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Nigel Williams-Goss Is Gonzaga’s Missing Piece

The point guard has done it all since transferring from Washington — including spark the Zags’ Final Four breakthrough

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

In May 2015, Nigel Williams-Goss announced that he was transferring from the University of Washington to in-state rival Gonzaga. The point guard had shined as the Huskies’ primary ball handler over the prior two seasons, shooting better than 44 percent from the field and leading the team with an average of 15.6 points per game in 2014–15. The wins weren’t coming as anticipated, though, and after going a combined 33–30 during his time in Seattle, Williams-Goss decided that he’d had enough.

“I felt after my freshman year, a lot of the things we had talked about (that) were going to change going into my sophomore year, I didn’t see a lot of that change happening,” Williams-Goss told writer Bud Withers for the 2016 book Glory Hounds. “It’s one thing, I feel like, to lose, but it’s another thing when you’re not doing everything in your power, or your capability, as far as preparation in trying to win. I just felt there were a lot of stones left unturned before games. … I just felt it was best for me to move on.”

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

That decision garnered a lot of criticism in the Pacific Northwest, but the results are undeniable. After sitting out a year in accordance with the NCAA’s transfer rules, Williams-Goss injected his talent and leadership into the Zags, who have thrived on it. In his first game with the Bulldogs, a 92–69 win over Utah Valley on November 11, he racked up 14 points, eight rebounds, six assists, and a steal. The stat line was a harbinger of things to come. This season Williams-Goss has averaged 16.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 1.8 steals, and Gonzaga has gone 36–1 en route to its first Final Four berth. The 6-foot-3 195-pounder has been a savant, the team’s best player and possibly its key to winning a national title.

What Williams-Goss brings to the Bulldogs in terms of production is invaluable, and unmatched among the other point guards in the 2017 Final Four. The rest of the group at that position isn’t star-studded, but rather eclectic. Oregon’s Payton Pritchard is a talented freshman who facilitates but knows how to create his own shot. South Carolina’s PJ Dozier and Rakym Felder are serviceable guards who split time and set up Gamecocks leading scorer Sindarius Thornwell. North Carolina’s Joel Berry II is a former five-star recruit, per ESPN, who is well rounded and has terrific instincts. Statistically speaking, though, none measures up to Williams-Goss, who leads Gonzaga in minutes, points, assists, and steals and is second on the roster in rebounds. Among guards who made the NCAA tournament, Williams-Goss ranks in the top 15 in total rebounding rate. His average of 5.9 rebounds per game is the highest of any guard left besides Thornwell.

If Vegas odds prove accurate and Gonzaga and Carolina square off in Monday’s national championship game — as of Friday morning, the Bulldogs were listed as 6.5-point favorites over South Carolina and the Tar Heels were listed as five-point favorites over Oregon — the clash between Williams-Goss and Berry could emerge as the determining factor. And while the two play similar minutes, the Zags floor general outpaces Berry in nearly every other statistical category, including field goal percentage (49.0 percent to 43.9 percent). Berry, who uses 21 percent of the team’s possessions, makes the Tar Heels 23 points per 100 possessions better when he’s out on the floor. Williams-Goss, who uses 24 percent of the team’s possessions, makes the Bulldogs almost 38 points better when he’s in the game.

A Gonzaga-UNC showdown is still speculation, though. This, however, is not: Since the turn of the century, every team that’s won the national title has had at least one former five-star recruit on its squad. Williams-Goss was rated as a five-star prospect coming out of Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada, according to ESPN, and by persuading him to transfer to Gonzaga over other suitors including UNLV, Texas, Michigan State, and Georgetown, head coach Mark Few netted his first former five-star talent. If history is any indication, Williams-Goss could be the blue-chipper Few needs to finally push his program over the top.

The five-star qualifier on Williams-Goss is well placed. He boasts an NBA-ready frame, and his lethal combination of ballhandling skill and athleticism stand out in college basketball. He’s potent off the pick-and-roll, displays great dexterity and decision-making, and has shown he can do it all: pull up for 3, thread a pass to Gonzaga’s 7-footers (Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins), or drive to the hoop, allowing him to show off a featherlike touch in the paint. To the naked eye, he always appears in control, patiently waiting for a crevice to attack or biding his time to find a shot that he wants. DraftExpress projects Williams-Goss, a redshirt junior, to be a high second-round pick in the 2018 NBA draft.

When Gonzaga traveled to BYU in early February, Williams-Goss dropped 33 points on 12-of-18 shooting, helping the Zags overwhelm the Cougars to notch their 23rd-consecutive win to open the season. In the West Coast Conference tournament, he averaged 22.6 points over three games while shooting 63 percent from the field. And he’s corralled seven or more rebounds in each of the Bulldogs’ four NCAA tournament games.

“He’s a ferocious competitor,” Few told reporters after Gonzaga’s 85–75 victory at BYU in February. “He’s confident. He’s mentally tough … the kid’s just a winner. He’s just a flat-out winner.”

During the final minute of the first half in Gonzaga’s 83–59 Elite Eight win over Xavier, Williams-Goss gathered a rebound, assisted a 3-pointer, and hit a spinning layup to push the Bulldogs’ lead to double digits. At the start of the second half, he set up a Karnowski jumper and drilled a 3 just before the 19-minute mark, and the Zags never looked back. Heading into this year’s tourney, Gonzaga had never reached the Final Four, losing twice in the Elite Eight and seven times in the Sweet 16. The last three times the program had advanced past the second round its guards had mightily struggled. In 2015 Gonzaga fell to Duke in the Elite Eight in a game in which the Bulldogs’ starting guards (Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr.) combined for nine points and two assists. Last March the school lost to Syracuse in a 63–60 nail-biter in which its starting guards (Kyle Dranginis and Eric McClellan) combined for eight points and five assists.

Williams-Goss’s move from Seattle to Spokane may have spanned less than 300 miles, but it’s made all the difference — for both him and the program. After a season-in-waiting, Williams-Goss is more than just one of the cogs in Gonzaga’s breakthrough run. He’s the one who’s leading the way.