During Corey Kispert’s decorated prep basketball career at King’s High School, there were times midseason when coach Rick Skeen gave his team Saturday and Sunday off.
It had been a grueling week of games and practices and film sessions, so Skeen wanted his team to stay away from the gym and recharge, both physically and mentally.
The rule-following Kispert didn’t want to violate coach’s orders.
But those orders went against Kispert’s DNA.
“Usually by about noon on Saturday, I’d get a text from Corey,” Skeen said. “He’d say: ‘Coach, I know you said you didn’t want us in the gym, (but) I was just wondering if I could maybe go in for like 45 minutes?’
“He’s so respectful and wants to do what he’s asked to do. But he has such a desire and hunger to get better and to improve.”
That same tireless work ethic and relentless drive is at the heart of the Edmonds native’s ascent to a projected first-round NBA draft pick.
A few years ago, the idea of Kispert reaching the fringe of lottery-pick range probably would’ve seemed far-fetched to most.
But over the course of his standout college career with the perennial powerhouse Gonzaga Bulldogs, Kispert became the poster child for year-to-year development. He kept elevating his game and surpassing the limits of what others thought he could achieve, culminating with an All-American senior season this past year.
Now, most experts and outlets predict he’ll be a top-15 overall pick in Thursday night’s NBA draft.
“What sticks out is just how much better he got every year,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “Each year, there was significant growth on both sides of the ball.
“It’s pretty remarkable. … Where he went from day one to the end of his career is about as cool as it gets.”
There are countless stats that illustrate the strides Kispert made at Gonzaga. But a quick glance at his yearly scoring averages perhaps does it best: He went from 6.7 points per game as a freshman, to 8.0 as a sophomore, to 13.9 as a junior, to 18.6 as a senior this past season.
As a sophomore, he was Gonzaga’s fifth-leading scorer. Two years later, as the star senior on a national runner-up team that finished 31-1, he was a consensus first-team All-American.
It’s a tribute, Michaelson said, not only to endless hours of extra work in the gym, but also to an exceptional level of detail-oriented focus and intentionality.
“What separates Corey is his ability to remain focused and to focus on small details in that time,” Michaelson said. “A lot of guys will spend a lot of time and work very hard, but maybe lose some focus on what are the right things, or bounce around a little bit too much.
“His work ethic is different. 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.”
‘Out of a textbook’
When Kispert was 3 years old, his father, Craig, took him to the driving range for the first time.
At that point, Kispert’s only golf experience consisted of watching it on TV. But from a young age, he had a knack for seeing a motion and being able to copy it.
“I just put the ball on the tee and — whack — he hit it,” Craig said. “… He had this almost perfect golf swing.”
The origin of Kispert’s picture-perfect shooting stroke is similar.
Kispert remembers himself as a young kid watching his dad — a former Division II basketball player at Seattle Pacific University — shoot on their family’s backyard hoop.
“I’ve always been a really good visual learner,” Kispert said. “When someone does something, I’m usually able to replicate it.”
Sure enough, Kispert immediately grasped the fundamentals.
“He had the form down almost as soon as he picked up the ball,” Craig said.
Growing up, that same natural athleticism and impeccably quick learning ability manifested in virtually every athletic endeavor Kispert attempted.
As a high school freshman, he turned out for track and field and earned top-10 finishes in three different events at the Class 1A state championships. Without picking up a bat for years, he showed up to baseball tryouts and hit line drive after line drive in the batting cage. And he played a bit of quarterback during his first two years at King’s, even garnering some Pac-12 football recruiting interest, according to Skeen.
“If you saw him throw a 60-yard spiral, you’d understand why the Pac-12 schools were knocking on the door,” Skeen said.
Undoubtedly, much of the 6-foot-7, 220-pound Kispert’s natural talent comes from his bloodlines. Craig was a 1,200-point scorer at SPU. Kispert’s mother, Deri, is one of SPU volleyball’s all-time assist leaders. And Kispert’s grandfather, Dainard Paulson, was a two-time Pro Bowl safety for the New York Jets in the 1960s.
But to be among some of the world’s best at a particular skill, it takes more than great genes.
During his youth, Kispert spent endless hours shooting in the backyard or high school gym, constantly honing what’s always been the signature aspect of his game. By high school, his shooting form was already a masterpiece.
“It’s the first thing that stuck out to you when you first saw Corey at 16,” Michaelson said. “It looked like his shot was taken out of a textbook.”
But like any great artist, Kispert wasn’t satisfied.
“It (already) looked about as good as you could possibly have,” Michaelson said. “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.”
