Is it too early to weigh how important it was for BYU basketball coach Mark Pope to get Milwaukee guard Te’Jon Lucas signed out of the NCAA transfer portal?
No. Not really.
First, it was BYU’s first signee out of the bulging, beckoning transfer portal filled with eager and anxious hoops talent.
Second, with Alex Barcello still holding off on an official announcement if he’ll return for another year, the Lucas piece of the backcourt puzzle looms large.
Third, if Pope doesn’t get experienced backcourt help that is talented for the 2021 season, he’ll be in a little trouble.
If we’ve learned anything about Pope’s system the past two seasons, it is that he really, really needs good guard play to run his offense. When the shot clock ticks down or plays don’t materialize, he needs playmakers to finish the possession with the ball. We saw it with Jake Toolson and TJ Haws and he had it last season with Barcello and Brandon Averette.
If it isn’t that scoring punch, it’s all about running the offense and setting up forwards and centers or spot shooters. The guard play is the grease.
Playing for Milwaukee this past year, Lucas ranked in the top 21 in the NCAA for his assist rate. He led the Horizon League in assists (153), assists per game (5.8) and steals (56). He ranked No. 15 in the country in assists, ahead of Final Four guards Davion Mitchell (Baylor) and Tyger Campbell (UCLA). Like Barcello, Lucas has good handles and knows how to dish, crucial for Pope’s pick-and-roll sets.
In theory, he may just be the guy.
I asked former Cougar turned KSL radio color man Mark Durrant what he made of this addition. He was honest and made a great point.
“Sadly, I don’t know much about the recruiting right now,” said Durrant.
“I think Te’Jon is a terrific get and will be a nice substitute for Brandon Averette. I think we’ll see one or two more additions if things go well. You always need to be careful not to do something just to say you did something. Any transfer needs to be a good fit and fill a need.”
Lucas told BYUtv Sports Nation he believes he will fit in with what the Cougars need. He also revealed that within minutes of putting his name in the transfer portal, BYU assistant coach Cody Fueger was all over his recruitment.
Fueger has earned a lot of credibility not only as a coach but as an evaluator of talent. Plus, he is from the Milwaukee area and has contacts to plug into.
Fueger was “unbelievable” at getting on Lucus, contacting the people around him that are key in helping him make a decision, doing research with calls to those who know him to see if he fit in at BYU, according to fellow BYU assistant Chris Burgess.
“Cody does an unbelievable job of finding the guys he thinks we need, getting a hold of the kid, and then everyone who’s connected to the kid to find everything you can about him,” said Burgess. “He is relentless in terms of talking to the mom or dad and high school coach, getting as much background as he can and telling the recruit about BYU’s program and how he fits in, making sure everybody is in the know.
“Fueger quickly got to Lucas’ inner circle that’s helping him with his decision for his final year,” he continued. “He made him understand what BYU is all about and how he would fit, and how much we want to coach him.
“Then Cody does a great job of getting Pope on the phone, setting up the Zoom calls, and catering the PowerPoint presentation so it is tailored to Lucas for him and his family so they have a vision of what we have in store for him here at BYU. Cody does an amazing job of not worrying about what others are worried about in recruiting to BYU and making him feel loved every single day.”
Burgess said Lucas is exactly what BYU needs with the departure of Averette.
“It is no secret we need multiple ball handlers to run our offense and with Averette gone, we needed to add a guy. Lucas is right for us,” he said. “He can do a little bit of everything, bringing his own skillset to take us to another level. He’s a ball-handler, can make plays off-ball screens, and plays in transition.
“He can guard, apply pressure, defend off screens and we think he can really rebound, which is very important for a guard and that’s an upgrade. Defensively, it was a big deal for us because we lost Matt Haarms, who was a great rim protector and could cover for some of our mistakes, keeping guys in front of us at times.”
With transfers, a recruiter has to make sure he comes in with no hidden agendas. Burgess said Fueger and Pope made sure that wasn’t the case with Lucas, that he’d fit exactly what the team needs.
There is a report by ESPN 960’s Ben Criddle that if Kansas didn’t get Arizona State transfer guard Remy Martin this past week, their next target would have been Lucas.
If so, that is large for Pope and the Cougars.
Lucas is a two-time all-conference guard in the Horizon League where he shot 41% from the field.
“I love the winning culture,” Lucas said. “I love the staff and the vision they have for me and the team. I believe adding me with the guys they have and have coming in, we can be a special team.”
Lucas chose the Cougars over New Mexico State, Nevada, Utah and DePaul.
How critical is a good guard for Pope?
Look no further than the two transfers he played last season in Barcello and Averette.
Averette played a lot of different roles and his minutes were divided a lot of ways. But when the smoke cleared, he had the highest point-scoring game of anybody on the team when he dropped 30 on Texas Southern.
Barcello was easily BYU’s best and most consistent player. He led BYU in scoring in 13 games. Right out of the chute last year he was the scoring leader in the first three games with 25, 10 and 20 against Westminster, New Orleans and Utah Valley. Just over a week later, he led BYU in three straight games again, netting 20, 23 and 22 against St. John’s, Utah State and Boise State.
But his best work was handling the ball and setting up others. He and Averette were effective with the shot clock running down and Pope needing something positive to happen in the possession. His season-high was 29 in a critical win over San Francisco as the West Coast Conference race wound down on Feb. 25.
Burgess said Barcello still has not made a decision on if he is coming back to BYU to take advantage of the NCAA allowing a free season of eligibility due to COVID-19. “We have our fingers crossed but we are supporting him in whatever he does right now.”
So, how big was it for Pope to sign Lucas?