PROVO — A few years ago, when he decided to transfer from the BYU basketball program, guard Jake Toolson made sure he didn’t look back, only ahead.
He was changing his team but not his goals.
“It was definitely a difficult situation. A lot of times things happen that you don’t see coming,” he recalled. “I decided I wanted to do everything that I set out to do when I came to BYU. It was just going to be at a different place.”
So Toolson became a star at nearby Utah Valley University, which included being named the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year last season. Along the way, he married his wife, Sarah, and they are the parents of a son, Gus.
Then last spring, Toolson’s coach, Mark Pope, left UVU to take the job at BYU and Toolson looked at his options as a grad transfer. After receiving interest from programs like Duke and Virginia, Toolson decided to follow Pope and return to BYU for his senior season.
“The fact that Jake Toolson chose us over Duke and Virginia — that’s historic,” Pope said.
Recently, Toolson reflected on all that he’s experienced during his college basketball career.
“It was a hard experience leaving BYU but I’m so grateful for it. It’s shaped me into the person and player that I am today,” said the 6-foot-5, 205-pound native of Gilbert, Arizona. “It’s given me great perspective on the journey that I’ve been on. And to be back at BYU, it’s crazy how it’s come full circle. I couldn’t have predicted that. It’s a cool story. I’m really excited for this season and what we can do together.”
No doubt, Pope is thrilled to have Toolson on the roster.
Toolson is a pure shooter and efficient scorer. He became what’s known as a “180” shooter — a player whose combined field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage and free throw percentage for an entire season total 180.
Last season he reached that 180 threshold, shooting 53 percent from the field (188 of 350), 44.8 percent from 3-point range (69 of 154) and 85 percent from the free-throw line (103 of 121). He averaged 15.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game.
But that’s not all Toolson brings.
“First, he’s a leader. He has unbelievable leadership ability. His ability to come every single day and demand that his team perform at a high level, that’s so hard to do,” Pope said. “It’s so emotionally draining and taxing just to carry the burden that he carries in his role on the team and then for him to be able to do that is extraordinary.
“He knows me and he has an unbelievable amount of experience in this game. He understands the turns that a season can take. He’s savvy enough to understand that you’ve got to keep focus on the day-to-day work of it. His locker room leadership skill is going to be really important.”
Toolson’s teammates appreciate his skills and talents.
“Man, where do I begin? Seriously. He’s brought incredible leadership and intensity. He is a guy that’s a natural-born leader,” said senior forward Yoeli Childs. “He leads both vocally and by example. He brings us a three-level scorer. He’s a guy that can get to the rim and pick his spots and shoot the 3-ball extremely well.
“He’s probably one of the best shooters in the country. He’s an underrated passer as well. He’s going to do a ton for us this year. I think fans and people in our conference are going to be really surprised by what he’s able to bring.”
“He’s got a great sense of leadership,” said sophomore forward Kolby Lee. “He’s a great leader. He has a great attitude. If you do something wrong, he’s going to get on you. And if you do something right, he’s going to praise you for it. If you miss an assignment, he’ll let you know about it. He’s always one of the first ones to do something in the sense that if someone’s late, he’ll say something.”
In addition to leadership, Toolson adds toughness and swagger to the program.
“This guy, his confidence is through the roof. He makes shots. He’s got a really unique skill set,” Pope said. “He’s been one of the most functional guys handling the ball off ball screens. His points-per-possession plus assists derived offense as a ball screen and ball handler has been off the charts the last couple of years.
He shoots the ball at an incredible rate. He’s one of the best jump shot finishers in the country around the rim. Percentages bear that out. He’s probably the best ball screen defender we have on the team in terms of handling ball screens by himself, which is a huge part of the way we try to play. He’s got a big responsibility here and he knew that when he signed up. He chose to come here to do that and he’s going to have a special year.”
Toolson originally signed with BYU after starring at Highland High in Gilbert, where as a senior he averaged 27.3 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game and knocked down 59 3-pointers.
As a freshman at BYU in 2014-15, Toolson played in 26 games, made 16 of 40 3-pointers and averaged 2.3 points per game that season.
In 2015-16 as a sophomore, he played in 10 games and started five, averaging 3.9 points and 1.6 rebounds per game. But in late December, then-BYU coach Dave Rose announced that Toolson was taking a leave of absence for medical reasons. He missed the remainder of the season and he ended up transferring the next April.
After two strong seasons at UVU, Toolson weighed his opportunities as a grad transfer.
“It was a stressful situation because so many people were reaching out. It all happened so fast. Coach (Pope) took the job and then I’m in the (transfer) portal. It was like, what is happening? I needed to take a deep breath, take a step back and think about what I wanted,” he said. “For me, I was in a unique situation. This is my last chance. I have one year left. I wanted to go somewhere to win and to have a good opportunity for myself.”
During that stretch in the transfer portal, Toolson talked to a lot of coaches, including Duke associate head coach Jon Scheyer. Legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski knew all about Toolson because Duke had played UVU a couple of years ago at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“When we went through the line after the game, Coach K had some good things to say,” Toolson said. “It was a cool experience.”
Ultimately, Toolson decided to return where he had started his college career — BYU.
“This is the place that made the most sense,” Toolson said. “Finishing with coach Pope and those guys that I’ve been with and been through the grind with, it didn’t feel right to go anywhere else. I wanted to see this through and finish it the right way. I knew what I wanted. I think that’s what led me here.
“It would be a combination of the opportunity here and the relationship I have with coach Pope and (assistant) coach (Cody) Fueger and the trust that I have in them and the trust they have in me,” Toolson said. “We have a special bond, us three, because we’ve been through a lot together. They went to UVU and I went there a year later.
“We’ve been through a lot together. And when it came down to it, I just wanted to finish this with those guys. Those are the guys that I’ve been battling with and going to war with and I want to finish this experience with them.”
Toolson is the nephew of BYU legend Danny Ainge, who is now the general manager and president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics.
“He’s always been in my corner and he’s always supported me and always wanted what’s best for me,” Toolson said of Ainge. “He’s given me a lot of good advice and he’s always pushed me to be the best I can be. I’m grateful to him. He’ll be at some games this year and he follows the program closely. He’s glad I’m back at BYU. I’m just trying to live up to his name.”
Going into his senior campaign, it’s all about team success. Like most of his BYU teammates, he’s never played in the NCAA Tournament.
“I just want to win. I’ve had a lot of success in the past at UVU,” he said. “But here, I want to get over that hump and win big. Being consistent every single day is something we’re focused on.”