SAN DIEGO — On one side, Marcus Smart, a strong safety disguised as a college basketball point guard.
On the other, David Stockton, a wispy, boy-next-door. Physically, Stockton is a side order to Smart’s McDonald’s High School All-American.
Fortunately for Gonzaga, there are different ways to go about winning, or the Zags, with Stockton starting at point guard Friday afternoon against Oklahoma State in the NCAA tournament, wouldn’t be merely a slight underdog. The odds would be off the board.
“It’s really interesting, isn’t it?” Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said Thursday before his team’s workout at Viejas Arena.
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“I think it goes to a little bit different styles of play, that there’s lots of ways to be successful. We’re a program for the most part that puts a high premium on skill and decision-making as opposed to raw athleticism. Both ways are good. We’ve gone the skill route.”
Skill got the Zags 28 wins this year. To get to 29, they need to stifle a player who muscled them for 23 points and six assists in a one-point Gonzaga victory in Stillwater, Okla., a year ago.
Say this for Smart: He’s supposed to have cost himself a ton by returning to Oklahoma State for his sophomore year — he sat three games for his Feb. 8 shove of a Texas Tech fan — but he’ll hit it out of the park in the NBA interview process.
Thursday, he said this year gave him “a bond that can never be broken” with his teammates. He said his time with Zags coach Mark Few on the U.S. 18-and-under team in 2012 in Brazil was “a privilege.” And about David’s father: “There will never be another John Stockton.”
All David has to do now is finish his career reminding people of his dad, a notion that has never seemed to faze him. Gonzaga had all the opportunities it wanted to scout Stockton coming up. At 5 or 6, David used to ride on the back of his dad’s bike over to the GU campus in Spokane, tagging along with a future NBA Hall of Fame player.
David was a junior at Gonzaga Prep, and there was some buzz about a little player who could dish the ball. Emphasis on little; he weighed maybe 145 pounds.
“He was really small and really slight,” said Few. “But you know, a couple of coaches in the area were talking about it, and we all took turns going and watching him. It was, ‘Hey, he can make plays.’ ”
Perhaps it was fate that Stockton had only NAIA offers. Gonzaga offered him a chance as a walk-on, and rather than run from the school where his father’s legend began, he embraced it.
“When Gonzaga approached me, I said, ‘Sure, why not play at the highest level?’ ” Stockton said. “I always knew I was gonna end up here some way. I always liked being around here.”
The Zags told him there was a scholarship waiting if he could beat some people out.
Sure enough, Stockton did, becoming part of a familiar Gonzaga push-pull pitting athleticism against guile.
Few came to value his ability to get the ball precisely where he wanted it, and Demetri Goodson, after starting 68 games, transferred out.
Not only was Stockton instinctive, he also was unafraid, a commodity that could come in handy Friday if he’s the last line of defense between Smart and the cup.
“He’s absolutely fearless,” said Few.
Maybe that came from play days with his siblings. David is the third boy among six kids in an athletic family.
“My older brothers, they weren’t going to let me win in anything,” Stockton said. “If I went back crying to my mom (Nada), she’d say, ‘Well, you can’t play with the big boys.’ I didn’t want to do that, so it was either get tough or don’t play.’’
As for his dad, John never coached him except for a spot session here or there.
“The biggest part of my growth as a player was just watching him,” David said.
Just as the elder Stockton found a way to flourish among studs, his son will soon end his college days knowing he carved out a niche, dishing the ideal entry, playing middleman on the break, divebombing drivers to ferret out the ball.
He has played mostly to applause, though there’s a debate among message-boarders about whether Few has mistakenly forsaken an athlete like Gerard Coleman for Stockton. Meanwhile, who knows what his dad, who declined to be interviewed for this story, thinks? He’s a perpetually stoic figure in the stands.
“It’s something I kind of get on him for,” David Stockton said a year ago. “Hey, we’re supposed to be this top place to play in the country. We need you to get up and start yelling, too.”
Maybe he’ll do that Friday, when the point guards in a game between No. 8 and No. 9 seeds will be Smart, and a guy who plays that way.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281