Prior to the season, Josh Perkins made clear he wouldn’t label himself as a leader. He would accept the moniker if bestowed upon him, but he wasn’t going to categorize himself as such.
Through 21 games this season, Perkins has largely been the leader Gonzaga has needed. He’s shouldered the blame in each of the team’s four losses and deflected praise after every noteworthy individual performance, crediting his success to the play of his teammates.
Perkins wasn’t asked to replicate his predecessor, Nigel William-Goss’, All-American season. That wouldn’t be fair, nor would it be realistic. The 6-foot-3-inch redshirt junior has slid back to the lead guard spot rather seamlessly, averaging career-best numbers in points, assists and 3-point percentage.
But where the Zags have needed Perkins to assume Nigel Williams-Goss’ role is in big games and to put it bluntly, he’s fallen well short.
In GU’s four losses, Perkins is a combined 12 of 45 from the field, averaging 11 points and in the team’s win against then-25th-ranked Creighton back in December, Perkins failed to make a shot. Going 0-for-2 and adding a then-season-high five turnovers.
Turnovers and Perkins have become all too familiar with one another in important games this season. He’s coughed it up 15 times in those four losses (3.8 per game), including his two highest turnover outputs of the season.
In 17 wins, he’s averaging 14 points and just 2.2 turnovers. It’s no coincedence that two of Perkins’ three lowest-scoring games of the season have come in losses; it underscores the importance of his shot making in the team’s success.
Now Williams-Goss wasn’t sterling in every matchup — his 5 of 17 shooting performance in the National Championship Game comes to mind, though an injured ankle can alleviate some of the criticism there. Yet he also grabbed nine rebounds and dished out six assists, and held North Carolina’s Justin Jackson to 6 of 19 shooting, in that game.
In numerous high-profile games, including road contests against BYU and Saint Mary’s, Williams-Goss led the way, scoring 33 and 22 on 62.1 percent shooting, the former of which was on a balky ankle.
I’m not here to pile on in persecution of Perkins because his shooting and turnover woes in potentially-season-defining games don’t tell the whole story.
Against Saint Mary’s, Perkins posted five boards and a team-high seven assists with just one turnover. Against Florida, he converted a three-point play that gave GU a two-point cushion with under a minute remaining and in the first overtime, he knocked in a 3-pointer that tied the game with 51 seconds to play. He’s averaging 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds in the Zags’ four losses — both above his season averages.
But for a player in his fourth year with the program, which includes two Sweet 16 appearances and a Final Four berth, GU needs more out of someone who’s grown accustomed to the “moment.”
Perkins is GU’s second-leading scorer and most potent perimeter threat. When Johnathan Williams is tasked with stopping the opponent’s best big man, such as Jock Landale of Saint Mary’s, the Zags can’t afford for Perkins to lie dormant.
The luxury of regularly tossing it into a 6-foot-9-inch matchup nightmare dissipates when Williams’ physical tools are called upon on the other end — or when he’s battling foul trouble, as was the case against Villanova.
Yet too often this season, when the Zags have needed Perkins to create shots for himself, it hasn’t happened.
All the cards aligned for GU last season to produce a historic run. To put this year’s team under the same microscope would yield disappointing results. But at 17-4 and 15th in the nation, the Zags are back in the spotlight — as has been the case for 19 years running.
Perkins didn’t ask for his scoring to be of such vital importance to this team’s success, but there’s no questioning its influence now. For the Zags to reach their potential, they need more from their point guard on the biggest stage and much like his leadership, it’s a role Perkins must recognize and excel in.
Jackson Frank is a sports editor. Follow him on Twitter @jackfrank_jjf.