Kispert raised his 3-point shooting percentage every year at Gonzaga — from 35.1% as a freshman to a scorching 44.0% as a senior.
“He’s gone from a very good high school shooter,” Michaelson said, “to a guy that is legitimately viewed as the best shooter in this NBA draft — and the potential to be one of the best shooters in the world.”
‘What set me free’
Kispert came to Gonzaga on the heels of an immensely successful prep career.
He was a two-time 1A state player of the year. He led King’s to three state championship games, including back-to-back titles as a sophomore and junior. If not for a foot injury his senior year, he and the Knights may very well have accomplished a three-peat.
Some doubted how Kispert — a four-star recruit who chose Mark Few’s Gonzaga program over Virginia and Notre Dame — would fare in his transition from small-school high school basketball to big-time college hoops.
But Kispert immediately got off to a strong start. As a freshman, he started each of Gonzaga’s first seven games, while averaging double-figure scoring over that stretch. All was going great.
Then, in the seventh game, Kispert sprained his ankle.
After that, things went south.
“It was a bad sprain, man,” Kispert said. “When I came back, coach Few (said) I looked like a Clydesdale running around out there, just limping around.”
The injury only sidelined Kispert for two games. But when he returned, he wasn’t the same player. He didn’t start another game that season. And he reached double-digit points just five more times.
“I had zero confidence in my ankle,” Kispert said. “I didn’t know how much I could push it or put pressure on it. … Those injuries tend to linger in your head longer than they actually linger in your body. You just can’t get over it.
“And being a young kid who had a lot of success at the (high school) level without a ton of struggle, the bottom just kind of came out. I wasn’t in a good spot mentally.”
Kispert said his struggles were compounded by a sense of “paralysis by analysis” — a phrase he heard countless times from Few early in his college career.
Some of the very traits that fuel Kispert’s success — his innate drive to master a skill, his deep attention to detail — were backfiring into a crippling sort of perfectionism and fear of failure.
“He just overanalyzed so much and worried so much about whether he was being perfect, whether he was making mistakes, that it caused him to freeze,” Michaelson said.
“And you would get these moments where he would truly just kind of lock up.”
By sophomore year, Kispert regained full confidence in his ankle. He earned back his starting role. He was a solid contributor on a team that reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
But his fear of making mistakes was still limiting him from reaching his full potential.
“All this stuff just creeps into your head when you are trying to be a perfectionist out there,” he said.
Yet with time and experience, Kispert learned how to move on from a missed shot, a turnover, a subpar game. He learned how to find a balance between maintaining his constant pursuit to be great, while accepting the reality that everyone makes mistakes.
He learned to let go.
And that, in turn, allowed him to truly maximize the benefits of all his hard work.
“That’s kind of what set me free and really opened my game up the last two years — just doing what I do and (trusting) the work I put in,” he said.
“I’m a much more confident player,” he added. “I just feel more relaxed (and) more confident in myself and the player that I am.”
Turning the corner
During his first two years at Gonzaga, Kispert played a complementary role behind other talented players.
But following his sophomore season, the Zags lost their top four scorers — two first-round NBA draft picks, another draft entrant and a four-year starter.
“Before you knew it, I looked around and I was the only guy in the starting lineup coming back,” Kispert said.
“I was like, ‘OK, it’s time to go to work.’”
Hard work, of course, is etched in every fiber of Kispert. But that summer between sophomore and junior year, in particular, was pivotal for his development.
Kispert worked closely with Ken Nakagawa, Gonzaga’s video coordinator at the time. They studied Cam Johnson, Tyler Herro and Kyle Guy — a trio of elite college shooters who were NBA draft picks that year. With an in-depth array of advanced stats, Nakagawa broke down, in considerable detail, what situations those players were most efficient in.
Then, they used that information to develop a training blueprint for Kispert.
“(We laid) that out step by step and tried to train like those guys did, because I wanted to have the years that they had in college,” Kispert said. “… A lot of credit goes to (Ken) for helping me uncover everything and unlock my game.”
Kispert also spent a couple days that summer in Chelan, where he trained and hung out with Brooklyn Nets shooting guard and former Chelan High School star Joe Harris. At the time, Harris was the reigning NBA leader in 3-point shooting percentage.
In many ways, Harris was a living embodiment of what Kispert could become. They have similar body types, with almost identical current heights and weights. Both hail from prep stardom at the small-school 1A level in Washington state. And for both, pinpoint shooting is their primary weapon.
“I asked him every question I could think of — how he moved without the ball, his footwork, the way he shot it,” Kispert said. “… It definitely gave me a leg up that year.”
