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What Is As Big As The Mountain, Runs Like a Freight Train, and Passes Like Pistol Pete?

It’s Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Przemek Karnowski is a galloping mountain. I’d guess he leads college basketball in total size. Florida State’s Christ Koumadje is 7-foot-4 but listed at just 233 pounds; New Mexico State’s Tanveer Bhullar was listed at 7-foot-2, 335 pounds, but is now just 275; UCF’s Tacko Fall is 7-foot-6, but doesn’t crack 300. Karnowski is 7-foot-1 and 300 pounds with a beard the size of your head. He plays a sport for big people, and when you see him among his opponents, you think, “Wow, that human being is big.”

Back in February, the gargantuan Pole provided his best sound bite when asked what his favorite pro team was. Having already been asked about his favorite guilty pleasure, whether he liked burgers or burritos, and his preference between In-N-Out and Five Guys, he assumed the puny human questioning him was merely interested in learning how he had attained such mass. She asked his favorite pro team, he heard “protein,” and he confidently reported that his favorite basketball team was chicken.

After coming to understand the situation, he clarified: He likes fellow Pole Marcin Gortat’s Washington Wizards.

Now, perhaps you’re assuming Karnowski didn’t understand the question since he’s a foreigner with a poor grasp of the language. And perhaps you’re assuming that because of his size Karnowski is a one-trick pony, a cloddish giant with no discernible basketball assets besides his size. But he defies expectations.

For starters, he doesn’t struggle with the language anymore. Once upon a time, he was a beardless freshman who avoided interviews for three months by telling Gonzaga’s sports information director that he had a sore throat. Now, he has a 3.43 GPA and is getting his MBA — and he seems to like doing interviews.

It’s true that on the court, much of his success does come from consuming space. Trying to block his shot is like trying to catch a squirrel that’s on the other side of a tree. But look at him pass. He’s big enough that few college basketball players can guard him one-on-one, but if you hit him with a double-team, he’ll teleport your whole team to a Polish playground:

It’s not just that he makes good passes — there are plenty of centers who can do that — it’s that he’s a stylish passer. The above was one of two behind-the-back passes against UCLA in the Sweet 16 last year. Two in the same game! I can picture a 10-year-old version of Karnowski, only 6-foot-1 or so, loading And1 mixtapes into his VHS player in Poland. A profile on DraftExpress actually knocked him for this, claiming his passes often had “more flash than substance.” Maybe you see this as a problem for a 7-foot-1, 300-pound center. I see it as a miracle.

This year, Gonzaga is a reasonably fast team — its average possession lasts just 15.8 seconds, the 36th-quickest pace of the 351 teams in college basketball — and part of that is because Karnowski can get up and down the floor. This 2013 highlight video of him is virtually all fast-break dunks:

It’s hard enough to beat him when you’re between his body and the basket. But when he chugs downcourt and gets in between you and the hoop, you’re hopeless. He’s the world’s speediest, most graceful Ent.

Karnowski made his way to Gonzaga thanks to Tommy Lloyd, who is considered one of the top foreign recruiters in the sport. He helped Gonzaga get Lithuanian-born, Spanish-raised Domantas Sabonis, who became a lottery pick last year. He also got Ronny Turiaf, who is from Martinique and went to high school in France; Elias Harris, who is from Germany; J.P. Batista, who is from Brazil; and many Canadians. Lloyd had gone to Germany for the 2010 U-17 championships to see target Kevin Pangos play for the Canadian team, but was struck by Karnowski, who helped Poland get to the gold-medal game before losing to an American team that featured Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond, and Marquis Teague. Karnowski’s stock would rise — he would go on to play as an amateur in Poland’s pro league and was named rookie of the year. And he was considered a “McDonald’s All American type” by the time he needed to pick a college. (McDonald’s does not put together an All-Polish team.) Gonzaga had been there first, and he chose the Zags over Cal.

Now a fifth-year senior, Karnowski has played in and won more games than any Division I college basketball player — ever. Part of this is because Gonzaga plays and wins a lot of games. They’re 34–1 and counting this year. They’ve never been worse than 15–3 in WCC play during his time in Spokane, they’ve won the league’s tournament every single year, and they’ve played at least two NCAA tournament games every year he’s been there.

At the same time, Gonzaga has been dominant due to Karnowski. When he came to Spokane, he was ready to play, and he got into every game as a freshman. But he’s never had an NBA skill set: He can’t shoot, and he isn’t that athletic. DraftExpress hasn’t put him in a mock draft since 2015, when they put him 60th, the last pick in the draft. While teammates like Sabonis and Kelly Olynyk have declared early for the NBA draft, Karnowski has stayed. When a back injury ended his senior season in 2015, he didn’t have anywhere to go. He was granted permission to play as a fifth-year graduate senior.

Karnowski isn’t Gonzaga’s best player, and he never has been. This year, that distinction goes to Nigel Williams-Goss, the Washington transfer who leads the team in points and assists. (There are three other transfers on the team from power league schools.) Karnowski might not even be its best center, in terms of NBA potential; 7-foot backup Zach Collins is the first actual McDonald’s All American to commit to the Zags out of high school.

However, the Hulking Pole represents Gonzaga better than anyone. Like Karnowski, Gonzaga is a giant that doesn’t necessarily behave like one, a foreigner among college basketball’s elite.

Gonzaga could very well win the NCAA title — it has more wins against current Sweet 16 teams than it does total losses. I want it to happen, for Karnowski’s sake. He’s already won more games than any other player, and yet there is no sure future for him after this. Karnowski is a mountain with legs, and this is his summit to climb.