Corey Kispert had one of the largest obstacles in all of college basketball in his path.
Kispert and the Gonzaga University men’s basketball team were facing the University of Texas in the PK80-Phil Knight Invitational on Nov. 26 in Portland, Oregon. When Kispert received the ball in transition early in the first half he saw Texas’ Mohamed Bamba, perhaps the best shot blocker in the country, waiting for him under the basket.
What did Kispert do? The freshman from Edmonds put on the jets, went right into Bamba’s chest, absorbed the contact and finished over the man with a 7-foot-9 wingspan, scoring the basket and drawing a foul that resulted in a three-point play in what was eventually a 76-71 overtime victory.
It was a metaphorical moment for Kispert, who in his brief collegiate career has already overcome obstacles both on and off the court.
Kispert is off to a fabulous start to his college career with the 12th-ranked Bulldogs, who visit the Puget Sound region Sunday when they face the Washington Huskies. And Kispert is showing that the foot injury that derailed his senior season at King’s High School is a thing of the past.
Kispert has been perhaps the biggest surprise of Gonzaga’s early season. The 6-foot-6, 215-pound forward was a well-regarded prospect after guiding King’s to consecutive 1A state championships in 2015 and 2016 — he was named the Herald’s Boys Basketball Player of the Year in 2016. But the combination of Kispert’s small-school pedigree, along with questions about his readiness after seeing most of his senior season wiped out by injury, meant few expected Kispert to be a primary contributor before the season began.
However, Kispert has played above all expectations so far. Kispert started from day one, becoming the first freshman to start his first game at Gonzaga since Elias Harris in 2011. Through seven games he averaged 27.9 minutes per game, totaling 10.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.6 3-pointers per contest. Gonzaga coach Mark Few has given Kispert the green light to shoot whenever he’s open.
“During my recruitment it was clear I was going to contribute in some form right away, but in no way was I imagining this,” Kispert said. “Starting was such a far-fetched thing for me, to be honest. To be able to do that for multiple games is a dream come true.
“I think the coaches have me on the floor first off for my jump shot,” Kispert added. “That spreads the floor, and even if I’m not shooting a lot from deep, the fact the defense has to guard me past the 3-point line opens up the post, as well as driving lanes for [Josh] Perkins and Silas [Melson] coming off screens. Also, being a big dude, I can get offensive rebounds and guard bigger guys, so coaches want to utilize that.”
But there were some doubts about whether Kispert would be available at all.
Last January, when King’s was facing Cedarcrest, Kispert suffered a Jones fracture to the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. He underwent surgery in February in which the fractured part of the bone was removed and replaced by a piece of healthy bone taken from his heel. It’s the same surgery performed on such star athletes as the NBA’s Kevin Durant and the NFL’s Julio Jones.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Kispert said about sitting out injured. “Just watching the guys I love playing for the school I love in my senior year when we were supposed to contend for a state title, just selfishly playing on that kind of stage was something I looked forward to my whole career. To have that ripped out was hard, but my teammates were supportive and made sure I was still part of the family.”
Kispert wasn’t able to resume full basketball activity until June, and there were concerns about whether his freshman year at Gonzaga would be impacted.
“You play all the scenarios through your head, think about every possible thing that could happen, especially with an injury like that,” Kispert said. “You hear about people having to go back and redo the surgery, so you definitely worry about that. But thankfully everything turned out fine.”
Kispert has been fully embraced by the Gonzaga basketball community, which has a strong alumni presence in Spokane — he frequently runs into John Stockton in the weight room, and Ronny Turiaf rebounded for him once during a late-night workout. Perkins, the team’s starting point guard, has taken Kispert under his wing, rooming with him on the road and providing regular advice.
Gonzaga, being in the West Coast Conference, always beefs up its pre-conference schedule, meaning Kispert has already been involved in some epic games. Most notably, he played a team-high 46 minutes and scored 15 points in Gonzaga’s 111-105 double-overtime loss to No. 5 Florida at the PK80.
“That was the most fun I’ve ever had playing basketball, easily,” Kispert said about the PK80. “The Florida game was insane. The Moda Center was full, there were lots of highs and lots of lows and lots of swings, heroic plays by guys. It’s a game I wish I could rewind and play over and over again.”
Kispert didn’t play in Gonzaga’s most recent game, a 91-74 victory over Creighton last Friday in Spokane, because of turned left ankle suffered in the Bulldogs’ 103-68 victory over Incarnate Word two days earlier. However, he said he expects to be able to play Tuesday against No. 4 Villanova at the Jimmy V Classic in New York City, and again Sunday against Washington in what amounts to a homecoming game.
Which means locals get a chance to see first-hand how well Kispert has overcome the obstacles presented by the college game.
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