Written By: Parker Lovett
The Gonzaga Bulldogs, the Cinderella turned national powerhouse, are seeing their prominence rise not only amongst the collegiate ranks, but also with players in the NBA. With three lottery picks in the last 5 years, after only one in the school’s history prior, Mark Few’s program is beginning to have an impact at the next level. The program that produced Hall of Famer John Stockton, as well as third overall pick Adam Morrison, is slowly garnering a reputation as “Big Man U” due to its success with developing NBA caliber frontcourt players.
The league is putting greater emphasis on floor spacing and versatile big men who are comfortable on the perimeter. These “stretch” bigs drag their defenders away from the paint, preventing them from blocking shots and grabbing rebounds. Three point jump shots are becoming more and more important, and if big men struggle to adapt their games, they won’t find the floor for many teams.
With that in mind, three former Zags will be wearing new NBA jerseys next season, and the three point jump shot will play a large factor in their success.
Heavily recruited out of Canada, Kelly Olynyk chose to stay close to home and join the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the WCC. After playing sparingly under Few in his first two years, Olynyk and the coaching staff agreed to a rare redshirt for his junior season. Olynyk used the year off to strengthen his body and refine his skills, as he was known more as a perimeter player despite being a 7 footer. The following season, Olynyk’s scoring average skyrocketed, he was named WCC Player of the Year, and he cemented himself as an NBA prospect.
It’s become known as the “Kelly Olynyk Game”, an incredible 26 points in 28 minutes off the bench in Game 7 to put Boston into the Conference Finals. Olynyk, the 13th pick in 2013, parlayed that clutch performance into a 4 year deal in restricted free agency. The former Bulldog will serve as a “stretch 4” to give the Heat more spacing around their traditional center Hassan Whiteside.
A career 36% three point shooter, Olynyk doesn’t provide much else on the floor, meaning his value comes mostly from his scoring punch off the bench. Olynyk can make an impact for the Heat next season by converting three pointers and opening up the floor for Miami’s playmakers.
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Sabonis has had a unique career path, which included playing professionally overseas before coming to Spokane. At Gonzaga, Sabonis played behind Kyle Wiltjer (formerly on the Rockets) in his freshman year, where he flashed his NBA potential with a sky high field goal percentage despite limited minutes.
In his sophomore year, Sabonis was a beast averaging 17 points and 11 rebounds, which led to him being drafted 11th overall. Having watched Sabonis in person many times, I noticed that despite his limited athleticism, he was still able to compete at a high level because of his persistent work ethic.
Domantas Sabonis, son of basketball legend Arvydas Sabonis, is a tenacious rebounder with a high motor and offensive upside. The 6’10” Lithuanian struggles, however, with below average speed and vertical leap, concerning in the switch heavy modern NBA.
Sabonis shot 32% from three in his rookie season, but he had two months above 40%, and his jumper has started to look better since his days playing for Few. Sabonis will need to add more shooting to his game, but it will be interesting to see how he performs with more opportunity on a rebuilding Indiana Pacers’ squad.
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Collins was a game changing prospect for Few and his program, as the first McDonalds All American to join the Bulldogs directly out of high school. Though Collins played behind two more experienced frontcourt players, when he was on the floor he made a large impact. In contributing to the program’s first ever Final Four, Collins averaged ten points and five rebounds in 17 minutes.
His per 40 minutes numbers of 23 points per game and 13 rebounds are evidence of how effective Collins was when he was in the game. I saw Collins go from a raw young player to a rebounding and shot-blocking machine, and his play in the NCAA tournament was a testament to what he can do.
Neil Olshey, a well-regarded draft evaluator of the Blazers, traded two first round picks to select 7 footer Zach Collins at 10th overall.
Collins has tremendous upside, with his ability to shoot, move laterally, rebound, and block shots. He needs to add muscle to his frame, but at 19 years old he brings a lot to the table. It will be interesting to watch his jumper develop, as he took only 21 three pointers for the Zags last season, making ten of them. He has good form on his jumper and he can play out of the pick and pop, encouraging given Portland’s shifty backcourt of Lillard and McCollum and low post force Jusuf Nurkic.
Collins excellent shot blocking ability (4 blocks per 40 minutes) combined with his offensive upside give him the makings of a coveted “stretch 5”.