How Gonzaga’s Julian Strawther overcame stagefright to appreciate spotlight of Sweet 16 in hometown of Las Vegas
March 22, 2023 Updated Wed., March 22, 2023 at 10:09 p.m.
Gonzaga guard Julian Strawther smiles during a practice on Wednesday, preparing for the Bulldogs’ Sweet 16 game Thursday against UCLA at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
LAS VEGAS – Liberty High School. Orleans Arena. T-Mobile Arena. The list of gymnasiums with a 702 area code that have played a role in Julian Strawther’s career is long, and only getting longer.
UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center, home to the NBA’s annual Summer League showcase, could be the next place on the list if Gonzaga’s junior wing continues to produce big shots in big moments and manufacture victories at the NCAA Tournament, which will continue for Strawther and the Bulldogs on Thursday at t T-Mobile against UCLA in the Sweet 16.
Roughly 7 miles from the 20,000-seat, state-of-the-art venue on the Las Vegas strip where Gonzaga will try to keep its national championship aspirations alive on Thursday is another facility with significance to Strawther and his origin story.
Long before Mark Few convinced Strawther to sign a National Letter of Intent with Gonzaga, a 4½-year-old version of the Julius Erving Award finalist and all-conference swingman was recruited by his father, Lee, to play up on a 6- to 8-year-old team at the Desert Breeze Community Center in Spring Valley.
Strawther had more skill than the majority of his older companions and wasn’t necessarily at a size disadvantage, so age rules were bent to accommodate the soon-to-be 5-year-old.
“We’d been practicing for a couple weeks before the season began and he’s having a ball,” Lee Strawther said. “He’s doing his thing.”
From a media scrum inside Gonzaga’s locker room Wednesday afternoon at T-Mobile Arena, the junior provided his account of what happened next, as Strawther’s “Tar Heels” team took the floor for its first game.
“First time I ever hit the court, it was game day and my coach throws me into the game and I decided I was too scared to get on the court and I cried on the bench and my mom and dad were yelling me at me from the bleachers,” Strawther said. “I went home that night and they took all my toys. They said the ‘NBA magic man’ took them and the only way to get them back was to get on the court. “
“Toys” were in this instance Nerf basketballs and the plastic hoops hanging from practically every door in the household.
“He couldn’t get off the bench and he was wailing,” Lee Strawther said. “Of course my wife and I were like, ‘Are you kidding me? … You love basketball, you talk basketball all the time and now your first game you’re going to do this. My wife and I are discussing, I’m taking the balls and I’m hiding them in the garage. All of them. All 50 of them. However many he had.”
Strawther’s father still remembers the events as if they happened a week ago.
“So he wakes up in the morning and he’s like, ‘Dad where’s my balls? Where’s all the basketballs?’ ” Lee said. “I said, ‘I’m sorry man, the basketball gods came last night and took them. They said you didn’t want to play anymore and they had some other kids that really wanted to play. So they came and picked them up, they said you didn’t need them anymore.’”
Determined to retrieve his basketballs and toy hoops, Strawther worked up the courage to get back on the court. The rest was history.
“So the next game I went out there and I ended up falling in love with it and it’s been over ever since,” Strawther said.
It’s hard to imagine that scene more than 15 years later, especially given the confidence and swagger Strawther’s shown as a junior who’s averaged 15.3 points and 6.1 rebounds for the 30-5 Zags.
The Las Vegas native is returning to play for the 10th time in his hometown, and potentially the 11th if Gonzaga can secure a win against UCLA on Thursday and advance to the Elite Eight on Saturday.
Strawther’s 8-1 record in games played in Vegas – six coming at the WCC Tournament and three more against Central Michigan, UCLA and Duke during his sophomore season – shouldn’t be a surprise considering the 89-10 record he’s accumulated in three years at Gonzaga, two of which have been spent in a starting role.
He’s yet to play a game in his hometown with the significance and ramifications of Thursday.
