Last Saturday, the Gonzaga Bulldogs held their exhibition game against Thompson Rivers University at the McCarthey Athletic Center. Despite a sluggish start, the Zags pulled out a 95-69 victory over the Wolfpack, who hail from Kamloops, British Columbia.
Rather than a recap of the positives and negatives from the game, I’d like to focus on the one variable that left the best impression on me: the freshmen. It’s a well-known fact that this is one of the best freshmen classes Mark Few has recruited in his tenure at Gonzaga. Zag fans had some high expectations for the rookies going into this opening game, and I think I speak for everyone when I say that they did not disappoint.
Let’s start with the big man from the other side of the world. Domantas Sabonis came to Gonzaga with a hefty amount of experience under his belt. Having played for Unicaja Malaga of the Spanish A-League (Spain’s highest level of basketball), Sabonis has developed a mature style of play, evident by his 14 points and 5 rebounds against TRU. More impressive than his stats was his comfortability on the court; Domantas played with a confidence and morale that resonated well when the rock was in his hands. He shot 6-8 from the field, 2-2 from the free throw line, and (unlike most freshmen) didn’t look completely lost on the defensive end.
One of the areas I believe Sabonis will provide the most spark is on the boards. With Sam Dower gone, the Zags are going to need another big man who isn’t afraid to play with a tough, physical edge. Fortunately for Mark Few and Bulldogs fans everywhere, rebounding is one of the skills Domantas has been most praised for. He averaged a remarkable 11.4 rebounds per game during his time with the Lithuania U-18 team and even grabbed 22 rebounds in their game against Serbia. If he can continue his energetic presence on the boards, he’ll elevate this Gonzaga squad to a new level.
I geek out big time when I think of the future that Domantas has at Gonzaga. My “basketball nerd” side kicks into full gear when someone asks me how that tall kid from Lithuania is holding up. Domantas is off to a great start as a Zag, and if he continues to live up to his hype, I believe he has the potential to be one of the best power forwards in Gonzaga history.
Headlining the future of Gonzaga’s backcourt is Josh Perkins, the highly touted recruit out of Huntington Prep in West Virginia. Much like that of Sabonis, Josh’s performance against Thompson Rivers left quite a favorable impression with the crowd. Josh notched six points to go along with three assists. Though he did commit a few turnovers, the area of Josh’s game that will have the biggest impact for the Bulldogs is his elite passing skills. His forte is finding the open man/creating space for an open look and throwing a beautifully executed pass to the open player. There were multiple instances throughout the game where Josh successfully set up his teammates for a nice look at the basket.
The turnovers are expected from a rookie during his first NCAA game, but the control that Perkins had and the poise he held himself with was definitely a positive sign. Though it’s still yet to be seen how Josh handles himself under strong pressure defense, we can confirm that the authoritative demeanor that he portrayed at Huntington Prep will translate nicely to the next level of competition. Perkins is an absolute floor general; he has the ability to take control of the tempo of a game and make the players around him better. He will be a stellar backup point guard for Kevin Pangos and will soon find himself taking the reigns for the Bulldogs as his collegiate career continues.
One major disappointment from this exhibition game was the absence of Silas Melson. Deemed the Oregonian’s Player of the Year in all of high school basketball, Melson was a solid pickup for the Zags. His natural shooting ability and relentless on-ball defense is going to make him the perfect compliment to Josh Perkins. Sadly, though, he suffered a minor setback during practice before the exhibition game, forcing him to hang up the jersey for the night and ride the bench. Luckily, he’s expected to be healthy enough for the season opener against Sacramento State.
Brian Alberts also received a bit of playing time against Thompson Rivers. Though he doesn’t receive as much hype as the other freshmen, he nailed a three pointer for his first shot attempt in a Gonzaga uniform and sent the Kennel in a frenzy. Alberts will still serve a valuable position for the rest of his career at GU; if I could draw a similarity in this case, I would say that Brian will present a role similar to that of Kyle Dranginis at the small forward position.
Lastly, before anyone asks… YES, I am aware that this was only an exhibition game. I understand that Thompson Rivers isn’t quite equivalent to the caliber of opponent that Gonzaga will face throughout its schedule. But whether it’s against Thompson Rivers or Arizona, this outstanding group of freshmen successfully showcased their abilities and high potential to a fan base that is hungry for success and eager for this season to get started.