Improving to Contend, Part 1

The old adage that goes, "The day you stop learning is the day you die" can be applied in another way for teams in the offseason; "The day you stop improving is the day you hang up your shoes." We break down the Gonzaga starters and give our take on what will be needed from them in 2005-06.


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Now that the Gonzaga men's basketball banquet has taken place, and the 2004/05 seniors have taken their final bows, it is time look ahead to next season.

Gonzaga only loses one member of its regular rotation, and while that player is a big one (Ronny Turiaf), GU has just about as many regular rotation players returning as any Top 20 program from this past season. Moreover, GU gains two really important players in talented big man redshirt Josh Heytvelt and guard Nathan Doudney, who is healing nicely from the torn ACL injury that sidelined him this past season. Most importantly, after a brief flirtation with the NBA draft, GU returns wing Adam Morrison, who has a good chance of being a First Team All American and a Wooden Award finalist. The Zags are bound to be ranked higher in the preseason then they ever have, and with so many elite programs losing players to graduation and the NBA, the Zags have a golden opportunity at their fingertips.

In order to take advantage of that opportunity, this offseason must be a productive one for the returning players, who will be trying to better their strength, conditioning and individual skills in preparation for next season. It is also important that the team itself establish some collective goals in an effort to improve as an overall team. Gonzaga must charge out of the starter's gate at a high level due to the early season Maui Invitational Tournament, which will feature its most challenging field ever.

Now that the offseason is upon us, GUnation.com takes a look at the returning starters, and what they need to work on in the offseason. In the coming weeks, part two of this article will be posted at this site, where we will look at the returning reserves and some team goals.

RETURNING STARTERS:

PG – Derek Raivio (2005/06 stats: 13 PPG, 4.8 APG, 2.6 RPG, 43% FG, 45.8% 3PT, 90.3% FT).

2004/05 Analysis = So much was made last offseason about the loss of Blake Stepp, and what that would mean for GU's point guard situation. Raivio stepped into Stepp's shoes and exceeded all expectations. After having a difficult early game versus Illinois, Derek's terrific 3 game performances versus Washington, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State put to rest any anxieties over the position. In addition to providing GU a deadly 3 point threat and a great free throw shooter, Raivio was absolutely terrific at handling the basketball and minimizing ballhandling turnovers against full court and halfcourt pressure. He had a fantastic 2.26 to 1 assist to turnover ratio.

2005/06 Improvements Needed = Anyone who has seen Derek on the court understands that weight room work is needed. He not only needs strength on the defensive end in order to stay in front of strong perimeter players, but also for driving purposes so that he can draw fouls and take advantage of his great free throw shooting. Strength will also allow him to finish better on fast breaks. More upper body stength will enable Derek to do things he hasn't done before.

Derek's assist totals need to go up. In GU's offense, he should really be averaging close to 7 a game, and it should be consistent across most games, instead of getting 3 in one game, and 11 in the next game. GU's offense needs more points off of assists, and Derek, as point guard, needs to be the catalyst. His passing on the fast break and down low into the big men also needs work. Timing is critical – guys need to be in a position where they can easily score when he delivers the pass.

As crazy as it may sound, 45.8% is a 3 point shooting percentage that Raivio can improve upon. He went through several slumps during the season (particularly in the WCC and NCAA tournaments) that drove his percentage down. A goal should be set to get the percentage up to around 50%. He's capable of doing this, and with the return of Doudney, he will be relieved of the pressure of being GU's only real 3 point threat.

As mentioned above, Derek is an incredible free throw shooter, and he needs to figure out ways on the offensive end to draw more fouls and get to the charity stripe – kind of like what Dan Dickau did so well at Gonzaga and J.J. Redick at Duke has learned to do.

He also needs to improve his perimeter defense. Some of this should come with added strength, but Derek displayed some terrific instincts for pick pocketing dribblers and getting in passing lanes last season. This needs to be developed so that GU can get more steals and more offense off of their defense.

There were times last season when Derek would rush the offense too much in the halfcourt set, when he needed to just establish order and settle it down to allow the offense to get into a flow. These kinds of problems are typical with young point guards, and with experience, they learn to moderate game flow more effectively. But it is something Derek needs to work on.

Lastly, Derek needs to assume more vocal leadership on this year's team. Point guards are assumed leaders on high level basketball teams.

The ideal is to see Derek average around 15-16 PPG, shoot 90% from the free throw line, 50% on his 3 pointers, get close to 7 assists per game and improve on his 1.58 steals per game figure.

SG/SF – Erroll Knight (2005/06 stats: 7.6 PPG, 1.2 APG, 4.6 RPG, 49% FG, 26% 3PT, 63% FT)

2004/05 Analysis = Unfortunately, the 2004/05 campaign for Knight was another injury plagued season which hampered his game. This time a nasty thumb injury to his shooting hand kept him out of several games and forced him to wear a brace throughout the season. Despite all the hardships, Erroll played perhaps his best basketball as a Zag towards the end of last season, and played his best half as a Zag versus Texas Tech in the NCAA tournament. His lockdown defense against wing players won him a WCC Defensive Player of the Year award, and his athleticism was used to great effect when GU elected to press. Most importantly, Knight had some terrific rebounding games, suggesting that he could be one of the absolute best rebounding guards in the country this coming up season.

2005/06 Improvements Needed = Get the hand healthy. Knight's shooting from the field needs to improve, and it is very hard for this to happen when his shooting hand is in bad shape.

