Last summer, Corey Kispert had a difficult choice to make.
He could keep his name in the 2020 NBA draft, where the Edmonds native was reportedly expected to be a second-round pick. Or he could return for his senior season with the perennial powerhouse Gonzaga Bulldogs men’s basketball team.
Kispert chose to finish his career with the Zags.
“It ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made,” he told The Herald this summer.
Kispert capped his decorated Gonzaga career with a consensus first-team All-American senior campaign, averaging 18.6 points and 5.0 rebounds per game this past season while helping lead the Zags to the national championship game and a 31-1 record.
The former King’s High School star was one of the faces of college basketball, with his immaculate shooting form frequenting SportsCenter and all sorts of national media during Gonzaga’s pursuit of perfection, which ended with the Zags falling just one win short of becoming the sport’s first undefeated national champion in 45 years.
And after elevating his draft stock with his standout season, Kispert was selected by the Washington Wizards with the No. 15 overall pick in July’s NBA draft.
For all of his accomplishments, Kispert is The Herald’s 2020-21 Man of the Year in Sports.
“It’s been a long process, but every bit of it was worth it,” Kispert said during a press conference on the night of the draft. “… I’m over the moon about the way it turned out.”
It all stems from the 6-foot-7, 220-pound Kispert’s tireless work ethic, relentless drive and exceptional level of detail-oriented focus and intentionality.
“His work ethic is different,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson told The Herald this summer. “His ability to stay focused on the task at hand and small details to gain improvements … makes him one of the two or three greatest workers that this program’s had.”
Take this past year, for instance. After Kispert’s junior season, according to Michaelson, some NBA scouts doubted whether he could keep improving.
“They said, ‘He’s made so much progress in three years. Can he make more?’” Michaelson said. “And I was basically guaranteeing them that he would.
“Now these same guys are calling back,” he added. “And I’m saying, ‘I told you guys.’”
In his constant quest to maximize every ounce of potential, Kispert spent countless hours last summer improving his athleticism and tightening his dribbling. He worked with a certain longtime Spokane resident — NBA Hall of Famer and Gonzaga legend John Stockton — to sharpen his driving and finishing skills.
And despite already being one of the nation’s top college shooters as a junior, Kispert thoroughly examined his shooting form and smoothed out a small hitch he’d discovered.
“It (already) looked about as good as you could possibly have,” Michaelson said of Kispert’s textbook form. “But he was always willing and able to make really small tweaks — that maybe the public doesn’t even necessarily notice — to take it from something that was very good to something that’s great.”
It all coalesced into a spectacular senior year.
Kispert took another leap offensively, increasing his scoring average by nearly five points per game while helping pace likely the most talented team in Gonzaga history.
He finished tied for fifth in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage at 44.0% — highlighted by a sizzling long-distance barrage in a rout of Virginia last December, when he scored a career-high 32 points and drained 9 of 13 shots from beyond the arc to tie the Gonzaga single-game record for made 3s.
He also was one of just two players in the country to average 18-plus points per contest while shooting at least 50% from the field, 40% from 3-point range and 85% from the free-throw line, according to Sports-Reference.com.
And with his increased effectiveness at attacking the rim, he showcased an expanded offensive arsenal while raising his 2-point field-goal percentage from 51.7% as a junior to 62.8% as a senior.
“His ability to make twos and to get to the free-throw line is what really, really drove those (stats) up,” Michaelson said.
With Kispert helping lead the way, Gonzaga reached the precipice of college hoops immortality. However, the Zags’ dream of a perfect season ended in a crushing title-game loss to Baylor, which Kispert said will “sting for 10, 20, 30 years.”
As for the rest of the season’s magical ride, though?
“It was a dream come true,” Kispert said. “… It was awesome. The team was amazing. We were so close, we won a ton of games (and) had a lot of fun doing it. Literally everything was perfect, except for the last game of the year.”
Kispert received accolades off the court as well, earning first-team Academic All-American honors in the classroom. He completed his undergraduate degree early and is pursuing a graduate degree in business administration.
Michaelson and King’s High School boys basketball coach Rick Skeen also raved about the type of person and role model Kispert is.
“He’s one of the all-time great people I’ve ever been around,” Michaelson said. “You want your children to be like Corey.
“He’s humble. He’s unbelievably polite. He’s thoughtful toward others. Obviously, he’s got an incredible amount of intelligence — he’s one of the brightest people I’ve been around. He’s also got a joy to him, though, where he doesn’t take himself too seriously. And he’s got a sense of humor.
“I mean, when you go through positive qualities of a person and someone you would want to emulate, Corey has every one of them in spades.”
After a dizzying year of milestones and achievements, Kispert is getting set for his first season in the NBA. Training camp begins next week, followed by the Wizards’ preseason opener on Oct. 5 and their regular-season opener on Oct. 20.
“There was a lot of years in my life,” Kispert said this summer, “where I was told, ‘Don’t dream about playing in the NBA. It’s not realistic. Like, you know how many basketball players don’t play in the NBA? Like, c’mon Corey. Chill out. Be realistic.’
“To (reach the NBA) is a huge fulfillment of a ton of childhood dreams.”
But on the other hand, it’ll still be business as usual for Kispert.
“It’s just a new chapter of this long book,” he said. “Nothing’s changing, and I’ve gotta work hard at it.”