Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review
The heralded freshman class is finally in Spokane
There’s so much happening in the world right now, but as the calendar turns to July, sports are just weeks away from a return. Professional sports will give it their best shot. College sports are a trickier proposition when it comes to unpaid athletes’ health. Yesterday, Rick Pitino offered a solution for college basketball: start in January and only play conference games.
It’s hard to envision Division 1 universities eliminating a college football season and two March Madness tournaments in a 12 month span. In some form, college basketball will probably exist this Winter. Whenever it begins, Gonzaga will be the number one team in the nation if Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi, and Filip Petrusev return to Spokane. They welcome in Aaron Cook as a graduate transfer, Anton Watson is back from a shoulder injury, and Oumar Ballo gets to suit up after taking an academic redshirt year.
But perhaps the most exciting element of the team for some fans is the addition of the Tricky Trio. Jalen Suggs, Dominick Harris, and Julian Strawther make up Gonzaga’s best recruiting class of all-time. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few days watching the Trio play to see what their real strengths and weaknesses are, and how they will fit on this year’s roster. As our fearless leader Peter Woodburn told me on Monday, it’s pretty wild that Gonzaga recruits now have full games, some of them nationally televised, to watch on YouTube as opposed to scouring the internet for mixtapes.
Note: All prospect rankings are from ESPN’s Top 100 list.
Jalen Suggs – 5 stars, 6’5 point guard, Minnehaha Academy (Mn.), #6 Prospect
With good reason, Gonzaga’s top recruit in school history is also the most hyped prospect to step foot on campus. As a junior, he averaged 24.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 3.7 steals. He played for the United States in the U19 FIBA World Cup, and though he struggled a bit from the field, he started every game, and led the gold medal team in steals. He and Chet Holmgren guided Minnehaha to a 28-3 record his senior year, including a 20-point win over nationally ranked Sierra Canyon where Suggs had 23 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and six steals in front of a crowd of 17,000+ fans. He’s no stranger to the bright lights and the big stage.
Suggs is already an incredibly mature basketball player. He’s a natural point guard with an excellent feel for the game. He makes everyone around him better, but also knows when to take over if need be. In other words, he’s team player who loves to win games.
He can score from all three levels, is extremely smart in the pick-and-roll, and his body control allows him to finish shots at a high level. It’s uniquely rare for a freshman have his combination of quickness, strength, and control. His instincts and vision are elite, not just in ball screens, but also in transition. Suggs will follow the list of recent guards who rebound the heck out of the ball. He’s a total complete player worthy of his one-and-done projection.
Obviously, no player is perfect. No matter how good a freshman is, there is always some sort of learning curve. For Suggs, the biggest concern is consistency. He’s a good perimeter shooter, but not great. With his experience playing in FIBA tournaments, he has seen the difference in the extended three-point line from the high school ranks. In the U19 World Cup, he was 9-for-36 (25%) from beyond the arc. His stroke is smooth and his form is good, but with the Bulldogs losing three of their top five shooters from a year ago, they’ll need Suggs to hit shots. On the other end of the floor, defending high level athletes on a consistent basis is always the biggest adjustment for freshmen. His IQ and anticipation lead to gaudy steal numbers, but being a superior athlete to most people he played against helped a ton, too. With the athleticism gap smaller, his one-on-one defense will be something to watch. He’s also coming into a much more nuanced scheme at the college level. How fast he can pick up scouting reports and the types of coverages thrown his way may be the difference between 25 minutes a game and 35 minutes a game.
Being the starting point guard for the number one team in the nation is a heavy task for anyone. Doing that as a true freshman is an even bigger challenge. Suggs will enter that role right away, and from what we can tell from all past experiences, he will relish the opportunity.
Suggs is a perfect fit in Mark Few’s ball screen heavy offense. He’s an aggressive driver, but an incredibly willing passer. His decision making is excellent and his speed in transition will be an enormous asset. With all the talent surrounding him, Suggs won’t be required to score 15 points a game, but simply make the best play for the team. Because of his size and skill set, you may see Suggs post-up a lot like Nigel Williams-Goss did.
Last year’s team was full of introverts, and Few pleaded with them to become more vocal as the season went on. It’s very possible, if not expected, that Suggs becomes a team leader right away. If he can consistently knock down jumpers, he has the look of a player who will live up to every bit of the hype surrounding him.
Jalen Suggs is a top 10 freshman for a reason. But I think its his vision, instincts, and body control that already put him on another level. pic.twitter.com/Yzekznonns
— Steven Karr (@SKarrG0) June 27, 2020
Dominick Harris – 4 stars, 6’4 combo guard, Rancho Christian HS (Ca.), #59 prospect
Harris committed to Gonzaga his sophomore year of high school and has been one of their biggest recruiters on social media ever since. He and his family have shown an incredible amount of loyalty and support that it feels like Dom has already been in Spokane for a year. Now, we finally get to watch him suit up.
Harris and top-ranked recruit Evan Mobley (USC) led Rancho Christian to a 22-8 season where they had several nationally televised games. He scored a game-high 23 points in a win over Rainier Beach in the Hoophall West Invitational and later dropped 30 to beat top-ranked Sierra Canyon in the championship game of the Damien Classic.
You won’t see much mid-range game from Harris; he’s built his game around modern day basketball. He’s a driver and a shooter. His quick first step makes him a lethal slasher. His quick release makes him a knock down shooter with plenty of range. I think he has the ability to be an elite shooter for many, many years. He’s also strong in transition and can finish in a variety of ways at the basket. Having played with Mobley, he understands the value of a productive post player, something he’ll have plenty of at Gonzaga.