“To be honest, I’ve been telling my teammates this is the biggest basketball game I’ve played in my life,” he said. “Vegas, March Madness. … It’s kind of like a full-circle moment. It’s always like a dream to play in March Madness and not too many people get the luxury of playing in their hometown, especially in a regional final.”
The 4½-year-old boy who refused to take the court in a youth league game just down the road is now a 20-year-old NBA prospect who’s embraced the expanded role that he’s earned in his third year with Gonzaga.
As a freshman, he was largely an understudy to standout Corey Kispert, now with the Washington Wizards.
As a sophomore he stepped into a starting role, but was normally the fourth player on opposing scouting reports, after Drew Timme, Chet Holmgren and Andrew Nembhard.
As a junior, he’s become more of a focal point within GU’s offense, needing to score at a higher clip to give the Bulldogs the best chance of winning.
The Bulldogs are 18-0 when Strawther scores at least 14 points this season.
He’s hit the 28-point mark in three games, including last week’s NCAA opener against Grand Canyon, and scored 40 points in a WCC road game against Portland.
“It’s one of those things, you know it’s going to happen eventually,” Strawther said. “You can’t be the man your entire life. Obviously, it’s just patience and resilience, it’s not always easy. There’s times you kind of want things to go on your agenda but at the same time, this is what’s right. I feel like everything’s kind of gone smoothly.”
Gonzaga’s nonconference games in Vegas last season, particularly the two against UCLA and Duke, were a good barometer for how Strawther would handle playing on a national stage in his hometown.
“He’s really done a good job with it and as I think last Thanksgiving he was starting to come into his own, he was becoming a major player and I was interested to see how he responded,” assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “We had a good week, came out 2-1, he probably played one of the better games of his career – definitely one of the better games – against Duke. After that, I never really thought about it again.”
Michaelson, a longtime assistant under Few, has seen that go the opposite direction on more than one occasion, which is another testament to Strawther’s confidence and even-keeled approach.
“It’s hard, you always want to play great, but I think especially at home you do want to play great,” he said. “You do worry about some of that.”
The specific route Strawther took to college stardom makes his latest Vegas homecoming more satisfying.
As a highly rated recruit, he had the option to leave Las Vegas to attend a prep school and boost his exposure – a route many of his friends chose. Strawther also could’ve transferred to a local powerhouse such as Bishop Gorman, rather than attend Liberty High, the school just a block away from his father’s house in Henderson.
UCLA’s roster features Tyger Campbell, a fifth-year guard who grew up in Vegas before attending La Lumiere, a prep school in Indiana, and redshirt freshman Will McClendon, who played at Bishop Gorman.
“We kind of did things our own way, stuck to our own plan and that involved just being a Vegas kid and doing your neighborhood thing with your friends,” Lee said. “… It was difficult when you’re in a position like some of these kids are. They kind of lose their childhood in a sense and they lose times, high school and things they can’t get back because everything’s so basketball oriented.”
Strawther expanded on his reasons for sticking it out at Liberty, which has evolved into a state title contender since the school’s all-time points and rebounds leader left for Gonzaga.
“That’s just kind of how my family does it, stays super loyal to whatever we decide and we decided that’s what was most comfortable for me,” he said. “… It was the best decision for me.”
Strawther has had this particular Vegas trip on his mind since the NCAA announced its regional final sites and used it as a rallying point before Gonzaga’s second-round game against TCU last Sunday in Denver.
“He said, ‘C’mon fellas, let’s win this game. I’m trying to go home,’ ” Gonzaga forward Anton Watson said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I can’t hate on that,’ but it’s exciting for him. Hooping in your own city in the Sweet 16, nothing can compare to that. It’s going to be fun for him.”
Given Strawther’s track record in gyms with the 702 area code, Gonzaga has good reason to like its chances, even if the Bulldogs technically enter Thursday’s game as a 1½-point underdog.
“The odds are in our favor here in Vegas,” Lee Strawther said, “so we’re just happy we get to see him one more time.”
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