LAS VEGAS — As BYU returns here for the West Coast Conference tournament, it also marks the return of freshman forward Jakob Hartsock to his old stomping grounds.
A year ago, he was wearing a white shirt, tie and a name tag while serving as an LDS missionary in Las Vegas. Now he’ll be helping the Cougars off the bench in the WCC quarterfinals Saturday (2 p.m., MST, BYUtv) at Orleans Arena against Santa Clara.
While this is Hartsock's first WCC tournament, he's comfortable in this town.
And Hartsock’s Las Vegas connection is even stronger than that. His older brother, former BYU forward Noah Hartsock, is in his first year coaching high school basketball in Las Vegas. Noah landed an assistant coaching job at Centennial High after spending two years as a student assistant at BYU. Noah arrived in Las Vegas at about the same time Jakob left for Provo.
“We just had a little switch,” Noah joked. “One of us had to be here to hold down the fort.”
“It’s funny,” Jakob said. “Noah is actually living one minute from where I served in my last area of my mission.”
Of course, Noah is planning on attending BYU’s tournament games. “Hopefully, Jakob can score us some tickets,” Noah said.
If that weren’t enough, Jakob recently got engaged to a Cougar volleyball player, freshman Sophie Cram, who hails from Las Vegas. However, he didn’t meet her in Las Vegas — he met her during his first week at BYU last summer.
Of course, Sin City is a stark contrast from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where the Hartsock boys grew up on 15 acres.
“I’m a country boy. I loved it,” said Jakob, a 6-foot-8, 205-pounder. “Our basketball court was a black top with a hoop in the middle. We had a little hill going back to a pond back there. It was country living, listening to my country music while I’d work out and run.”
The youngest of six sons, Jakob learned a lot from his older brothers, particular Noah, who is the fifth-youngest boy and is seven years older than Jakob.
“I always had people to play one-on-one with,” Jakob said. “It was fun watching my brothers play basketball. It gave me a head start. A lot of my game is similar to Noah. We have the same low-post game. We both love to bang down low and we both have a turnaround jump shot. I loved growing up watching him. I modeled a lot of my game after him because he’s a good example. He showed me how to play ball. When I got home from my mission, for the first couple of weeks he was there to help me to know what to expect.”
“We had every field you could imagine — baseball, soccer, football, a basketball court, a volleyball court. It was fun going outside and competing,” Noah recalled. “There was always someone to play with and always something to do. I’m sure it kept our parents pretty busy, but it was a blast growing up with brothers.”
Noah and Jakob learned a lot from their father, David, a chemical engineer.
“Every single day, he’d get home from work and he’d work with us,” Jakob said. “It was great. He always pushed us to be better.”
Noah had his way with Jakob when they were younger.
“We’d play against each other and I would beat him down so bad. He was a huge fan of mine when I played,” he said. “When he was a senior in high school, I was a senior in college. Our relationship has grown since he’s gotten a little bit older.”
It’s easy to spot the similarities between the Hartsocks, particularly their shot. But there are differences, too.
“He’s more athletic than I was, for sure. He’ll end up being a better shooter,” Noah said. “He’s got a really nice stroke, something he’s worked on his whole life. The differences we have are, I felt more comfortable playing down low and being physical inside. Jakob likes to hang out on the perimeter a little bit more. Eventually, I think he’ll be a good rebounder.”
Coach Dave Rose surprised Jakob in early February, inserting him into the starting lineup for games against Saint Mary’s and Pacific. Against the Gaels, Hartsock buried a couple of big 3-pointers.
“He’s kind of a wild card,” Rose said of Jakob’s contributions. “He’s got good size and can space the floor.”
Jakob is still trying to find his role within the program.
“It’s been a real challenge. It’s a completely different system than the one I played in high school,” he said. “The learning curve was hard. Coach Rose knows basketball better than anyone I’ve met so I’m listening to everything he says and soaking it all up. It’s a hard transition for sure. It’s getting better and better.”
Fortunately, he can go to his older brother for advice.
“Anytime I struggle and need a boost, I text him and ask him questions,” Jakob said. “He’s always there with answers and to give me advice. It’s awesome.”
“I tell him, you’ve got to compete in every drill in practice and be an unselfish teammate,” Noah said. “That’s where you have the most success and more fun playing. If you compete and play hard, you’ll find yourself on the court and contributing to a team that will have a lot of success the next four years.”
After Jakob spent so many years watching him, Noah is glad to watch his younger brother.
“You’re always excited to see him out there living his dream,” Noah said. “As a brother, it makes you proud.”