The highlights, the commentary and excitement flooding the internet after Saturday night’s epic Final Four matchup between Gonzaga and UCLA have focused on Jalen Suggs’ insane half court heave to win the game at the end of overtime, and rightfully so. There was Suggs, standing on the scorer’s table, yelling, ebullient, while announcers screamed about him saving Gonzaga’s sublime year. An undefeated season, the first since Bobby Knight’s Hoosier’s did it in 1976, was kept in play by a 40 foot bank shot.
How is it possible for a 19 year old to possess the steel of a two-term president? The poise of a daimyo? The magic amulet that only the supremely talented can unlock to make Bill Raferty exclaim, “onions!?” Old heads might still mutter about Duke vs. Kentucky in ‘92, but Gonzaga vs. UCLA instantly vaulted into the conversation for the greatest Final Four game ever played. It only took one of Suggs’ jumpers to momentarily make the city of Indianapolis hot in a way the Indiana Pacers haven’t managed since Reggie Miller taunted Spike Lee.
But if Suggs winds up as the first pick in this summer’s NBA draft—as opposed to the top five spot he’d been projected as before the tournament—his rise will have more to do with the gravity-defying six second sequence that he pulled off with less than two minutes to go in regular time. Suggs had been everywhere on the court throughout the game, but it was in those final two minutes that he truly came alive. With the score tied at 77-77, UCLA’s Cody Riley rolled to the rim for what looked like an easy dunk until Suggs met him at the metal, stuffed the potential poster with his left hand, dribbled twice with his right and then threaded a bullet pass through every player on the court to find a streaking Drew Timme for a dunk at the other end. I haven’t seen anything like it in the men’s game this season.
Suggs has been one of the defining players of this college basketball season since the opening dribble. While basketball traditionalists usually rave about his intangibles—his effort, tenacity, and maturity in leading a top-ranked team—it’s his eye-popping movement that appears to immediately translate to an NBA arena. The way he slides and cuts without the ball is beautiful, like a ballerina spinning into a groove. He handles the rock with showman’s appeal: flashy passes, crafty dribbling, a crisp pullup jumper reminiscent of the way Penny Hardaway would carve up defenders as a young hooper in Orlando.
There are only a handful of players that live up to those prophecies. Often they never make it, or only exist as regional, athletic delicacies. Their talents remain uptown on 155th at the Rucker or on the Northside of Philadelphia on the cracked courts at Lemon Hill or under the raging sunshine of the open courts at Venice Beach. But now Suggs has proven his ability to meet the moment. “The beauty of Jalen,” his coach Mark Few said after the game of the block and assist, “is he does make plays like that and has made plays like that defensively … because he’s so athletic, and he’s so tough and he’s not afraid. He’s not afraid to try. And that’s absolutely what he brings to our team. He’s elevated us tremendously.”