Former Zags poised to shine during 2022-23 NBA season

Nembhard will contend for significant playing time in Indiana’s rotation, particularly if the Pacers trade either Myles Turner or Buddy Hield.

With the NBA season a mere three weeks away, the Gonzaga Bulldogs will have 10 ex-players rostered on NBA teams, with the potential for two additional players to make it through training camp.

Not only is this the largest number of ex-Zags playing in the NBA at one time, a number of players will have significant roles for their respective franchises.

At the top of that list is the Sacramento Kings’ Domantas Sabonis. After being traded from Indiana to Sacramento in a package involving guard Tyrese Haliburton, Sabonis showed out for the Kings, averaging 18.9 points, 12.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game on a 56.4% effective field goal percentage.

The Kings missed the playoffs for the 16th straight season, going 10-16 after the Sabonis trade as he played in 15 of those games due to injuries. This season, the Kings will fight for a spot in the play-in game in the competitive Western Conference with Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox running the offense. Sabonis has made three trips to the playoffs, never having advanced past the first round.

“Since the second I made it to the NBA, I figured out the hard way it’s a business,” Sabonis said  in a postgame press conference after his first Kings victory against the Timberwolves. “I got traded on draft night, and then a year later, I got traded again. I’m just trying to find a home where I’m loved … and I feel like I found it here. I love it here.”

The Zags have no shortage of power forward talent in the league, and none have experienced more recent playoff success than the Memphis Grizzlies’ Brandon Clarke. In his third season, Clarke averaged 10.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game in a sparkplug role off the bench for the No. 2 seed Grizzlies.

Clarke was particularly valuable in the first round series against the Minnesota Timberwolves where he averaged 17 points per game on 68% shooting from the field. Before bowing out against eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the second round, Clarke scored the fifth most points throughout Memphis’ playoff run.

For the 2022-23 season, Clarke projects as a sixth man for the Grizzlies as franchise cornerstone Jaren Jackson Jr. has locked down one of the starting forward spots for the foreseeable future. However, Clarke is tied for the 12th best odds for the Sixth Man of The Year award at +2800, according to Vegas Insider.

Joining Clarke on the Grizzlies is third year forward Killian Tillie. Tillie continued to struggle with injuries throughout his first two seasons, though he did show some flashes in his limited opportunities, like a poster dunk along the baseline on Jalen Smith of the Phoenix Suns.

The Wizards employ a Zag duo of their own, with fan favorites Rui Hachimura and Corey Kispert suiting up in Washington, D.C. Despite being the No. 15 overall pick in the 2021-22 NBA Draft, expectations weren’t sky high for Kispert, who was seen as more of a developmental project. The 6'7" forward averaged 8.2 points, 2.7 points and 1.1 assists over 77 games, shooting 35% from three-point range. Kispert had the fourth most attempts and makes from deep among all rookies, legitimizing his threat as a deadeye that unexpectedly started 36 games for the Wiz.

Hachimura played a considerable amount of time with Kispert as both primarily came off the bench. Although he only played in 42 games last season due to various injuries, Hachimura showed marked improvement as a 3-point threat. Hachimura shot 44.7% from 3-point range on 2.9 attempts per game — both career highs. The Wizards should be on the cusp of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, and a return to form from Hachimura could push Washington from a No. 9 seed up to a potential No. 7 seed come play-in tournament time.

In his rookie campaign, Jalen Suggs similarly struggled with injuries. The former No. 4 overall pick in 2021, Suggs showcased his elite talent in addition to the weaknesses that could cap his ceiling. Although Suggs received six votes for the NBA All-Rookie Second Team, his stat line of 11.8 points, 4.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game was marred by a 21.4% clip from 3-point range. Suggs started 45 of 48 games he played in but isn’t a shoo-in to start after the Magic added veteran guard Gary Harris this offseason.

Nonetheless, the Magic will be a fun squad to pay attention to with the addition of No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero in addition to Jonathan Isaac returning from a long stint on injured reserve. Even more fun for Zag fans is the training camp addition of Joel Ayayi. Ayayi last played for the Washington Wizards last season, appearing in seven games after initially signing with the Los Angeles Lakers as an undrafted free agent.

Ayayi faces an uphill climb to make the Magic’s opening day roster, as guards Cole Anthony, Terrence Ross, Markelle Fultz and R.J. Hampton all return from last year. Should Ayayi make the 15-man roster, it would mark the third duo of Zags currently playing together in the Association.

Also in the Eastern Conference, Kelly Olynyk will play the role of an experienced veteran for the Detroit Pistons, where he averaged 9.1 points and 4.4 rebounds across 40 games last season. Olynyk should slot in as a nice bench piece for a young Pistons team looking to barge into the playoffs on the shoulders of Cade Cunningham and rookie Jaden Ivey.

The bleakest situation any former Zag will face is the San Antonio Spurs’ Zach Collins. The sixth-year center missed 54 games due to an ankle injury last season. When he was on the floor, Collins averaged 7.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game for a Spurs team that finished 34-48 and made the play-in tournament. This season, the playoffs will be out of the question for the Spurs as they traded their best player, Dejounte Murray, to the Hawks in the offseason and seem poised to tank to the bottom of the standings in pursuit of Victor Wembenyama.

The Zags were primed to have two rookies to pay close attention to with Chet Holmgren and Andrew Nembhard drafted No. 2 and No. 31, respectively, to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers. Holmgren’s season was cut short before it could even begin as he suffered a Lisfranc injury while playing in the Seattle Pro-Am.

“[Holmgren] wants to be really good, he cares a lot,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said in a press conference following Holmgren’s injury. “The thing I’m really impressed with is that he isn’t an outside in guy, genuinely he loves basketball, he loves the team, he is highly intelligent … he is mature … he has never experienced an injury.”

Nembhard will contend for significant playing time in Indiana’s rotation, particularly if the Pacers were to trade either Myles Turner or Buddy Hield. Hoping to join Nembhard in Indianapolis is journeyman David Stockton, who signed a training camp deal after his rights were traded to the G-League Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Stockton played 14 games for Memphis’ G-League affiliate last season, averaging 11.2 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.9 rebounds per game.

Should Stockton and Ayayi make their respective opening day rosters, a total of 12 former GU Bulldogs will be in the NBA, tied with the University of North Carolina for the fifth most from one school. 

Tommy Conmy is a sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @tommyconmy.

Sports Editor

Tommy Conmy is a senior from Fargo, North Dakota and is in his first semester as sports editor after being a staff writer the past three semesters.