Gonzaga basketball is a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament, but the hoops hotbed nestled in Spokane has also blossomed into a consistent pipeline for NBA Draft talent. To get a closer look at the current crop of prospects on the Bulldogs’ roster, Ridiculous Upside’s Steve Dewald reached out to an expert that follows the team closely.
Jackson Frank serves as The Gonzaga Bulletin’s Senior Sports Editor and answers a few questions below about the talented group of players under coach Mark Few’s tutelage.
Steve Dewald: I’d like to start with your reaction to both Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie returning to Gonzaga for another season. Both players appeared to be legit contenders to be selected in the first round of last year’s draft. What do you think went into their respective decisions?
Jackson Frank: Well, I think the development Gonzaga’s coaching staff fosters was a chief factor. Both players made serious strides from their freshman to sophomore year and the program’s emphasis on individualized attention gave them hope they could boost their stock even more.
On another note, Killian Tillie suffered a right hip injury during the NCAA Tournament and its lingering effects threatened his ability to workout for NBA teams. I think that played a significant role for him.
Collectively, the team is going to be really, really good (top five nationally) with those two back in the fold and after falling in the title game as freshman, the opportunity for redemption likely influenced their decision.
Steve: Focusing on just Hachimura, what do you think he has to do to secure a spot as a lottery selection?
Jackson: As a freshman, he was generally more flash than substance and virtually every part of his game needed refining. Last season, he was a more fluid athlete and scorer. I think tightening his handle and improving his jumper is going to be crucial. When he has the midrange jumper working, he’s nearly unstoppable. If teams are forced to respect his outside shot and he can attack off the bounce, his offensive upside becomes that much more tantalizing.
Maximizing his physical tools as a scorer is going to be important as well and it’s something he showed the ability to do more consistently last season.
Defensively, he was significantly better in March than he was in November, largely due to increased understanding and discipline. He has the tools; it’s about knowing where to be and not hunting for highlight-reel plays, both on and off the ball. He had a tendency to pursue steals and compromise the rest of the defense.
Steve: Tillie appears to have a versatile skillset that is ideal for the modern NBA. What are some of the best traits he brings to he table? Also, am I crazy for thinking that his game was careful crafted in a lab by the San Antonio Spurs?
Jackson: He’s a lethal shooter, having buried a team-high 47.9 percent of his 3s last season, including a white-hot stretch during the WCC tournament where he hit 13 of 14 long bombs en route to winning Most Outstanding Player. His ability to pass and handle the ball from the power forward spot also fits the modern NBA.
He’ll need to improve his strength and quickness to hold his own defensively, but on offense, he’s an ideal stretch big man.
Steve: Gonzaga is participating in the loaded Maui Invitational this year. As an NBA fan, what potential matchups are you most excited to see?
Jackson: It’s gotta be Duke vs. Gonzaga, right? Two top-five teams loaded with talent, some of who project to be lottery picks. Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Trey Jones vs. Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie, Zach Norvell Jr. and Brandon Clarke? Sign me up.
Obviously, Duke has more NBA talent in its quartet but Gonzaga probably has just as much NCAA talent. Add in Coach K vs. Mark Few and that has a chance to be one of the best games of the year.
Steve: Outside of Hachimura and Tillie, who else should NBA fans be watching on the Bulldogs’ roster?
Jackson: I gave away my choices a little bit in the previous response but Zach Norvell Jr. and Brandon Clarke are two guys who could/should be first-round picks next June. Norvell is a former top-100 recruit from Simeon High School — the same alma mater as Jabari Parker and Derrick Rose — with a sweet lefty stroke, above-average athleticism and budding passing chops. He’s a smart defender who makes good off-ball rotations and could be a top-20 prospect by the end of the next season.
Clarke, meanwhile, is an athletic freak who averaged 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.6 blocks and 1.2 steals as a sophomore at San Jose State. He just spent a year in Gonzaga’s renowned redshirt program (see Kelly Olynyk, Kyle Wiltjer and Nigel Williams-Goss as evidence) and should be a key piece in the Zags’ dominant front court that also features Tillie, Hachimura, Jacob Larsen and Filip Petrusev.
His shooting mechanics need a complete overhaul but his athleticism and vision suggest an NBA home exists for him. He’s a guy I’m really excited to watch because I’m not sure how many actually know how good he is and now, he’s had a year to refine all his skills.
To sum everything up in one succinct statement, Gonzaga is going to be scary good and is stocked with future NBAers.
Make sure to follow Jackson Frank on Twitter (@jackfrank_jjf) to find more of his excellent basketball coverage.