Gonzaga senior Byron Wesley brings to mind an old question with no correct answer: Is it more fulfilling to be a star player on a bad team, or a role player on a good one?
Last season at USC, Wesley was counted on to do everything but groom Traveler, the school’s famous Andalusian mascot. He averaged 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game for coach Andy Einfield.
But the USC program has long been college basketball’s version of a major airport, forever under construction — Enfield is the Trojans’ third coach in three years — and Wesley realized his only chance to participate in the NCAA tournament was as a graduate-student transfer.
Wesley’s diminished role has been a revelation for the 6-foot-4 wing once regarded as the No. 1 high school recruit in California. He’s playing about seven fewer minutes and scoring 8.2 fewer points per game than he did a year ago.
The upside? His team is still playing. This time last season, Wesley was following the tournament on TV, likely cringing during that “One Shining Moment” sequence at the conclusion of the championship game.
“I’ve been watching the NCAA tournament since I was a little kid,” Wesley said Thursday at KeyArena, where the Zags conducted a light, photo-op practice before their tournament opener Friday night against North Dakota State.” It’s something — a place — I’ve always dreamed of making one day.
“When I was at USC, it was kind of tough for me every year not to be able to get that chance to play on the big stage. But luckily all the pieces fell in the right way for me, and I’m just really blessed.”
Wesley’s assimilation at Gonzaga required more than a willingness to set his stats aside. Seniors Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos needed to be on board with the idea of a third senior in the backcourt.
“It’s just been amazing how seamless the adjustment has been,” Zags coach Mark Few said Thursday, noting that Wesley didn’t graduate from USC until early September. “From Day One, those guys that were up here, the seniors, welcomed him with open arms. They knew he could help us.
“But at the same time, they knew it was going to diminish their shots, their minutes and parts of their roles. I think what they have been able to do is a big part of the story.”
Wesley’s reputation preceded him to Spokane. Bell met the versatile, slash-and-pass small forward at the NBA Top 100 Camp he attended while at Kentridge High.
“I knew he’d fit our system well because at the three spot he gives us a scoring role that we pretty much never had,” Bell said. “For me and Kevin, our whole career, we’ve never had that. And on the defensive end, when he’s playing tenacious and active, he’s one of the best in the nation.”
Added Pangos: “I knew he was really talented before he came to our school, but since he got here I think he can just score in a different way that really complements me and Gary. He can shoot from the outside, but his best thing is slashing and finishing around the basket or mid-range and then also passing.
“He gives us open shots because when he drives, he draws the defense and gets us open shots. He can just do a bit of everything.”
As for wondering whether Wesley finds his job as a team-first facilitator at Gonzaga more fulfilling than leading a losing USC team in scoring and rebounds, it’s not a question.
A few weeks ago, after his scintillating performance against Pepperdine in the West Coast Conference tournament — 25 points and four steals in a 79-61 victory — Wesley called his graduate-transfer season “the best year of my life,”an observation almost certainly steeped in the numbers 31 and 32.
During three seasons at USC, Wesley’s teams won 31 times. During his first and last season at Gonzaga, Wesley’s team has won 32 times.
The first option of every half-court set with the Trojans, Wesley gladly has exchanged a sole place in a dim spotlight for a chance to share a quite brighter spotlight.
“He had kind of a carte blanche at SC as far as shots and minutes and opportunities, and that just hasn’t been the case here,” Few said. “But he came here to win and he cam here to get to the NCAA tournament, so mission accomplished. And hopefully, there’s a lot more winning to do.”
The best year of Byron Wesley’s life may or may not include two more weeks of basketball, but he’s guaranteed a thrill Friday night, when he appears in his first NCAA tournament game.
One shining moment at a time.