Gonzaga basketball alums representing well at all star weekend

Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke will represent the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the NBA Rising Stars Challenge in this year's NBA All Star Weekend.

The path of success for Gonzaga men’s basketball is rare to see in today’s college basketball landscape. In an era where programs rely heavily on top recruits and star players to win, the Bulldogs have had success by seeking out players who fit in with the established culture of selflessness. 

These players come in a variety of skill sets and backgrounds; whether they’re a top prospect from a foreign country or a player in need of an opportunity to shine, the Zags have thrived with all of them.

Beyond the collegiate level, it has been a different story. Aside from John Stockton’s legendary career decades ago, few former Zags have translated their success at GU into significant professional careers. Many have found opportunities to play overseas, but former Bulldogs have not consistently fared well in the NBA.

That stigma may forever be retired, now that past Zags Brandon Clarke, Rui Hachimura and Domantas Sabonis have been selected to participate in NBA All-Star Weekend festivities. 

Sabonis was voted as a reserve for the All-Star Game, as well as a participant in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. 

Meanwhile, Clarke and Hachimura will play in the Rising Stars Game which features talented rookies and second-year professionals.

This is a momentous occasion for GU basketball. Not only is it the first time in 20 years the school will have a representative at an All-Star Game, but going forward, this could impact how young players of all backgrounds view the program.

Over the years, the Zags have played a team-oriented style of basketball predicated on balance and selflessness. While this strategy has led to success, it isn’t very attractive to star prospects who see college as a bridge to the NBA. 

But Clarke, Hachimura and Sabonis all having significant impacts on the highest level of basketball shows GU is a place where the program's style of play can help develop players for the next level.

It can be said this shift has been taking place over the last few years, as GU continues to improve through signing high-caliber prospects. This year’s recruiting class ranked No. 13 in the nation, according to 247Sports.com

Next year’s class is ranked No. 8, with five-star recruit Jalen Suggs headlining the best recruiting class in program history. Suggs will join GU commits Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther to form a group the three have dubbed “The Tricky Trio."

And there are those who follow a similar path to Clarke, a player who blossomed when placed in the right situation. Clarke’s success at GU has been followed by a tremendous start to his rookie season with the Memphis Grizzlies, demonstrating that recruiting predictions aren’t everything in determining a player’s worth. 

There are players with similar backgrounds all over the country, and GU has a track record of maximizing the potential of transfers. Kyle Wiltjer, Nigel Williams-Goss and Jonathan Williams are other prime examples.

Along with transfers, GU has spent much of its time recruiting international players. It feels like every season head coach Mark Few scores international players. From Przemek Karnowski to Filip Petrusev, there’s no question the international game has had an influence over the years. The same is said for Hachimura and Sabonis, who both played overseas before committing to GU. 

Basketball is growing in popularity all over the world, and few programs have capitalized on foreign players like the Zags.

Hachimura’s impact on basketball extends from GU to his home country of Japan. He came into his own during his junior season and was the first Japanese player to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft.

Now that he’s recognized as one of the game’s best young players, his influence is exponential. Don’t be surprised if more Japanese players seek college basketball in the United States to follow in Hachimura’s footsteps.

Sabonis’ rise comes after a bumpy rookie season in Oklahoma City, followed by bounce back years in Indiana, where the former Zag increased his points per game average each season. This season, Sabonis is averaging a career-high 18.3 points game and 12.6 rebounds per game, proving to be the best former Zag in the NBA.

These three Bulldogs have opened the doors for GU basketball going forward. They’ve proven the program is a place to win as a team and maximize individual talents as a player. Whether it’s a player who is desperate for the right opportunity or is looking to become a role model in his home country, Zags basketball is for everyone. 

Cole Forsman is a staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @CGForsman

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