PROVO — Freshman Gavin Baxter might be the future of BYU basketball, but for weeks he didn’t see the court. Coach Dave Rose kept him on the end of the bench, which eventually became the source of humor around the Baxter household.
“We were telling him to sell popcorn or go run a couple of miles (during games) — who would know?” says Angela, his mother. Imitating a male voice, she continues, “'Where’s Baxter?!’ ‘He’s selling concessions, coach!’”
Times have changed since then. Baxter has suddenly found his way onto the court. For 13 games he averaged only five minutes per game (and that includes the aberrational 16 minutes in a blowout loss to Mississippi State). But in the last five games his playing time has skyrocketed to an average of 24 minutes per, which he has turned into an average of 10.4 points. He made a star turn in last Saturday's win over Loyola Marymount — his first career start — collecting 25 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots, making 10 of 14 shots.
“Gavin’s just getting better and better,” teammate TJ Haws said.
One BYU administrative official calls him “Franchise.” Baxter looks the part. He’s a broad-shouldered, 6-foot-9, 210-pound athlete, with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and a 40-inch vertical leap, which he uses to throw down crowd-pleasing dunks (he’s been dunking since the seventh grade).
Rose noted his energy during the second half against Saint Mary’s when he seemed to be everywhere, blocking shots, turning offensive rebounds into putbacks and dunking. “He was what we needed,” the coach said. “ … His legs are live and his length really helps us.”
It’s what was expected from a player who shined in national basketball camps and drew attention from prestigious schools when he was playing for Timpview High, just a few miles from BYU. Baxter grew up watching BYU football and basketball games and both his parents are former BYU athletes.
Many recruiters stayed away, figuring he was certain to choose BYU, but others pursued him anyway and offered scholarships — Arizona State, Arizona, Texas, Utah, Utah State. UCLA also made a late offer.
Inquiries were made by Wake Forest, USC, Stanford, Oregon and Cal. North Carolina coaches showed up at an Adidas camp to watch another player, but after seeing Baxter they called the player’s AAU coach, Tim Davis.
“He had a game against two McDonald’s All-Americans, and he was the best player on the court,” says Davis. Baxter initially chose Arizona State, but changed his mind after a coaching change at the school.
Immediately after graduating from high school, Baxter set basketball aside and served a two-year church mission in Washington, D.C. He played basketball on his day off (Mondays) and exercised briefly early each morning — “super-short cardio, like running in place, plus ab exercises,” he says. He returned to Provo having added 20 pounds.
Like his siblings, Baxter hit the genetic jackpot. He’s the product of a marriage between a white, 6-foot-5 BYU basketball player from Oregon and a 5-foot-10 black BYU track and field star from Scotland.
Angela, who is an academic adviser for BYU track and cross-country athletes, set a BYU school record in the 200-meter dash of 23.47 in 1986 that lasted for 24 years until it was broken by a mere .17 of a second. She grew up in Scotland, one of 10 children, after her family emigrated from Barbados to London and then to Glasgow. She excelled as a sprinter in the club system of her new homeland — she competed in the Olympic Trials — and came to BYU on a track scholarship.
Kurt, who is senior director of engineering and space at Utah Valley University, played basketball for Snow College and later walked on at BYU. He played one year on the junior varsity team (and was the squad’s leading scorer); a year later, because of injuries and departures, he was promoted to the varsity team for the 1985-86 season. He made the travel squad and played in two games, for a total of one minute, taking and making one shot, giving him a career field goal percentage of 100 percent.
He still remembers his sole basket. “It was a layup against Colorado State in Provo,” he says, laughing. “I remember it too,” says Angela.
Kurt served a church mission in Jamaica before enrolling at BYU. He met Angela at BYU through a mutual friend. “He had been on a mission to Jamaica; I must’ve looked like an investigator (of the church),” says Angela. Says Kurt, “She was a tall, attractive girl and looked athletic.” It was only later he learned she was an athlete.
They began dating and, despite the rarity of mixed couples at the time, they met no disapproval. “We were oblivious to it if there was,” she says. “I had grown up in Scotland and it wasn’t rare. All my siblings married (whites).”
While in Provo, she joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was baptized by Kurt. Their four oldest children have all served missions (the youngest isn’t old enough yet).
They had five children over about a 10-year period — all tall, athletic and studious — first the twins, Colin and Andy (6-6 and 6-5, respectively), then Lauren (6-0½), Gavin (6-9) and Lindsey (6-1).
Colin and Andy participated in age-group track programs and continued to dabble in sports. According to the parents, they probably would have excelled if they had been more driven. They are both married and have begun professional careers in IT.
“We didn’t have this idea that our kids could excel in sports at the time,” says Angela. “With the other kids, we suddenly could see there was potential here.”
