Among the myriad issues Gael coach Randy Bennett faces in getting his team ready for a crucial Pacific Northwest showdown with Portland (Thursday) and Gonzaga (Saturday) is one completely of his own making — lack of depth at the guard position.
The Gaels breezed for much of this season behind the super-efficient leadership of co-point guards Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar, who rarely left the floor. However, as those two have hit a wall lately, Bennett finds himself with extremely limited options in trying to restore offensive harmony. He actually used freshman Stefan Gonzalez at guard for a brief period in the first half against Loyola Marymount last Saturday when Naar opened with two quick turnovers.
Gonzalez is a guard, of course, and he thrived at that position at Pocatello’s Highland High School, averaging 20 PPG and leading his team to a 23-4 record as a senior. Observing a valiant, 31-point effort by Gonzalez in a heartbreaking loss for the state title last March was Bennett, who may have wanted to erase the memory of his Gaels’ ignominious loss to Portland in the opening round of the WCC tournament by watching an inspirational performance.
Gonzalez couldn’t wait to begin his Saint Mary’s career, arriving in Moraga barely two weeks after graduation to begin a summer of playing and bonding with his new teammates. He suffered a serious injury in July, however, breaking the femur in his left leg and dislocating his left ankle. With a four-to-six month recovery period facing him, he seemed a likely candidate for redshirt status.
Gonzalez, a sturdy 6-2, 195 lbs, is tough of mind and body, however, and he pushed himself to be ready for the official opening of 2015-16 practice on October 1. A little shy of three months from his injury, he was on the floor for that first practice and all the rest. He has prospered in Bennett’s system, playing in all 24 games this season and compiling a 52% three-point shooting mark (33-64).
The only problem with this story is that Gonzalez has seldom played guard. Bennett uses him mostly as a sub for starting small forward Calvin Hermanson, with a role of providing instant offense through his quick-trigger three-point shooting. He rarely dribbles the ball more than one or two bounces, passing off to someone else and scurrying to hide himself in the Gaels’ offensive set to be ready for a catch-and-shoot. Bennett’s experiment with Gonzalez at guard against LMU was not lengthy enough to form an opinion, as the coach re-inserted Naar shortly after the Gonzalez went in and kept Gonzalez on the bench for the remainder of he game.
So, what’s wrong with this scenario? Might not Naar and Rahon bounce back from their mini-slumps and continue leading the Gaels down the stretch of the WCC title race? Of course they might, and Gaels fans heartily hope that is the case. But they also have to ask themselves the troubling question of what happens if either of them continues to struggle or suffers an injury. Injuries to guards are hardly unknown to Gael fans, who can readily recite a roll call of fallen heroes including Jorden Page, Paul McCoy, Wayne Hunter, Joe Coleman and others.
Gonzalez may have erased any concerns about his ability to function as a guard in practice, but it would seem unfair to insert him at a crucial point this late in the season and expect him to perform at a level close to Naar and Rahon. He has simply not handled the ball in game situations enough to prepare him for the pressure of the WCC Tournament or an NCAA Tournament game.
The same goes for another freshman guard, 6-4 Franklin Porter out of Tilton, NH by way of Portland. Bennett has inserted Porter into 17 games this year, mostly in mop-up duty, and he has impressed fans with his composure and sure stroke. In a decent stretch against Southern Utah early in the season, Porter — son of NBA veteran Terry Porter — scored 15 points and grabbed five rebounds. He does not seem to be an adept ball-handler, however, so would seem to be even less equipped to succeed in an emergency than Gonzalez.
Bennett doubled down on his bet that Naar and Rahon would be sufficient to lead the Gaels by redshirting another outstanding guard prospect, Tanner Krebs. Krebs, the 6-6 Aussie from Tasmania, was last seen dropping 31 points on Spain — including 5-7 from three-point range — in the FIBA U19 World Championships last summer in Crete. His stroke is as beautiful to watch as Gonzalez’, but Krebs revealed some problems with his handle in an intra-squad game before the season began, and the Gael brain trust evidently felt he needed a year of seasoning before being exposed to D1 hoops.
Second-guessing is an insidious practice, but is it too much to wonder how the Gaels would be equipped to head down the home stretch if Gonzalez and Krebs had been given game-time experience at guard? Would they be deeper and/or better off, or would every minute not under the steady hands of Naar and Rahon have taken away from the team’s success? Intriguing question.
Wait ’till next year
It is even more intriguing when one begins considering Bennett’s options next season, when Krebs comes off redshirt status and spectacular guard Jordan Ford joins the Gaels from Folsom High near Sacramento. Ford spurned scholarship offers from Cal and Gonzaga, among others, because he wanted to play in the home of Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova, and he will come to Moraga expecting to do just that.
Naar and Rahon will return after having played virtually every minute in 2015-16. How is Bennett going to integrate Gonzalez, Krebs, Porter and Ford into a back court that essentially hung a “No Vacancy” sign on the court? Will he loosen up the reins to his offensive machine and try to give everyone a taste, or, an even more revolutionary thought, allow real competition for Naar’s starting position (Rahon, a Bennett favorite, seems a lock to retain his top-dog status)?
Some observers have speculated that Rahon could play some two-guard next year as Ford prepares for his inevitable ascendance to starting point guard. Maybe, but that still leaves four hungry mouths to feed. Bennett has been a master of turning a sparse cupboard into a bountiful feast of basketball, but next season presents him with a different challenge.
“It’s a nice problem to have,” people often say, but those are people who don’t have to deal with the problem. Bennett loves a seven-man rotation, sometimes loosened to eight, and has been quoted as saying he doesn’t like the complications of finding time for nine or 10 players. He’s got it in spades next year, and this piece hasn’t even touched on potential logjams at the five with the arrival of 7-2 Jock Perry to join Dane Pineau, Jock Landale and Jordan Hunter. That team will certainly pass the “airport test,” but it may drive Bennett to traveling by ambulance.
Coach Randy Bennett has leaned heavily on the intelligence and leadership of Emmett Naar, shown above, but may have to expand his horizons in coming seasons. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.
Coming up: a look at Portland and Gonzaga as they prepare to avenge losses to the Gaels in Moraga.