times for opposing guards. And Angel Nunez may be the biggest wild card of all, as he has the size and length to guard smaller forwards on the perimeter or small post players in the paint (though strength-wise, that is still a question). The bottom line? The Zags have all kinds of weapons on the perimeter, and the presence of Karnowski and a healthy Dower down low make those wing players able to be more aggressive on the defensive end, knowing they have that presence in the paint taking away the drive at the basket.

At the end of the 2006 season, it seemed like Few was at a crossroads in terms of what to emphasize defensively as a coach. Though he has produced good defensive squads his first years, in 2005, they ranked as the 4th best team in the WCC in terms of defensive efficiency and they rated as the third-best team in the WCC in 2006. The reason? He had excellent offensive players in Adam Morrison and JP Batista and it seemed that the Zags went into contests with the idea that they could simply outscore and provide just another defense to win. There was some success with this model, as they did reach the Sweet 16 in 2006 and lost to a team that eventually went to the NCAA Championship in 2006 (UCLA). Instead though of preferring that style, he has recruited more defensively talented and inclined players since the Morrison-Batista era (they haven’t ranked below second in defensive rating in the WCC since 2006) and that is still relevant today, even with the WCC offensively probably at its most talented in comparison to years past. The Zags are not just able to scrap by defensively, but they have showed that they are able to dominate squads (and good offensive squads) in the WCC. In a conference where there is much more parity than in years past, the Zags emphasis and ability on defense this year may be the chief reason why they rise above the pack for another consecutive season.

Recruit Report: Josh Perkins, 6-3, 185 pounds, Gonzaga commit

One of the highest profile recruits coming into the WCC next year is Gonzaga commit Josh Perkins out of Huntington Prep High School in Huntington, West Va. If the name of the school sounds familiar it should be, as former high profile recruits Andrew Wiggins and OJ Mayo played high school ball there during their senior seasons (Huntington has effectively become the next Oak Hill Academy, which was famous for getting senior transfers from all over the nation; the list include Carmelo Anthony, Josh Smith and DeSagna Diop to name a few). Originally from the Denver, Colorado-area, Perkins looks to be the kind of player that could continue Gonzaga’s great tradition of producing effective guards.

ESPN currently rates Perkins as the 38th best recruit in the nation according to their Top-100, and also considered UCLA and Minnesota before signing with the Zags. Even though Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell are most likely going to return for the senior seasons, Perkins looks like he could be a good sixth man off the bench next year for the Zags as a guard, especially with longtime and popular point guard David Stockton graduating this year.

What they are saying about Perkins

From Rivals.com (graded him a four-star recruit and 46th best in the nation)

“A very flashy playmaker from Colorado who sees open teammates pretty much anywhere on the floor. Whips passes with either hand and makes plays in transition. On offense he favors pull-up jumpers and sometimes settles. Opponents who can really move laterally can bother him.”

From Scout.com (graded him a four-star recruit and the fifth-best point guard in the nation)

“More than anything, Perkins is a sensational passer. He makes the difficult ones look easy and can make the easy ones difficult, but his abilities in this regard are indisputable. Perkins also is a talented scorer. He doesn’t draw as much praise for that for that ability and understandably so, but he knocks down three-pointers on the high side of screens and shoots well setting himself up off the dribble.” 

From Slipper Still Fits (Gonzaga SB Nation Blog)

“Perkins is undoubtedly one of the highest rated recruits to ever commit to Gonzaga.  He had offers from outstanding programs across the country, most notably UCLA, Minnesota, Connecticut, Arizona, and Stanford.  He received significant interest from Kentucky, Syracuse, and Kansas as well.  He is currently a top-30 prospect on both Scout and Rivals which is similar to where Austin Daye was rated and slightly higher than where Matt Bouldin checked in at when he arrived at Gonzaga.”

Catholic Coast Hoops Quick Analysis

When you watch Perkins on tape, he is just a phenomenal passer. He simply has an uncanny ability to find the open man with extraordinary quickness and accuracy. If anything, he reminds me a lot of a taller Sebastian Telfair with his ability to handle the ball, drive and find his teammates with ease (and I do NOT use that comparison frugally; I watched Jonathan Hock’s “Through the Fire” like a dozen times). While I do not have stats on his current shooting stats, scouts rate him as a solid shooter, and his form looks good on tape, as he is able to pull up and shoot the jumper quickly when his team is in transition. Scout.com also raved about his 3-point shooting, rating it as one of his strengths as a player along with his passing and court vision.

