Instead of developing into an all-league scorer, Bell became the West Coast Conference defensive player of the year.

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Gary Bell Jr. grins as he makes the admission. He’s not the player he thought he’d become when he arrived at Gonzaga four years ago.

He’s better.

And he’s different from the dynamic scorer and playmaker that many in this area saw when he starred at Kentridge High School.

Instead of developing into an all-league scorer, Bell became the West Coast Conference defensive player of the year.

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He’s high on the list of best perimeter defenders in college basketball. He still has the tools to score more, but his sacrifice adds another dimension to this well-constructed Gonzaga roster.

“Honestly, I didn’t think this would be me,” said Bell, who made ESPN’s Super 60 list as a high-school senior. “But playing for coach (Mark) Few, you have to play defense, and he takes pride in that, and that was something I had to do to get on the court. So I just took it and ran with it.”

This is a great story of selflessness and self-awareness. Bell was among the gems of a loaded West Coast recruiting crop in 2011. He chose Gonzaga over offers from six Pac-12 schools, including Washington and Washington State. He was expected to be another Seattle-area combo guard with a knack for getting buckets.

The normal athlete would’ve been too arrogant to accept such a gritty role, especially when playing in a non-power conference. But Bell had respect for Gonzaga’s tradition from the beginning, and when he realized he’d be playing with some of the best players in program history, he tailored his game to help the pieces fit.

While others have wondered why Bell didn’t become a great scorer, he looks at the program’s 120-19 record during his four years alongside backcourt mate Kevin Pangos, and he’s easily satisfied.

“Winning helps all that,” Bell said. “We’ve got 33 wins (this season), and we’re still playing right now. So you can’t think about yourself. You’ve got to think about the team.”

How good is Bell defensively?

In the Zags’ 86-76 NCAA tournament victory over North Dakota State on Friday night, he guarded Lawrence Alexander, who averaged 18.9 points per game. Alexander left impressed with how well Bell knew his game.

“If you ask him, he could probably tell you what I had for breakfast this morning,” Alexander said.

Alexander wound up scoring 19 points and making four three-pointers, but he had to hit some outrageous contested shots. And Bell, full of pride, reminds you that Alexander scored most of his points when the two weren’t matched up.

“He didn’t really have a lot on me,” said Bell, who averages 8.3 points per game. “Some of them were missed assignments or scouting-report errors, but you’ve just got to live with those.”

During their run of 17 straight NCAA tournament appearances, Gonzaga has often been considered defensively indifferent. But in recent years, the emphasis has changed, the personnel has been more equipped to defend, and the Zags have created bigger, tougher teams that rebound and protect the rim.

Throw a guard with Bell’s aggressive mentality into that mix, and you have a team capable of grinding out victories when it can’t play its preferred, fast-paced style.

You also have an athlete — instead of an overachiever with limited quickness, leaping ability and strength — to help you match up with the nation’s nightmarish offensive weapons.

Pangos often gets more praise, but Gonzaga coach Mark Few likes to talk more about the Pangos-Bell tandem.

“They’re inseparable,” he says. And Bell’s lockdown defense is just as important to the Zags as Pangos’ clutch playmaking.

“He gives you incredible effort on every defensive possession,” Few said of Bell.

“It’s not just at the start of the possession. He will chase and cover for 30 seconds of a possession. And he doesn’t take a possession off. He’s very detail-oriented with the scouting reports. It’s just so impressive to watch. This has been going on pretty much since he got to our place. … That takes a crazy amount of effort and a crazy amount of attention to detail.”

Add a crazy amount of toughness to the list, too. In his four years, Bell has battled ankle, hand and knee injuries. But he has missed just seven games. When he’s not in the lineup, you notice.

“He’s just such a competitor,” Gonzaga guard Byron Wesley said.

“He takes it personally if you score on him. He’s really a great defender, but he has the full package. If he were on a lot of other teams in the country, he’d be a go-to offensive player. He can make plays if you put him at point guard. He’s a high-level passer. He could’ve put up some offensive numbers, but other players can do that. There’s not a lot of defenders like him in college. So what he does, he makes everyone on our team better.”

Bell has learned to appreciate a great defensive play as much as a flash of offensive brilliance. The one thing he hates about playing defense? Fighting through screens.

“Sometimes, my man might go through three or four or five screens and not even touch the ball,” Bell said.

“It’s like, ‘Why even go through all those screens if he ain’t even going to touch it?’ But you’ve got to do your job.”

No matter how dirty or painful, no one does his job with more passion than Bell.