After an offseason of improvement, Kispert entered his junior year with a newfound confidence and what he described as a “killer mentality.”
Kispert raised his scoring average to 13.9 points per game — nearly a six-point bump from the previous season — and was the second-leading scorer on a 31-2 team that was set to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament before it was canceled because of the pandemic.
Part of Kispert’s scoring jump came from improved 3-point shooting, which he attributed to increased confidence and a clear mind. His 3-point percentage climbed more than six points that year to 43.8%, despite it being the same season the NCAA moved the arc back nearly 17 inches.
“I was able to just shoot it and let it go,” he said. “Feeling that freedom to shoot any time I was open, or any time I touched the ball, really led to a lot more made shots.”
Kispert’s other major stride was his proficiency as an on-ball creator, especially in pick-and-roll situations. That allowed him to attack the basket and get to the free-throw line considerably more often.
“He had some plays in ball screens (early that season) that were really, really good reads within our offense that had not really been demonstrated earlier in his career,” Michaelson said.
“And I think (that) kind of was the full turning of the corner to where he was headed.”
‘Best decision I’ve ever made’
Kispert had a difficult choice to make.
After his junior season was cut short by the pandemic, he entered his name into the NBA draft pool last spring and got feedback from teams.
If he kept his name in the draft, Kispert was reportedly expected to be a second-round pick. If he returned to Gonzaga for his senior season, he could potentially pursue a national championship and take a gamble on improving his draft stock.
It was a tough decision that was made even more complicated by myriad pandemic-related unknowns — including uncertainty over whether there would even be a college basketball season.
But ultimately, Kispert chose to withdraw from the draft and return to Gonzaga.
“It ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made,” he said.
Kispert said he received consistent feedback across the board from NBA teams last summer: Keep up the great shooting, and work on your dribbling and defense.
But some in the NBA doubted whether Kispert could keep improving, Michaelson said. These days, the NBA draft is dominated by underclassmen — not four-year college players like Kispert.
“Sometimes you’re considered ancient if you’re a senior in college,” Michaelson said. “They said, ‘He’s made so much progress in three years. Can he make more?’ And I was basically guaranteeing them that he would.
“I told them, ‘He’s gonna take your feedback and he’s gonna be so detailed in attacking those things every single day for the next calendar year that you’re gonna see a massive jump.’”
Kispert was already among the top shooters in the nation as a junior. But in his constant quest to maximize every ounce of his potential, he thoroughly examined his shooting form and discovered a small hitch.
“There’d be a tiny, tiny little pause, and it would throw me off,” he said. “It was hard for me to be consistent — especially from range — and shoot a ball that was soft hitting the rim.
“So I smoothed that out. My shot’s pretty much one fluid motion now — a lot more arc and a lot softer. … (It) feels better than it ever has.”
Kispert also improved his athleticism and tightened his dribbling. And he sharpened his driving and finishing skills by working with a certain longtime Spokane resident — NBA Hall of Famer and Gonzaga legend John Stockton.
“He’s not a big guy,” Kispert said of Stockton, “but he was able to score a bunch in the paint because he knew how to work his angles, knew how to cut guys off, take away their jump, (and) put some English on the ball when it gets on the backboard to spin it in.
“Being able to learn from him (was) huge in my development, especially in the key. I learned how to score and be efficient in there too.”
‘I told you guys’
It all coalesced into a spectacular All-American senior year.
Kispert was one of the faces of college basketball this past season — with his immaculate shooting form and newly grown-out hair frequenting SportsCenter and all sorts of national media during the Zags’ quest to become the sport’s first undefeated national champion in 45 years.
Kispert took another leap offensively, averaging 18.6 points per game as the second-leading scorer on likely the most talented team in Gonzaga history.
He finished tied for fifth in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage at 44.0%. He was eighth in effective field-goal percentage at 64.4% (a measure of shooting percentage that accounts for 3s being worth more than 2s).
And he was one of just two players this season to average 18-plus points per game 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.
As for those in the NBA who questioned last summer whether Kispert could continue to improve?
“Now these same guys are calling back,” Michaelson said. “And I’m saying, ‘I told you guys.’”
In a season filled with standout performances, Kispert’s biggest was a career-high 32-point game in a December rout of Virginia.
Kispert drained 9 of 13 shots from beyond the arc, tying the Gonzaga record for made 3-pointers in a game. His long-distance barrage included back-to-back heat-check daggers early in the second half — a deep 3 from just inside the midcourt logo, followed moments later by a Steph Curry-like bomb from about 30 feet.