The Slipper Still Fits, which has been following him in person for a good while (one of the main writers of the blog lived in Denver and used to see him when he was still going to high school in Denver), remarked he was one of the highest profile recruits since Austin Daye (Daye was one of the first truly “High Profile National Recruits” the Zags signed, though some argue Jeremy Pargo holds that honor since he was a pretty highly rated recruit of Chicago). I sort of agree with the assessment, though I think Kevin Pangos and Przemek Karnowski would have been rated higher had they been “American” recruits (both guys played for the international squad in the Nike Hoops Summit their senior years, which is just slightly below the McDonald’s All American Classic in terms of prestige). Nonetheless, Perkins is a legitimate recruit, and much like Daye back in 2007, I believe Perkins will be making plenty of buzz when he arrives on campus next Fall (or technically Summer, since most basketball recruits come to take classes in the summer to get a head start). Because of Pangos and Bell’s presence next year, I don’t think Perkins will break out as a star or have the kind of immediate impact those two had when they arrived. That being said, I think he’ll be a key factor in the Zags’ rotation his rookie campaign and earn a sizable chunk of playing time that will develop him to have his true breakout in his sophomore season.

Why Kevin Pangos May Be the Greatest Guard in Recent Gonzaga History

Awww…memories

First off, I am a Gonzaga alum. My dad wasn’t a Gonzaga alum, but he went to Gonzaga for his first three years of undergrad (he finished at USF, where my grandfather went, so USF always feels like a second-favorite team to me). I lived in Spokane for six years when I was little. So, maybe I am biased toward Gonzaga in some small subtle ways when evaluating WCC teams (though I have gotten better at respecting the WCC as a whole over the past few years; hence the creation of this blog). However, if there is one thing I know, it’s Gonzaga basketball history. I remember a day when John Rillie and Kyle Dixon were the starting backcourt for the Zags (Yes, Rillie and Dixon. I’m sure a lot of WCC basketball fans just sports referenced those two).  I’m not just a recent fan of Gonzaga who started liking the Zags because of the Adam Morrison days or if you’re real hardcore, the Dan Dickau days. I’ve seen Gonzaga when they’ve been great and I’ve seen them when they were fair-to-middling (I don’t remember the days when they outright sucked, which is always exaggerated in my mind; Gonzaga wasn’t Gonzaga back then, but people who say the sucked grossly overstate it; they were more like Portland is now). I’ve seen games when they used to sport the Royal Blue and Red (wish they’d go back) and I remember when they had a coach who used to get so fired up that he made Mark Few look like an altar boy in comparison (Dan Fitzgerald, RIP, who unfortunately was pushed out acrimoniously due to a funding issue when he was AD).

So, when I say guard Kevin Pangos may be one of the greatest guards, perhaps even the greatest in Gonzaga recent history, I am not shooting this from the hip. This isn’t a knee jerk reaction. I loved Blake Stepp and Derek Raivio. But Pangos may be better than either of them, and this year, statistically he is proving it. He not only could be the reason the Zags win the crown in a suddenly wide-open WCC, but he could be the reason why they stay competitive on the national college basketball scene.

First off, I am only going to compare Pangos to guards who played at Gonzaga from 2003 on. It’s the furthest Ken Pom stats go back. I wish I could go back further, but I don’t have the time, stats or resources to compare guys like Dickau or John Stockton or Matt Santangelo to Pangos (on a knee jerk suspicion, I say Pangos is definitely better than Santangelo, maybe same level as Dickau and slightly worse Stockton; Stockton really didn’t become legendary until he went to the NBA, though he was pretty good at Gonzaga). One of the projects I hope to do is do some historical statistical analysis on some classic WCC teams. I don’t have the time now, but that is something that could happen in the summer, which would make comparisons or posts like these all the more interesting and valuable.

