Gonzaga basketball has played the last six games without starting shooting guard Gary Bell Jr., who broke his hand against Santa Clara on December 28.
After a stretch of adversity that saw Gonzaga lose unexpectedly to the Portland Pilots, it appears as if Gary Bell Jr. could return to the lineup as early as Thursday's game against University of San Diego.
According to Jim Meehan of the Spokesman Review, Gary Bell Jr. is close to ready to play, but to be eligible, he would first have to be cleared by the team doctor following an X-ray appointment today.
This morning, West Coast Convo retweeted a message from Gary Bell Jr. that indicates that he may have indeed been cleared to play this week. We will continue to wait for an official word from the university regarding Bell Jr.'s status, but in the meantime, this is great news to be optimistic about.
If Bell Jr. does play this week against University of San Diego or Brigham Young on Saturday, expect to see him used sparingly off the bench to begin with.
Regardless of time spent on the court, however, Bell Jr.'s presence alone will be a major boost for a Bulldogs team that has desperately missed his defensive ability on the perimeter, jump shooting and ability to get into the lane.
In a way, the players who have replaced Bell Jr. in the lineup all have individual skills that have attempted to make up Bell Jr.'s absence. Kyle Dranginis is an above average defender, Drew Barham is an incredible three-point shooter and Gerard Coleman's athleticism and slashing ability makes him one of few players who can replicate Bell Jr.'s role in the offense.
That being said, it goes without saying that having a player in your rotation that can be all of these things at once is of much greater value than splitting those minutes between three different players who individually could not match Gary Bell Jr.'s play on the court.
This week, the Bulldogs play two teams in USD and BYU that prominently feature stellar guard play. USD's dynamic duo of Johnny Dee and Christopher Anderson average a combined 27.1 PPG, and BYU's Tyler Haws averages 22.2 PPG himself.
Gonzaga was more or less able to replace Bell Jr.'s scoring, but it's lack of perimeter defense without Bell Jr. was notable. With him back in the lineup, even if his return is constrained by limited minutes, Gonzaga can feel comfortable in its ability to defend these scoring guards.
Bell Jr., who was having a breakout year on the offensive end before the injury, was averaging 12.7 PPG largely due to his ability to shoot from beyond the arc. Bell Jr. has made 30 three-pointers this season and is shooting 47.6 percent from beyond the arc.
Finally, Gonzaga returns a leader of the team to its rotation.
With his ability to score and defend, comes the humility and selflessness to do what is best for this team.
Gary Bell Jr. does not have to be the star for Gonzaga, but his ability to create for teammates, make the extra pass and keep the ball moving on offense is what makes him truly irreplaceable for Gonzaga.