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Las Vegan Julian Strawther stays course for No. 1 Gonzaga

Julian Strawther didn’t have time to lament the loss to Baylor. Or the frustrations of his freshman season at Gonzaga.

He needed to improve and he knew it. So after a two-week return to Las Vegas for respite and recovery, the 6-foot-7-inch wing ventured back to Spokane, Washington, to prepare for his sophomore season — and an eventual second trip to the NCAA Tournament.

This time as a starter on the tournament’s top overall seed.

“I always trusted in my work and I believe in what I’m capable of,” he said. “It’s a matter of going out there and not doing too much and not doing too little.”

Strawther played just 7.4 minutes per game as a freshman in 2020-21, prompting a sense of dissatisfaction for the former Liberty High standout. He’d starred or co-starred for every team he’d played on.

But like so many of the program’s freshmen before him, he watched and learned while Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert powered the Bulldogs to the national championship game opposite Baylor, to whom they would lose 86-70.

This season, though, he averages 12.3 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting 52 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from 3-point range. His range and proficiency create space for big men Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren, driving lanes for point guard Andrew Nembhard and have endeared him to NBA scouts, who now consider the 19-year-old Las Vegan a bona fide professional prospect.

“Right now, I haven’t looked too far into the future,” he said. “This is the biggest moment for me and my team. I’m just really locked into that right now. Whatever happens in the future happens.”

Strawther signed with Gonzaga in part because of the Bulldogs’ penchant for player development. NBA players like Domantas Sabonis and Rui Hachimura played sparingly during their freshmen seasons with the Bulldogs. So, Strawther had full trust in coach Mark Few and his staff to develop him accordingly.

That said, he wanted to play and compete while sitting behind Kispert, a fellow small forward who now starts as a rookie for the NBA’s Washington Wizards. But he maximized the minutes he earned and committed to maximizing his skill set last summer through two-a-day workouts comprised of strength training, shooting and ballhandling.

With Timme and Nembhard as the only returning starters, Strawther knew there’d be minutes available on the wing. He learned he’d play a majority of them after excelling during Gonzaga’s preseason exhibition slate.

Strawther has started all but one game this season for the Bulldogs, who won yet another West Coast Conference tournament title last week at Orleans Arena. A 20-point, 10-rebound outing in November against Duke at T-Mobile Arena foreshadowed the impact he’d have this season.

A rowdy, sellout crowd duplicated that of an NCAA Tournament game. The kind Strawther will play before again this week.

“At the moment, I can control all of the emotions. But once the game time comes up and the ball goes in the air, and you’re in the atmosphere in March Madness — I’ve always dreamed of playing in those games,” he said. “To finally be a part of them and to be on the No. 1 team, it’s a dream come true, really.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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