He was often tasked with guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player in high school. His lateral quickness is solid and his length is an asset. But he’s got to continue getting stronger, something he’s been working on throughout his high school career. If you only learn one thing about Harris, let it be this: he is one of the hardest workers around. His work ethic and commitment to winning is off the charts and can often make up for minor flaws.
At times, his offensive game gets sped up and leads to mistakes. Sometimes it’s in the form of a silly or unnecessary pass, but often times it’s taking off on one foot to the rim and getting caught in mid-air without a place to go. Few’s system obviously requires pace, but decisions have to be made under control. The biggest concern I have for Harris is trying to accomplish so much in the minutes he plays that he plays way too fast, which is something Drew Timme admitted to doing over the first dozen or so games last season before just letting the game come to him.
Assuming Ayayi and Kispert come back, Harris may play anywhere between 8-20 minutes off the bench. A lot of his playing time may have to do with how Aaron Cook integrates into the system. If Few trusts the fifth year senior over the true freshman, Harris will be looking at fewer minutes. We haven’t got to Strawther yet, but it’s incredibly rare for Few to go 9 or 10 deep in a rotation.
Regardless, when he’s on the court, Harris has the chance to be an energizer bunny and a knockdown shooter. As mentioned with Suggs, Gonzaga only returns two of their top five shooters from a year ago. Outside of Ayayi and Kispert, the returning Bulldogs have a combined 15 made threes in their college careers. Cook only hit 40 threes his junior year at SIU, a lower number than Admon Gilder hit as a Zag. Needless to say, Gonzaga needs shooting from somewhere on this roster. Harris can, and may have to be that guy.
Dominick Harris: smart pick and roll player, good in open space with a quick first step. Most notably, I think his form and quick release give him a chance to be an elite shooter. pic.twitter.com/3bgfcj3XaA
— Steven Karr (@SKarrG0) June 30, 2020
Julian Strawther – 4 stars, 6’7 wing, Liberty High School (NV.), #62 recruit
The easiest way to put this: Julian Strawther is a certified bucket getter. In the U19 World Cup last summer, he was second in the tournament in scoring with 22 points a game, including 35- and 40-point outbursts. He grabbed 6.1 rebounds and had fewer than two turnovers, which is remarkable given his usage rate for Puerto Rico.
Strawther averaged 27 points as a junior at Liberty in Nevada, and somehow increased that to 31.5 points as a senior to go with 11.2 rebounds. He chose Gonzaga because of their tempo and how Few allows their players to play freely on offense. Strawther can score in so many different ways in the half court, but also excels with the ball in transition. Because of his size, he is nearly impossible to stop going downhill. Being a large wing, he’s also hard to guard in post isolations. He’s a smart pick-and-roll player as both a ball handler and a screener, giving Few yet another versatile option for his offense. Gonzaga hasn’t had many true slashing wings, but Strawther may lead the way to more in the future.
His motor is unbelievably high and he will grab several big offensive rebounds that can change a game. His IQ is very high and his off-ball movement is incredibly smart. He understands when to flash to open spaces and is an extremely efficient finisher.
I’m not sold on his ability to shoot from the perimeter yet. He can knock down occasional shots, but his money is made driving to the rim. The next evolution to his game will be becoming a knockdown shooter. Gonzaga has helped so many players on their jump shots over the years that Strawther should be another beneficiary. If he can keep defenses honest from deep, his slashing ability will become even more lethal.
Another question that may determine playing time is if he can guard smaller and quicker players. Gonzaga is going to have a very tall roster this year, but they play a lot of schools, especially in the WCC, who play three smaller, quick perimeter players at a time. Strawther may have no problem scoring on one end, but can he defend on the other?
On the surface, it’s hard to tell how many minutes Strawther will get this year. If you think Few will go 10 players deep in big games, Strawther may take the minutes when Kispert is on the bench. Unfortunately for him, Kispert typically plays 35 minutes in those contests and Few can easily go with a Suggs-Cook-Ayayi backcourt. If Strawther can be relied on right away, Kispert may play fewer minutes to stay fresh for later in the year. If he does play the wing and is guarded by a smaller defender, you may see similar post isolations to what Gonzaga ran for Rui when they played him next to Killian Tillie and Johnathan Williams (Petrusev can Tillie in this example where the design is to get a post iso in the middle of the paint).
I also don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibilities to see Strawther get minutes at the 4 behind Anton Watson. As I wrote about last week, Gonzaga doesn’t play as efficiently when two centers are on the court at once. Perhaps they use Strawther’s quickness next to one of them for a few minutes a game. He has been used plenty as a screener and scores well in post-up situations.
Gonzaga has an excess of riches on this roster. It’s hard to leave Strawther off the court because of his ability to score the basketball, but he’s also playing behind a fourth-year starter. Like Harris, his minutes may be dependent on not trying to do too much when he’s in the game. In any event, it’s tantalizing to have a player with Strawther’s scoring ability in the program.
Julian Strawther is a Grade-A bucket getter. He can do it in a variety of ways from anywhere on the court. What makes him more special: his incredibly high motor and off-ball movement. pic.twitter.com/54qvZzz13J
— Steven Karr (@SKarrG0) July 1, 2020
The Tricky Trio have been outspoken about wanting to bring Gonzaga their first national championship. They are the full package as a group: the superstar point guard, the elite shooter, and the ferocious slasher. All three of them have high-level quickness and athleticism. Who knows what kind of season we’ll end up getting once November rolls around, but I have a hard time seeing March Madness getting canceled a second time. There’s nothing the Tricky Trio likes more than winning. If they make smart and winning plays with the talent that surrounds them, their prophecy of a title is in the team’s grasp.