Jalen Suggs drilled jumpers. He split defenders. He threw alley-oops. He picked pockets.
The high school seniors sharing the court at the open run were background noise beside a sixth grader set to land his first college scholarship offer.
“The [Wisconsin-Milwaukee] assistant came over to me and asked what grade he’s in,” said Suggs’ father, Larry. “He said, ‘No way he’s in the sixth grade. I came to Minnesota looking for a player and the best player I found is in the sixth grade.’
“He said, ‘Can I get you down for a visit next weekend?’ ”
Suggs’ age has always been irrelevant. Last week, Gonzaga’s star 19-year-old freshman used the final eight minutes of the West Coast Conference championship game to present his case as the country’s top talent, recording 11 points — including late back-to-back 3-point daggers — three rebounds, two assists and a block in that span to almost single-handedly turn a seven-point deficit into a 10-point win over BYU.
Suggs saved the top-ranked team’s undefeated season. The projected top-five NBA draft pick tasted what he always has craved.
“When the lights are shining the brightest and more people are watching, I always want to go out and make plays,” Suggs said afterward. “I kept screaming, ‘It’s March! It’s March!’ I’ve been waiting to play in these moments in March my entire life.”
The No. 1 overall seed Bulldogs (26-0) continue their quest for their first national championship Saturday night against No. 16 Norfolk State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. And Suggs, a second-team All-American, likely will be the catalyst if champagne finally floods the streets of Spokane, Wash. The 6-foot-4 point guard will be the second-ever one-and-done player at Gonzaga, a genetic cocktail of speed, strength and selflessness who sees needles in haystacks and throws passes with a paintbrush.
“By the time he hit fourth grade, he understood if you make everyone else better, then everyone else loves you,” said Larry, who founded an AAU team with seed money from his cousin, Terrell, the seven-time NFL Pro Bowler. “He helped so many of his buddies get Division I scholarships.”
Urban Meyer told Suggs he was “one of a kind,” then handed the high school sophomore a scholarship offer to quarterback Ohio State.
A four-year varsity starter, Suggs led the SMB Wolfpack (a team comprising players from multiple neighboring high schools) to a state football championship as a junior and returned to the title game as a senior. He was the first person to win Minnesota’s Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball awards in the same season. He envisioned being this generation’s Charlie Ward. Roughly two dozen schools offered him that opportunity.
Gonzaga could not.
“That’s part of the reason why I did it, so I can focus on what I needed to do,” Suggs told The Post. “But it was really hard to actually come to the realization that I wouldn’t be playing it anymore. There were definitely times [this fall] where I thought, ‘What if I went and played, if I were out there running around?’”
In this year’s College Football Playoff, Suggs likely would have been on the bench, behind Justin Fields on Ohio State’s depth chart. In this year’s Final Four, Suggs could be the marquee attraction, granted the sport’s grandest stage.
“Not until someone told us he would be a guaranteed lottery pick did we change the thinking, knowing it’d take five years to earn this much money in football, and basketball you could earn it right away as a one-and-done,” Larry said.
In Saint Paul, Minn., Gonzaga’s late time slot found little competition on the Suggs family’s TV.
“If you love watching basketball, you’re gonna watch that 11 o’clock game, so when Jalen was little, he’d be dribbling in the living room and we’d watch Gonzaga games,” Larry said, before explaining why his son went west. “I wanted him to be around a group of guys who love to play and share the ball. We weren’t looking for the superstar hype stuff. We were looking for the best situation.”
When Mark Few became Gonzaga’s head coach in 1999, the school had produced just one first-round NBA draft pick (John Stockton). There have been seven of them since then, including five since 2013. Suggs is the first Gonzaga player to start as a freshman.
“Being a football player, you knew the physicality wasn’t going to bother him,” Few said. “With his vision and his feel for the game, he had it. He’s got a supreme belief that he can slide the ball into any small windows.”
Suggs alternates between Aaron Rodgers and Chris Paul, enhancing what was already the country’s most beautiful brand of basketball. The two-way star has averaged 14.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.0 steals.
“Immediately I thought of Jason Kidd,” said Jay Hillock, Stockton’s former Gonzaga coach and a longtime NBA scout.
Sometimes, Suggs catches himself wondering what next season will be like, picturing himself as a rookie matching up with the superstars he used to emulate.
Then he stops. You can only have one dream at a time.
“It’s impossible not to think about [the NBA] at all. It’s definitely come across my mind, but my main focus has been trying to stay in the moment,” Suggs said. “The more you look into the future and worry about those things, you lose sight of what’s going on right now and truth be told, we’re in the middle of a special season.”
Originally published at https://nypost.com/2021/03/20/gonzagas-jalen-suggs-has-been-ready-for-this-moment-his-whole-life/ on .