Corey Kispert is in the pantheon of Gonzaga’s best shooters during the school’s two-plus decades in the national spotlight alongside Richie Frahm, Blake Stepp, Dan Dickau, Derek Raivio, Kevin Pangos and Kyle Wiltjer.
The senior wing is in the pantheon of the Zags’ best leaders in that time frame with Matt Santangelo, Dickau, Stepp, Pangos and Nigel Williams-Goss.
Kispert is in the pantheon of the program’s top scholar-athletes, seemingly positioned to join Dickau, Kelly Olynyk and Williams-Goss as the fourth Zag named first-team All-American and first team Academic All-American in the same season.
Not a bad trifecta and not bad company.
Craig Kispert is proud of his son for all the reasons above, and then some.
“He has depth to him, but he’s also competitive as all get out and he cares for other people and he wants to be a great teammate,” said Craig, who played at Seattle Pacific. “That’s just so valuable. For a lifelong kind of thing, that’s the most gratifying thing to see. And he’s still evolving. He’s squeezed about all he can out of the experience there and got way more out of it than just basketball.”
Kispert’s evolution at Gonzaga has been remarkable, beginning with typical ups and downs freshmen encounter and annual progressions to his senior year as a potential NBA lottery pick on the nation’s top-ranked team.
He savored it all, even the tough times, and compiled a resume few can match at Gonzaga or anywhere.
Those close to him who have watched it unfold had a good hint of what was to come as he developed into a Division I prospect at King’s High in Shoreline, Washington, just north of Seattle. Kispert was teaching himself how to play the guitar when Gonzaga made recruiting visits.
“He’s an unbelievable golfer, brilliant student, rifles a football and could probably still play and he taught himself how to play guitar. Whatever he picked up, he was going to be good at it,” GU assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “Work ethic, doing the right thing every single day, his character. Just a role model of what you want players to be like, what you want your children to be like. Elite of the elite leaders.”
The latter attribute took on added importance with COVID-19 presenting obstacles throughout the season. Picture this scene: players and coaches going to a Fort Myers, Florida, hospital shortly after beating Kansas in the season opener.
“We piled on the bus, driving back and I’m looking around, ‘This isn’t the way to the hotel,’” Kispert said. “We pulled up to the hospital and a dude with a lab coat on with 6-inch cotton swabs is ready to give us tests. Some guys still had their warm-ups on and we’re at the hospital when it was dark.”
Kispert handled the season’s twists and turns with an open mind. He’s grateful there’s been a season and that GU managed to play 24 regular-season games.
“He’s someone I can go to and he’s going to keep my mind right, keep me motivated and bring me back to being calm,” freshman point guard Jalen Suggs said. “Obviously, he’s super talented, shoots the hell out of the ball, sneaky athletic and a great leader. He’s always a steady mind. It’s something that holds a lot of us together.”
Kispert started immediately as a freshman, a rarity in the program, but eventually lost the job to Zach Norvell Jr. after suffering a sprained ankle.
“I had the luxury of having the good stuff happen early. I was rolling along, but the dream ended pretty quickly,” Kispert said. “The injury set the whole thing into motion. Not only did I have to work on trying to get my head back into it, but I also had to test a bum ankle and try to figure out how to play with that. I wasn’t the same player for a long time with that injury.”
Kispert returned to the starting lineup for good as a sophomore. His 3-point shooting began to take off on a 33-win team paced by Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura.
“So much fun, that group of guys was so easy to play with,” Kispert said. “I kind of got to sit in the back seat I guess, but I could see the writing on the wall for the next two years and the impact I could have.”
It was during his sophomore season that Kispert had a defensive lapse against Creighton that sent coach Mark Few into orbit.
“Great game, lot of fun except this one moment,” Kispert said. “I’m guarding Mitch Ballock, he came off a ball screen and I wasn’t very good playing defense at that time. He took a dribble and made it. I’ve never seen Coach Few so mad. His face was all red.
“He called me the dumbest smart guy in America about 20 different times. He loved calling me that in practice when I screwed up a defensive play or fouled someone at the end of the shot clock. Hopefully, I’ve shed that nickname.”
It appears so.
“He’s just an unbelievable guy,” Few said last week.
Kispert moved up to the passenger seat as a junior, hitting 44% on 3-pointers, averaging 13.9 points and earning All-West Coast Conference first-team honors.
“I had a lot more freedom that year,” he said. “I got to experiment more and not really have to look over my shoulder from making mistakes.”
The season ended abruptly with the cancellation of NCAA Tournament in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, sidelining a 31-2 Zags team that would have been a title favorite. Kispert flirted with the NBA draft, but decided to return and prove doubters wrong.
He worked out for 45 minutes and shot for an hour every day last summer on the outdoor hoop at the family home. He’s been full throttle in the driver’s seat this season with off-the-chart stats and efficiency.
“I’m not surprised by what he’s done this year,” Craig said. “I still think there’s quite a bit in him that hasn’t been scratched yet, but seeing all the work and all the hours he would put in before school and on Sunday nights, it’s just so gratifying.”
Kispert tightened up his jumper, his ball-handling and worked on his leadership skills.
“That’s what came out of testing the (NBA) waters,” he said. “I had really clear, concise feedback from NBA teams to get where I wanted to be. It was kind of a mission for me from the very start, trying to meet those goals and everybody around that didn’t think I had what it took to make that leap.”
The happiest he’s made Few?
“When I made nine 3s against Virginia,” Kispert answers in record speed. “He was pretty happy. He didn’t have much bad stuff to say about that one.”
Kispert has bumped his 3-point accuracy every season, even with the NCAA moving the arc back before his junior season. He has the green light from distance, or something like that, as assistant coach Roger Powell Jr. reminds him frequently.
“I think we were talking about the best food spots,” Kispert said. “At Brazilian steakhouses, with the big chunks of lamb and steak they bring around to the table, you have that little card and one side is green and that means you’re ready for more. He always says, ‘Keep it on green,’ so I’m hungry and keep eating.”
Kispert hears from former teammates nearly every day who keep close tabs on the program. He was watching on TV when Killian Tillie made his first NBA basket last Sunday and the two exchanged texts.
Kispert (seven games), Andrew Nembhard (two games with Florida) and Joel Ayayi (one) are the only Zags in the rotation with NCAA Tournament experience. That doesn’t change Kispert’s message to his teammates entering postseason play.
“Don’t change a thing,” Kispert said. “They’ve been so good all year long, top to bottom. It’s doesn’t really matter that they haven’t had a lot of experience, because a lot of teams haven’t. Just keep doing what they’re doing, keep playing the way we’re playing and if we play like us, we’ll be just fine.”