The Arizona Wildcats didn’t have any players selected in Thursday’s NBA Draft, a rare occurrence for a program that usually produces one or two draft picks per year. 2021 marked just the third time since 2013 that no UA players were selected.
Yet, the night can still be considered a success for new head coach Tommy Lloyd. Two of his former Gonzaga players were picked in the top 15. Jalen Suggs went No. 5 overall to the Orlando Magic. Corey Kispert went No. 15 overall to the Washington Wizards, where he will be reunited with Rui Hachimura, another Zag who was selected in the first round in 2019.
It’s the first time two Zags have been selected in the top 15 in the same draft. Filip Petrusev was drafted 50th overall, too. You can bet Lloyd will mention these guys on the recruiting trail. It’s a pitch that should resonate with prospects far and wide.
Suggs was a top-15 recruit in his class. And even though he was a freshman surrounded by older players, the Gonzaga staff trusted him enough to run a free-flowing offense that wound up being one of the most efficient of all-time. Suggs cemented himself as a top-5 pick and led the Zags to the national championship game. If not for the loss to Baylor, it would have been the perfect one-and-done career.
Kispert’s story is different. He was not a highly-ranked recruit. He was outside the top 100 in his class but steadily improved over four years at Gonzaga. When Kispert arrived in Spokane, he was a role player who mostly shot 3s. By the time he graduated, he was an incredibly polished offensive threat and a Bulldog legend.
Kispert accented his sharpshooting with the ability to slash and finish at the rim. His scoring average rose from 6.7 as a freshman to 18.6 as a senior, when he shot 63 percent from 2 and 44 percent from 3. Kispert was a consensus first-team All-American and won the Julius Erving Award, which is given to the nation’s top small forward. This is a guy whose only major-conference offers came from Utah, Washington and Washington State.
And Petrusev? He’s proof of Lloyd’s international recruiting expertise. The Serbian forward was ranked outside the top 70 in the 2018 class, but in two seasons at Gonzaga went from bench player to West Coast Conference Player of the Year before going pro in his home country.
“Coaches like Lloyd and his boss (Mark Few) find the right players to fit their particular system, and then they teach them how to thrive within an established culture,” wrote Greg Bishop of Sports Illustrated.
Lloyd is trying to recreate that culture at Arizona, and the 2021 NBA Draft will help him do it. Just ask two key players who committed to Lloyd this offseason.
“I think genuinely he cares about his players, and coming from Gonzaga he’s got a winning culture,” said Justin Kier, a Georgia transfer. “On top of that he’s coached a lot of great players, a lot of great guards, so I trusted that.”
Added Pelle Larsson, a Utah transfer from Sweden: “I got a great feel from the coaches, and just what they wanted to create here and what [Lloyd] told me he was bringing from Gonzaga to here. And just looking at the roster and the new coaches, it just was a great fit for me.”