Now, if you have not noticed, statistically, Pangos is having a season that is teetering on legendary when it comes to offensive efficiency. His Adjusted offense according to Ken Pom is 139.2, which is top in the WCC for anyone with at least a 20 percent usage rate. While Gary Bell is close to him at 138.1, Bell’s rating benefits from his extraordinary shooting touch (as he has displayed all three seasons at Gonzaga). But, Bell doesn’t touch Pangos in terms of creating plays for his teammates as well as taking care of the ball. The difference between Bell’s assist and turnover rate is +4.4. Pangos? +12.2, highlighted by a 20.7 assist rate. This isn’t a fluke either, as Pangos’ difference last year was +2.9 while Bell’s was -3.6.

What makes Pangos so great is how he has developed his game since coming to Gonzaga. In high school, Pangos earned a lofty reputation for his ability to shoot from the outside, carry a rather thin team talent-wise and go toe-to-toe with future phenom Andrew Wiggins. If you watch this video, Pangos scored at will against Wiggins’ Vaughn team when Wiggins was a frosh. You can see Wiggins eventually switch to guard Pangos after Pangos starts lighting up the Vaughn squad. But even though Wiggins had obvious physical advantages over the smaller guard, Pangos was still able to make Wiggins and Vaughn pay en route to a game high 48 points.

Pangos has showed a similar ability to drop an obscene amount of points at times. He scored 34 points against Arkansas in the Maui Classic this year, and obliterated a Washington State Cougars team with 27 points as well. But, his game has evolved and that what makes the possibility of Pangos being legendarily great in the Gonzaga lore possible. He has lowered his turnover rate to under 10 percent this year after past rates of 15.7 and 16.5 his sophomore and freshman seasons, respectively. His effective field goal percentage has risen to 60.5 after being 54.9 percent a year ago. He is getting to the line more than a year ago (33.3 free throw rate in comparison to the 26.2 rate last year). And he is doing this with  more minutes than in years past (his 85.2 minutes percentage is a career high so far), and a higher usage rate (21.0 usage rate this year). Some players, who get the uptick in usage and minutes struggle to keep the same efficiency they had when they had the ball less in their hands and when they were on the floor less. Not only has Pangos maintained the same efficiency, but he has actually gotten better, which they needed from him after they lost go-to guy Kelly Olynyk from a year ago.

But when you compare what he’s doing in the lore go Gonzaga history, what Pangos is doing is amazing. Yes, Pangos and Bell could possibly make the best guard-combo Zags fans have ever seen, but what Pangos is doing by himself is pretty darn special. Blake Stepp’s best season in adjusted offense came in 2003-2004, where he posted a rating of 117.1. Derek Raivio’s best season was 122.7 in 2006-2007, but he only posted positive assist to turnover rates only twice in his career (and in his 2006-2007 season, the difference was only +.5). Jeremy Pargo never posted a turnover rate less than 20 percent and consequently his best season efficiency-wise was his senior year when he had a rating of 107.1 (better than his WCC Player of the Year junior season actually). Matt Bouldin’s best year came his junior year when he posted a 119.1 offensive rating, but he also struggled with turnovers over the course of his college career, and he actually regressed in his senior year (his rating fell to 115 his last year). And Steven Gray? After a sophomore campaign when he posted a 120.1 offensive rating, he struggled with more minutes, as he failed to post offensive ratings over 109 in his junior and senior campaigns.

As you can see, there are a lot of names up there, and a lot of quality guards who have had immense impact and success in their tenures with the Zags. And yet, neither of them can touch Pangos’ 139.2 offensive rating, and very few have showed the upward progress Pangos has made from his freshman year to his current state. Pangos came in more as a shooter and he has developed more into an overall player that can step up when needed. He has been overshadowed the past couple of years by upperclassmen and bigger stars, but now that Pangos is asked to shine, he has lived up to the hype and then some. If the Zags want to make the tournament, win another WCC title and perhaps make a run deep in the tourney, then they are going to have to lean on Pangos to make it happen, especially with Sam Dower and Bell’s health an issue at this point.

And you know what? It most likely will happen, because Pangos has been that good this year and stepped up his game that much. Despite the flaws and question marks of this Gonzaga team, Pangos has continued to keep this Gonzaga team humming and currently cemented in its familiar place in the WCC: the top.