PROVO — After a couple of months of uncertainty, BYU’s basketball roster for the 2018-19 season is more settled now that forward Yoeli Childs has announced he has withdrawn from the NBA draft and is returning for his junior season.
“We just wanted him to go through the process,” said assistant coach Quincy Lewis. “Truthfully, if he got the kind of response he wanted and he needed to go (pro), then that was going to be great for him and we would figure it out. Obviously, having him back is a great addition to our team.”
Meanwhile, guard Elijah Bryant announced a month ago he had decided to turn pro, hire an agent, and forgo his final year of eligibility.
“Good for Eli. He’s got some goals he wants to achieve,” Lewis said. “Being married and having graduated, this was the time for him to leave. The biggest thing you lose is a real physical presence on the guard line. He’s a productive guy, and his physical presence was great.”
Lewis confirmed that guard Nick Emery, who withdrew from school last November for personal reasons and in the wake of an NCAA investigation for allegedly accepting improper benefits from a booster, is returning for his junior year.
“People forget that he averaged 16 points a game as a freshman,” Lewis said. “During his sophomore year he had a lot of things going on and he still averaged 13 a game. He’s talented and good enough. It’s a situation where he’s totally on board and we’re totally on board. We’re moving forward. We’ll see where it goes.”
Lewis has a long history with Emery, having also coached him at Lone Peak High.
“Nick is doing really well right now. He went through an incredibly difficult stretch there. He got to the low of lows,” Lewis said. “I don’t think that you snap your fingers and everything is all better. It’s a process to building up back to where you were and then surpassing that. I think sometime in the middle of the winter, he was finally able to shift gears and it clicked. He started moving up again. He’s on a good track right now.”
What is the status of the NCAA investigation?
“I have no idea. We’ve heard so many different things on that,” Lewis said. “I don’t know where it is at. Obviously, it’s going to have to be concluded in the next two or three months.”
With the return of Emery and several key players from last year’s team that finished 24-11, as well as the influx of new talent, the Cougars are optimistic about what they can accomplish next season.
“I think it’s going to be the best team that I’ve played on in the last three years by far,” Childs said. “I think we’ll win the conference tournament and we’re going to the NCAA Tournament because the guys we have coming back are older and more mature. … This is the year where it can all come together and we can do something special.”
Forward Kolby Lee joined the program last December but did not play.
“He’s a big, strong guy who’s capable of scoring around the post but also can step out and make a three," Lewis said. "Having coached him last year, I really like his work ethic. He’ll bring a real physical presence to us inside.”
Meanwhile, the Cougars welcome forwards Gavin Baxter and Connor Harding from LDS missions. Baxter came home a few weeks ago while Harding returns in June.
“What’s been kind of exciting about Gavin is that on his mission he weighed 195 (pounds) and he’s 210 coming off his mission. It’s good weight. Sometimes that weight isn’t good when you come off the mission. But he kind of filled out,” Lewis said. “He has 7 percent body fat and he actually grew about three-quarters of an inch. The kid has a real chance to be something this year. It’s just a matter of going to work."
BYU forward Yoeli Childs takes a shot against the Saint Mary's Gaels during the West Coast Conference Tournament game in Las Vegas on Monday, March 5, 2018. | Ravell Call, Deseret News
Childs called Baxter an “electrifying player.” They were AAU teammates for a couple of years.
“He’s so fun to play with. He’s an unbelievable athlete,” Childs said. “Just seeing him work out and shoot this close off of his mission, he can impact the game right now, especially on the defensive end because he’s so long and so athletic. He’s going to do so many great things for us this year.”
Lewis said Harding is "a winner. He can do a lot of different things on the floor. He has a chance to be a really good player in this program.”
BYU will have a lot of depth this season, Childs said.
“We have a lot of older guys and the talent we have coming in with Connor Harding, Gavin Baxter and Kolby Lee. I think they’re all elite players and have the potential to be very good Division I players and play professionally. We have guys that are coming off the bench that will play professional basketball.”
Childs likes the experience that returns to the program.
“This last year we still had a lot of young guys and we had a good year. But I think this is the year to break out with guys like me and TJ (Haws) coming back as juniors and Nick coming back as a junior," he said. "Rylan Bergersen is going to have a breakout year. TJ’s going to have an amazing year. McKay (Cannon) is an amazing guard. We have so many great players that even if I didn’t come back they’d have a really good year.”
The day after BYU’s season ended with a first-round NIT loss at Stanford, assistant coach Heath Schroyer took the head coaching job at McNeese State. Coach Dave Rose elevated Lee Cummard, a former Cougar who spent the past two seasons as a graduate assistant, to fill the void on his staff.
The coaches are figuring out how much the team's style of play will change after Schroyer’s departure.
“Like any season, you re-evaluate everything in your program. Even things that went well. You look at things in the future,” Lewis said. “We’re in the process right now of evaluating everything, offensively and defensively, out of bounds plays, every little thing. Part of that is, who do you have on your roster? Right now, that’s a work in progress. We’ll have everyone back for summer semester on June 25 and we’ll have that stuff in place.”
Lewis said Cummard’s hiring has been “a smooth transition. The reason why is Lee has been here for two years on staff and he’s been back here every summer while playing in Europe. He’s been a fixture in the program. Our players and our staff are comfortable with him. He’s really a nice addition for us.”
The non-conference schedule isn’t official yet, but the BYU coaching staff has been busy setting up games that will help the Cougars’ NCAA Tournament resume. BYU has contests against Nevada, Utah, UNLV, San Diego State, Mississippi State, Houston, Illinois State, Utah Valley University, Utah State and Weber State so far.
“With the direction that the NCAA Tournament is moving towards — when Saint Mary’s doesn’t get in with 28 wins — everybody has to re-evaluate what they’re doing,” Lewis said. “Not just us, but Arizona State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, USC and those types of teams are re-evaluating how they’re scheduling after what happened this last year. Everyone’s looking at Quadrant One and Quadrant Two games. I’m excited about it. We’re going to be playing some really fun games. That’s what our players want and that’s what our fans want. It will be good.”