Shortly after sitting down to scout Canadian point guard Kevin Pangos at the U-17 World Championships in Germany three years ago, Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd spotted a player on the opposing team worthy of his attention.
College Hoops Countdown, No. 11: West Coast Conference
• A breakout season from Przemek Karnowski would ease concerns about Gonzaga's frontcourt. Can he deliver one?
• WCC Capsule Preview: It's still Gonzaga's league, but can BYU ascend in the pecking order?
"I just saw this big kid out there who I thought had great hands and moved pretty well," Lloyd recalled. "He intrigued me, so I decided to look into him."
The big kid scattering bodies in the paint turned out to be Poland's Przemek Karnowksi, then a little-known 7-foot-1, 300-plus-pound 16-year-old whom scouts would later label a McDonald's All-American-caliber recruit. Lloyd introduced himself to Karnowski after the game and forged a strong relationship with him before other schools discovered him, eventually signing the mammoth center in May 2012 despite late interest from the likes of Duke, Kansas and Ohio State.
Just how big a coup that signing was for Gonzaga will become clear this upcoming season when the Zags unleash Karnowski on the rest of the nation. Karnowski played sparingly behind four-year starter Elias Harris and All-American Kelly Olynyk as a freshman last season, but he and forward Sam Dower will move into the starting lineup this winter and attempt to prove the Gonzaga frontcourt shouldn't be a source of concern.
"I was waiting to get my chance and I think it is a time to show how I can play," Karnowski said. "It was a little frustrating [not playing] at the beginning of last season but then I realized how well we were playing and what mattered for me was only the team. I also had time to focus on my weaknesses. Last year was a big lesson for me."
It's a testament to how good Olynyk was that Karnowski played so infrequently last season because the big man nicknamed "the Polish Hammer" was very productive whenever he did see the floor. Karnowski averaged 5.4 points and 2.6 rebounds in only 10.7 minutes per game, the profile of an elite interior scorer when extrapolated over a starter's playing time.
What should frighten Gonzaga's future opponents is Karnowski is much more prepared to contribute entering this upcoming season than a year ago.
He's more comfortable with the aggression and athleticism of U.S. basketball after a year of battling Olynyk, Harris and Dower in practice. He's no longer as homesick for his native Poland as he was when he first arrived in Spokane. And perhaps most importantly, he has improved his diet and increased his conditioning in hopes of shedding excess weight, getting stronger and not getting fatigued as quickly.
"Before he got here, he was eating like a kid and he didn't have the metabolism to burn it," Lloyd said." So eating smarter foods and making better decisions was the biggest thing. The other thing was constant effort, working at it every day with cardio, extra conditioning and extra lifting. I don't know the exact number, but I think Przemek has lost 5 or 6 percent body fat in the last year."
Karnowski showcased his development during the European U-20 championship this past July in Romania, averaging 15.9 points and 11.9 rebounds per game and shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor. The only concern was Karnowski's 15 of 32 performance from the foul line, a stat line that suggests he'll be susceptible to intentional fouls late in close games this upcoming season.
Aside from the poor free throw shooting, Gonzaga would be thrilled if Karnowski can approach the statistics he produced in Romania during his sophomore season. That would ensure the Zags would have an interior presence to complement an experienced backcourt headlined by returning starters Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell and high-scoring Providence transfer Gerard Coleman.
The consensus among prognosticators has been that Gonzaga is in a transition season, one year removed from a historic 32-3 season and one year away from returning the core of the 2013-14 roster and adding prized recruit Josh Perkins and Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer. Karnowski knows most of the questions about this upcoming season's team center around the frontcourt, but he's confident that he and Dower can ease the sting of the departure of Olynyk and Harris.
"I do not really care what people say because people can say whatever they want to," Karnowski said. "Now it is a great opportunity for me and Sam to show that we are a players that can also play at a good level."