THE CHEAP SEATS with STEVE CAMERON: Ballo can ball, and other Zag goodies

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  • Photo courtesy Gonzaga media relations Gonzaga rising sophomore guard Joel Ayayi.

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    Photo courtesy Gonzaga media relations Incoming Gonzaga freshman Oumar Ballo.

  • Photo courtesy Gonzaga media relations Gonzaga rising sophomore guard Joel Ayayi.

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    Photo courtesy Gonzaga media relations Incoming Gonzaga freshman Oumar Ballo.

Oumar Ballo could be the second coming of Shaquille O’Neal.

Or he might just be a big kid who can bully undersized opponents — a guy whose basketball life will get a whole lot tougher when he’s confronted with players big enough and gifted enough to push him back.

Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd’s job is to peer into the mist, and somehow decide what the future holds for Ballo and countless other international prospects who might be lured to Spokane.

Almost every Zag fan can reel off a list of Lloyd’s successes, and describe what has now become a spectacular pipeline of players from outside the U.S.

They’ve been a huge part of Gonzaga’s winning culture.

Lloyd has built a legend, and Zag junkies now expect him to wrap up two or three “can’t-miss” international prospects every year.

The task gets a little easier with each successful crop, obviously, as word of Gonzaga’s ability to help young men make the transition to U.S. basketball keeps on spreading.

IT SOUNDS so easy, now that the ball is rolling.

But there are hundreds — even thousands — of international hopefuls who might make a massive breakthrough in college ball.

Or not.

You can’t just show up at some global event, find the next Rui Hachimura, and call it a day.

Even players who show flashes of brilliance might fool you over the long haul.

And finally…

Besides having the talent and attitude to play at Gonzaga’s level, bona fide prospects also need that special attitude that allows them to enter a totally different culture — sometimes needing to learn a new language — and avoid getting swallowed up by the process.

Just to get an idea of the challenges facing Lloyd and the rest of the Gonzaga staff, I spent several hours watching the FIBA U-19 World Cup from Greece over the past month.

Players like Ballo, the 6-foot-11 Gonzaga commit from Mali, jumped right off the screen.

But before you think this is a cinch, Zag sophomore Joel Ayayi had some spectacular games for France (he rang up 33 points twice and made it look routine), only to follow them up with icy shooting performances that forced you to turn away.

Ayayi, though, still looked like one of the most athletic guards in the tournament, so…

Can he develop into the point guard that Gonzaga needs so badly?

It was frustrating to watch him and try making a guess.

THERE WERE five Zags (or Zags-to-be) in the tournament: Ayayi and 6-11 Serbian center Filip Petrusev off the current roster; Ballo and Lithuanian shooting guard Martynas Arlauskas from the 2019 recruiting class, and super-impressive Puerto Rican guard Julian Lee Strawther from the 2020 group.

Some players (like Strawther) were surrounded by lack of talent, and were asked to do things that won’t be necessary at Gonzaga. Even Ayayi’s France teammates spent long spells avoiding defense as though it were a disease.

And then there was Ballo.

He’s huge and powerful, which really shows up on the defensive boards — while at the other end, he didn’t dominate the way you’d expect, although he’s clearly working on some nice soft hooks and floaters.

I think part of my difficulty was recent exposure to Brandon Clarke. Once you’ve watched Clarke regularly, it looks like everyone else takes ages to get off the ground.

It’s best to remember that Clarke is already leaping over pros in the NBA summer league.

ONE TOUGH chore in scouting is being careful not to compare raw schoolboys with your past and present players.

Ballo, for instance, looks like he’s still carrying some baby fat, but he just turned 17 this week.

Yes, 17.

Once he grows up naturally, and of course becomes sleeker in the Zag athletic training program, we’ll be talking about a different body.

Maybe no one will chuckle at the Shaq comparisons.

The easy verdict on Ballo is that he’s not the finished product, nor a guaranteed star — but he’s growing up fast and there aren’t many programs that wouldn’t be thrilled to have him.

The guy who puzzled me most — not counting Arlauskas, who never got into a rhythm for Lithuania — was Ayayi.

We barely saw him last year, and almost never in high-pressure situations. But it’s good to remember that Mark Few routinely keeps some excellent young players out of the firing line until he thinks they’re ready to play against teams like North Carolina and Arizona.

Hachimura never got off the bench in the national title game.

While the rest of us have been sweating the point guard situation, Few might already have seen enough to feel Ayayi will grow into something special at that spot.

There were games in the U-19 tournament when Ayayi looked unstoppable with the ball and defensively outstanding.

I’m really going to be fascinated by the Zags’ plans for him this year — and remember, Ayayi’s counterpart in that backup spot (Greg Foster Jr.) transferred out of Gonzaga this off season.

Did Foster know something about plans for Ayayi?

From what I saw in Greece, Ayayi is only a consistent shot away from being a terrific college player.

But hey, I’m just a guy who spent too much time with chips, dip and basketball tape.

And concluding that Gonzaga isn’t going backwards anytime soon.


Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns for The Press appear on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Steve also contributes the “Zags Tracker” package on Gonzaga basketball once monthly during the offseason.


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