Nobody could blame BYU freshman guard Hunter Erickson for feeling a little like a caged cougar going into the summer. 

He spent two years away from basketball serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in North Carolina, then barely played for the Cougars last season amid a pandemic.

Well, after three years without much competitive basketball, Erickson is showing his potential this summer while playing in the Powder League.

“I just love hoopin’ anywhere, anytime,” Erickson said. “I’m trying to get into the highest competition that I can and I feel like the Powder League is a great opportunity to do that.”

The Powder League, a summer pro-am league held at American Preparatory Academy in Draper, features current and former college players as well as professionals, like former BYU star Yoeli Childs and former Ute and current Aggie Rylan Jones.

Erickson, a 6-foot-3, 180-pound Timpview High product, scored 27 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and had six assists in a recent game and became the fourth player to post 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in the Powder League.

Erickson is averaging 18 points, four rebounds and three assists per game and is the only player in the league shooting better than 60% from the field and 60% from 3-point range, according to the league. 

“I didn’t know they kept track of that,” Erickson said with a laugh when asked about his stat line.

Erickson plays on Team Dastrup, headed up by former BYU and Oregon State player Payton Dastrup. Another one of his Powder League teammates is former Utah star Sedric Barefield

“Our team’s pretty good,” Erickson said. “I’m just loving it. I didn’t play a ton last year so I really haven’t played organized games since my senior year of high school. I look forward to every single game and I try to play my hardest.”

‘Learning and growing’

After finishing his mission, Erickson joined the Cougars’ program but played in only eight games last season. He played 22 minutes and took only two shots. He made a 3-pointer in a season-opening victory over Westminster. 

How does Erickson describe how that season went for him?

“It’s tough, obviously. But it was very similar to my freshman year of high school. I played varsity as a freshman. I felt like I was in a position where I could have played and was good enough to do so. I did not handle it very well,” he said. “This last year felt very similar to that. I felt like I learned from my previous experience. I trust coach (Mark) Pope with my life.

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“Regardless, I knew he was making the best decision so I had to trust it and accept my situation and learn whatever I could and take advantage of every single practice, learning and growing if I wasn’t playing and being the best player I could every day.”

What he took away from his first year at BYU was the value of hard work. 

“I always thought I knew hard work. But it’s a whole step up from high school,” Erickson said. “That hit me hard.” 

During the season, Erickson appreciated the help he received from his teammates, particularly from the veteran players, including guard Alex Barcello

“I developed a lot of good relationships with everyone. A lot of them were very helpful to me, taking me under their wing in practices,” he said. “They showed me how to do something or hyped me up whenever I did something good. Alex was big on that. He’s an amazing player. I’m just trying to soak in everything I can from him. Hopefully, I’ll be able to help him this year.”

Coaching change

During his senior season at Timpview in 2017-18, Erickson committed to BYU and then-coach Dave Rose

As a senior, Erickson averaged 22.6 points and knocked down 55 3-pointers and was named 5A first-team All-State by the Deseret News.

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But while Erickson was serving in the North Carolina Charlotte Mission, Spanish-speaking, Rose announced his retirement

“It was surprising,” Erickson recalled. “I honestly had no idea. It came out of the blue.” 

Weeks later, BYU introduced Pope as the new coach. Erickson was familiar with Pope, who had talked to Erickson when Pope was the head coach at Utah Valley University. 

“Luckily, I had spoken to coach Pope on multiple occasions while he was at UVU,” Erickson said. “He recruited me a little bit when he was at UVU. I felt very comfortable with continuing at BYU. Overall, it’s definitely the best choice. It went pretty smoothly.”

In North Carolina, Erickson loved the people and enjoyed the Southern barbecue. His mission had an impact on his game. 

“Physically, the biggest effect was my legs being able to keep up, conditioning-wise, being explosive. A lot of my game has been reliant on my athletic ability,” he said. “In a way, that helped me when I got back to where I had to learn a lot more about how not to just rely on my athletic ability.

“Over time, I was able to reincorporate it into my game so I felt it helped me become a better all-around player,” he continued. “The biggest thing that helped me was the mental load. A mission isn’t super hard physically but for me it was mostly mentally hard. That prepared me a lot for the mental battle and grind of college and practices.”

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A bigger role

Playing in the Powder League has given Erickson some much-needed experience and a chance to compete. 

“I feel like it’s a really good opportunity for me to put the skills into practice that I’ve had over the last year with the team into real games to see where I stand and how well I’ve developed, regardless of playing time,” he said. “I feel really confident in what I’ve been able to do.”

Erickson entered BYU last year seeing himself as a shooting guard. But that changed somewhat over time as he played point guard on the scout team. Now, he sees himself as a hybrid point guard/shooting guard. 

“A little bit of both,” Erickson said. “Throughout the year, I started liking the point guard position a lot more. All last year I played that a lot because I wasn’t on the first team with Barcello. I’ve come to enjoy that a lot, being a ballhandler and a playmaker.” 

BYU has several young players — Erickson, Caleb Lohner, Trevin Knell and Gideon George among them — that the coaching staff is hoping will make a big jump this season. 

“I feel like we’re a very balanced team. We have a lot of good players at every position,” Erickson said. “I can be an aid to all of them in helping us all look better, being a playmaker and setting guys up. Hopefully, it will help us all take that step into bigger roles this year and try to build off of what we did last year.”

Erickson’s strengths include slashing to the hoop and being a catch-and-shoot shooter. 

“Coming into college, and especially now as I’m looking to take on a bigger role, defensively is where a lot of my focus is,” he said. “Regardless of if my shots are falling or not, I can play defense and make an impact on the floor. Coach Pope is big on defense. It’s something we work on every single day in practice.”

In the meantime, Erickson will continue to take advantage of every minute he gets to play this summer in the Powder League.