Shooting guard is called shooting guard for a reason. It is a scoring position. Erroll is not the type of player who is ever going to average 20 a night, but he has too much athleticism and too quick of a first step to only be averaging 7.6 PPG, and have most of those points come on garbage buckets (rebounds, loose balls, etc.). While it would be nice to see him increase his 3 point percentage to at least the mid 30's, he needs to work on slashing towards the rim more for easy hoops, dump offs and kick outs. The key is to use his athleticism to get closer to the rim for a higher percentage shot, or to create opportunities for his teammates.

Knight is the best overall defender on the Zag team, but his defensive footwork against quick guards who are smaller than him needs work. Knight's most effective when guarding people who are his size or a little taller. In fact, he is probably as good as anyone in college basketball against such players - see his terrific defensive performance versus Oklahoma State's Joey Graham this past season. But smaller guards give him fits at times, and they tend to land him in foul trouble.

Lastly, Erroll needs to improve his free throw shooting. 63% is too low for a guard (or anyone). One would hope that a healed shooting hand will help with this.

The ideal is to see Erroll average around 11-12 PPG, 72% FT, 35% 3PT, and around 5.5 RPG.

SF = Adam Morrison (2004/05 stats = 19 PPG, 2.8 APG, 5.5 RPG, 50% FG, 31% 3PT, 76% FT)

2004/05 Analysis = In a year where senior Ronny Turiaf was slated to be GU's leading scorer and go-to guy, Adam's immense offensive skills became so great and so overwhelming that Few was forced to run the offense through Adam more and more as the season wore on. The fact that many 2006 NBA draft boards are projecting Adam to be a top 5 pick next year speaks to his immense talent and improvement. Not only did Adam continually display the guts to take and make crunch time shots, he became an absolute impossible defensive matchup due to his unusual combination of size, wingspan, ballhanding skills, mid range game, and immense scoring creativity. However, what was even more critical was seeing Adam's rebounding and defensive energy increase towards the end of last season, as well as his influence as a passer. In short, the guy's game just blew through the roof.

2005/06 Improvements Needed = One of the reasons Adam came back for his junior year was because he recognized that in order to be a great player at the next level, he needs to improve on some things.

The first item of business is to improve his shot from 19 feet on out. This was lost a bit when Adam grew 3 inches in high school, and he needs to recover it to be a complete offensive player. It would be nice to see his 3 point percentage get to 40% or so. However, with a healthy Doudney available, GU will have two really good 3 point shooters on next season's team, which won't require Adam to take as many 3's. When he does take 3's, it needs to be within the flow of the offense, where he is a much more effective shooter. He had a tendency at times to take 3's too early in the shot clock, which didn't allow GU players to be in a position to rebound. This hurt his percentage as much as anything.

Adam also needs to continue to better his rebounding and defense. This largely comes down to effort, because when he approached these areas last season with the intensity he always displays on offense, he showed flashes of brilliance. His wingspan makes him very hard for wings to score and rebound over.

Lastly, one of the things that came out of Adam's game as the offense ran more and more through him was his immense potential as a passer – not only when leading the break, but also for kick outs and dump offs when driving towards the rim. Count on lots of opposing defenses to collapse on Adam this year when he cuts into the lane for his lethal mid range shot. It will become imperative for Morrison to use such defensive concern to his team's benefit by finding open players to create more scoring balance and higher percentage shots. In other words, make teams pay for collapsing on him.

The ideal is to see Adam average around 20 PPG, 5 APG, 7 RPG, 40% or so on 3's, and get his free throw percentage to 80%.

C = J.P. Batista (2004/05 stats = 12.4 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 61% FG, 80% FT)

2004/05 Analysis = When the GU coaching staff said that Batista was the best juco big man in the country upon his signing, they weren't overestimating his ability. After taking a few games to get his feet wet and his game speed on track, Batista became an immediate impact player for GU. He proved to be very valuable in a number of areas on both ends of the floor. His high level footwork in the post enabled him to patiently set up defenders in the post for scoring looks. His big, strong body enabled him to assert influence on the defensive end by presenting a wall between himself and the basket. His turnaround jumper kept bigs off balance, while his great hands served as a valuable asset on the break. Moreover, his calm and cool demeanor on the court kept GU with a sense of purpose and mission.

2005/06 Improvements Needed = With departure of Turiaf, Batista becomes GU's number one offensive presence in the post. His numbers in every offensive category will have to increase. A large degree of the burden of replacing Turiaf's 9.5 RPG will also rest on his shoulders.

Batista has a big, muscular body, and showed great stamina throughout the season. But like Turiaf did during last offseason, it might help J.P. to lose some of that mass in order to gain more quickness. Such quickness would help his rebounding, his post moves and his shotblocking ability.

On the offensive end, Batista has great footwork, but he needs to top off his great moves with a solid, powerful finish. He had a tendency to be too tentative when going towards the hoop against athletic defenders. Finishing strong will also enable him to draw more fouls, and take advantage of his great free throw shooting ability.

Batista is a very good low post defender, and he is no doubt helped by his massive body. But when he struggles on this end of the floor, it is usually out on the perimeter against bigs who can shoot from the outside or drive around him. Most big men struggle with this, but with the West Coast Conference being what it is, GU's bigs have to defend the perimeter quite a bit.

The ideal is for JP to average 16 PPG, 9 RPG, shoot 60% from the field and shoot 80%+ from the charity stripe.


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