When Lindsey was a ninth-grader, her mother told her to choose a sport. Lindsey chose tennis and three months later she made the Timpview team. She and Angela learned to play the game by watching YouTube and practiced together every day for two hours.
It was Lauren and Gavin who took sports to another level. Lauren, whose height, leg length and speed made her a spectacle at track meets, was a seven-time state champion in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes, setting a state record in the latter.
She was the 2011 Utah Gatorade Athlete of the Year, as well as an AP scholar with a 3.99 grade point average. She was coached by Angela, who managed to do it in such a way that there was never any pushback and the two developed a close relationship during the hundreds of hours spent together at workouts and lengthy weekend track meets.
After serving a mission in Spain, Lauren accepted a scholarship to BYU with high expectations, but a mysterious, chronic hamstring injury drove her out of the sport. She will graduate in the spring with a degree in applied statistics.
From the start, Angela insisted that her children learn to run correctly, figuring it would help them in any sport. She and Kurt took their kids to the Timpview track, where Angela would put them through sprint drills to teach them proper sprint mechanics. Hearing this as the family sits in the family room, Gavin imitates the drills from his chair, making exaggerated arm swings and knee lifts.
“We’d go marching in the grass,” he says. “A walks, A skips.”
Says Angela, “They all learned to dorsiflex (keeping the toe up as the foot strikes the ground). I was always telling them, 'Toe up, toe up!'"
Looking at Gavin, she says, “I figured it couldn’t hurt in basketball; it has to help to be fast on the court.”
Gavin is the second tallest player on the BYU team and the second fastest — only 6-foot guard Jahshire Hardnett is faster. He displayed that speed against Nevada when, in a matter of seconds, he blocked a shot, stole the ball, passed it and then dunked it at the other end of the court.
Gavin might have excelled in track, except he wearied of the sport after spending dozens of Saturdays waiting for his mother at track meets while she coached Lauren and the other Timpview sprinters. “If Gavin wanted to run the 400 or 800, he’d probably be an Olympian,” says Tim Davis, his AAU basketball coach for four years.
Baxter pursued his father’s sport instead, and spent long hours working on shooting and ball-handling drills. Kurt coached his son’s Junior Jazz teams in fifth and sixth grades at least partly so he could ensure that his son developed a well-rounded game. During his playing days, Kurt noticed that tall players were automatically forced to play inside, back to the basket, and consequently never learned to handle or shoot the ball.
“I didn’t want Gavin to be just a post man because he’s really not,” says Kurt.
So he made him the point guard even though he was the team’s tallest player.
“It didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me to bring the ball up the floor,” says Gavin. “When you’re that young, you don’t see positions. So I learned coordination and how to dribble the ball. I’m a lanky guy so it helped me with that. A lot of tall kids aren’t coordinated.”
He also adds, “It was good for me and dad to have that time together.”
“He developed dribbling and shooting skills,” says Kurt. “If you don’t learn to dribble when you’re younger, it’s hard to learn when you’re 18, 19, 20. I thought if he’s going to play basketball, he can’t be the big clumsy post guy. That was me. I didn’t have the dribbling or shooting skills. In those days you go under basket and get on the block.”
When Baxter moved on from his father’s teams, Kurt urged his son’s coaches to play him as a wingman rather than force him to play as a one-dimensional, traditional big man in the post. Davis was of the same mind anyway and had the luxury of having other, taller players on his team that allowed him to play Baxter on the perimeter.
“He’s best when he has freedom of space because that’s how he’s built,” says Davis. “He’ll add weight, but he’s not built to take blows all game like a post player.”
Kurt’s insistence on developing his son’s range was prescient. As Davis notes, the game has evolved dramatically, especially at the NBA level, to the point where there are virtually no positions and every player has to be able to handle the ball on the perimeter. Baxter has made 63 percent of his field-goal attempts this season, many of them from the perimeter.
Davis, who has sent 43 players to the collegiate ranks (including three members of BYU’s current team), believes Baxter’s potential is “as high as he wants it to be. I’m not saying he’s for sure an NBA guy — BYU doesn’t get a lot of them. But he has NBA measurable. He has that height and that wingspan, jumps out of gym and can guard a lot of positions. As long as he hits the open threes and scores around the basket (he’ll get an NBA look). He’ll shoot more threes in the future. It’s hard to play as a freshman.”
BYU has rarely sent players onto the NBA — since 1983, only six players have been drafted in the first two rounds — but Baxter chose the school anyway, largely for lifestyle and religious considerations, as well as familiarity. “My parents went there,” he says. “My dad and I went to the games. I’ve always been a fan.”
The first time he saw his uniform hanging in a BYU locker, he took a picture and texted it to his family. The fourth member of his family was about to wear BYU blue and white.