“The hoop felt like a hula hoop,” he said.
It was part of a sizzling 3-point shooting display over the first half of the year for Kispert, who shot a ridiculous 49.5% from beyond the arc through the first 16 games. Even though he cooled off later in the season, he still finished with 2.8 made 3s per game — an impressive number on such a talent-laden and balanced team.
“Corey Kispert is a near-perfect shooter,” ESPN commentator and college basketball guru Jay Bilas said during one broadcast.
“His form. His feet. His ability to hunt shots. … There’s just not a better (college) shooter in America than Corey Kispert.”
The biggest difference in Kispert’s game, however, was his increased effectiveness at driving and finishing near the basket.
Known primarily as a shooter for most of his career, Kispert showcased an expanded offensive arsenal this past season — exemplified by his 2-point field-goal percentage surging from 51.7% as a junior to 62.8% as a senior.
“I always thought that was in there — it was just a matter of when (it) came out,” Michaelson said. “… His ability to make twos and to get to the free-throw line is what really, really drove those (stats) up.”
With Kispert helping lead the way, Gonzaga reached the precipice of college basketball immortality. Taking a 31-0 record into the national title game, the Zags were one win away from becoming a rare undefeated national champion.
But their dream of a perfect season ended in a crushing title-game loss to Baylor, which stormed to an early lead that Gonzaga never recovered from.
“That loss is gonna sting for 10, 20, 30 years,” Kispert said. “Like, I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”
The first 31 games of the season, 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.”
The ultimate role model
Skeen remembers attending an elementary school-aged basketball game one Saturday and spotting Kispert. Skeen figured Kispert must’ve been watching a relative play.
Turns out, some of the kids were at Kispert’s high school game the night before and had asked him to come.
So, Kispert made their day.
“I have often compared Corey a lot to (Seattle Seahawks quarterback) Russell Wilson,” Skeen said. “Corey’s the kid that’s walking the halls of the hospital just to make someone’s day.
“He treats everybody the same,” Skeen added. “He always has. That’s just who he is. … It’s hard for young people to not get caught up in the hype and the press clippings, but Corey never changed.”
This past winter, Lake Stevens High School boys basketball coach Mark Hein reached out to Skeen, one of his coaching friends. Hein had a young group of players who were struggling a bit in the classroom, so he was wondering if Kispert would be willing to send a note of encouragement.
Skeen took it a step further. He suggested a Zoom call between Kispert and the team.
Kispert was all in.
After flying back the previous night from a road game, Kispert took time out of his busy schedule one morning to share wisdom and life lessons with a group of high schoolers.
It was an opportunity for those kids to learn not only from a first-team All-American on the court, but also a first-team Academic All-American in the classroom. Kispert completed his undergraduate degree early and is pursuing a graduate degree in business administration. He carries a 3.79 GPA in his graduate work.
“If it’s a chance to influence someone and help someone, that’s just like a no-brainer for him,” Skeen said. “What I think was a really big deal to coach Mark and some of his players is just second-nature to Corey. … He just sees it as a chance to give back.”
One of Skeen’s favorite Kispert stories came after his season-ending foot injury as a high school senior. Instead of sulking and feeling sorry for himself, Kispert turned into a combination of the ultimate assistant coach, fan, supportive teammate and water boy.
“He showed up to practice on crutches and in a boot and, I mean, he was sweating,” Skeen said. “He was cheering, he was coaching, he was encouraging, he was high-fiving. We’ve got videos from the state tournament where … he’s on the end of the bench jumping up and down in his boot and waving the towel.
“That team had no business getting third in state (without Kispert),” he added. “But I would say he did as much to help us get third his senior year in street clothes as he did helping us win state titles his sophomore and junior year.”
Michaelson remembers the first time he spoke to Kispert during his recruitment. He said Kispert, at age 16, already had the maturity of a grown man.
“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.”
And Kispert’s positive example has, indeed, inspired emulation.
Skeen recalled a phone call from a sixth-grade coach who had noticed a new tendency in his players. During dead-ball situations, they’d started running over to pick up the ball and hand it to the ref.
Watching kid after kid do the same thing, the coach finally asked where they’d learned that.
“That’s what Corey does,” they responded.
‘A new chapter’
In the coming days and weeks and months, Kispert’s life is set to forever change.
He’s a virtual lock to hear his name called Thursday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. He’s in store to make millions of dollars. And he’s on the verge of accomplishing his lifelong goal of reaching the NBA.
“There was a lot of years in my life,” Kispert said, “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 have (this) moment happen 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.”