How big of void does loss of Caleb Lohner and Gideon George leave for BYU basketball?
The Cougars have more recruiting work to do with the departure of the talented forwards
Caleb Lohner and Gideon George both took unconventional, and intriguing, journeys to BYU during the spring-summer of 2020.
Now, they’re both leaving the program.
As first reported by The Zone Sports Network’s Jake Hatch, and confirmed by the Deseret News, Lohner and George will be entering the transfer portal.
In recent weeks, Hunter Erickson and Nate Hansen have entered the transfer portal as well.
With the Cougars also losing Alex Barcello, Te’Jon Lucas, Richard Harward and Gavin Baxter, coach Mark Pope and his staff have a handful of scholarships at their disposal, and they’re mining the transfer portal to bolster the roster.
In addition, Pope is searching for a new assistant coach because Chris Burgess is going to join Craig Smith’s staff at Utah.
Lohner and George were part of a nucleus of a team that posted a 24-11 record in 2021-22. Now they’re looking at other options.
Lohner and both sides of ‘the rivalry’
There’s plenty of speculation that Lohner could follow Burgess to Utah. If that happens, it would cement Lohner’s place in the BYU-Utah rivalry, more than it already is.
In August 2019, Lohner committed to Utah and then signed with the Utes in November 2019.
Then Lohner, whose dad played for BYU, experienced a change of heart and obtained a release from Utah, subsequently signing with the Cougars during the summer 2020.
That news didn’t sit well with Utah, of course.
“Truthfully, I could (not) care less. If somebody doesn’t want to be a part of this program, that’s not my concern,” then-Ute forward Timmy Allen said in December 2020. “He’s at BYU now, so it doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter to us. If you are not a part of us, we don’t really care. So, it will be fun to go against him and BYU, though.”
Then-Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak went months planning on Lohner being in the program.
“With the anticipation of coming to summer school and getting the process started,” Krystowiak said at the time, “and I have never really thought that anybody was more excited about getting started with their college career.”
As a freshman at BYU, Lohner showed flashes of his potential and led the Cougars in rebounding. The Wasatch Academy product missed his first 13 3-pointers as a Cougar, but during a stretch at the end of the regular season he knocked down 11 of 16.
Entering his sophomore season, expectations were high for Lohner. He was named to the preseason All-West Coast Conference Team, along with Barcello.
But overall, Lohner didn’t meet those expectations. He averaged seven points and 6.4 rebounds per game and shot 42% from the floor, 55.4% from the free-throw line and 21.3% from 3-point range.
Due to Harward and Baxter being lost for the season, Lohner had to play a variety of positions.
“He’s trying to attack this game from the four and he spent the summer at the three and now he spends some time at the five,” Pope said in January.
Certainly, the 6-foot-8, 235-pounder from Dallas had memorable moments.
In his first game at the Huntsman Center after spurning Utah for BYU, Lohner helped the Cougars win the annual rivalry game last December.
Lohner posted a double-double with 10 points and a game-high 12 rebounds in BYU’s 75-64 victory. Utah fans let Lohner hear of their displeasure whenever he touched the ball.
But Lohner took it in stride, and as he walked off the court with final seconds slipping off the clock, he waved to the Utah student section.
“It was super fun for me. I had tons of fun. I have tons of respect for Utah and their program,” he said. “BYU ended up being a place for me but again, tons of respect for this team. Very well-coached team. I’m just proud of my guys that we got.”
In January, Lohner grabbed a game-saving rebound with 16 seconds left in a 71-69 victory at San Francisco.
“Caleb’s got an eye for the ball. Wherever it’s coming off the rim, if I was the other team, I’d be scared to play against him,” Barcello said after the game. “He’s just one of those guys. He told me before one of the games, ‘I want to be (former Duke star) Christian Laettner out there for you.’
“Christian Laettner, everybody hated him. But he was such a good player and so physical. Caleb has that body. He has that sense of urgency to him. We saw how he was just killing it on the offensive end this week but, man, he can just rebound the heck out of the ball. That’s what we need him to do moving forward.”
There was his 17-point performance at No. 2 Gonzaga at the Kennel last January. With Zags fans taunting him throughout the game for comments he had made earlier in the week, Lohner hit 7 of 10 shots from the floor and 2 of 3 from 3-point territory in a 110-84 loss.
Lohner played his best basketball at the end of the season, and showed more confidence and aggressiveness. After losing his starting job, he returned to the starting lineup against Loyola Marymount in late February and recorded his second career double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds. He finished 6 of 9 from the field.
During a three-game stretch, including that LMU game, Lohner averaged 12 points and 8.7 rebounds and shot 70% from the floor.
“He’s putting together great games. His (numbers) have been off the charts consistently now. You see how efficient he was from the field … and 11 rebounds,” Pope said at the time. “His decision-making was really good in a game where LMU forces your bigs to be your decision-makers. Caleb was terrific.
“Caleb always has an impact on us, always. Sometimes it’s not glaring in the box score and sometimes it is,” Pope continued. “But he always has an impact. He’s on a run right now. This is really awesome. He’s playing elite-level basketball. This is one of the main reasons why we feel like we have our best basketball ahead of us.”
In the first game of the NIT, Lohner poured in a career-high 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the field to help lead the Cougars to a win over Long Beach State.
Those late-season performances provided hope to the program about Lohner’s future.
From Nigeria to Provo
Meanwhile, George, a native of a small village in Nigeria, came to BYU as a relatively raw player who didn’t start playing basketball until he was a teenager. He was discovered by Brandon Goble, of JUCO Advocate, who held a basketball clinic in Nigeria.
George traveled eight hours on a bus for the opportunity, and he and others slept outside, waiting for their chance to play.
“They got chased by security guards. He came back. It was in the hot sun and it was an outdoor court,” said Luke Adams, the coach at New Mexico Junior College. “He never asked for a break, didn’t ask for water. He hadn’t eaten in two days. He was getting dizzy so they figured it out. They ordered food for him. They hadn’t eaten. That’s how bad they wanted to be there. He comes from an area that barely has electricity.”
George’s older brother Samson played basketball at Pittsburgh from 2017-20.
George signed with New Mexico Junior College, where he spent two seasons and attracted the attention of BYU coaches, among others.
“His ceiling is extremely high. If he has a great career at BYU and plays overseas and two or three years later he might work his way to a higher level,” Burgess told the Deseret News after George signed with the Cougars. “I think his ceiling is off the charts because he’s so raw. He has everything that basketball is looking for — length and athleticism, being able to play multiple positions defensively. His ceiling is super high. He has a really good IQ. He can talk the game.”
In his first BYU start, a win at Portland, George scored a career-high 19 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in 21 minutes. He outrebounded the Pilots 13-12 by himself.
“I was super excited about Gideon’s performance. The fact that he played 20 minutes and had zero turnovers was significant for him,” Pope said of George. “He was able to make the simple play a lot. He gives us length, he gives us athleticism, he gives us a huge presence on the glass.”
In 2021-22, the 6-foot-6, 210-pound wing had his share of ups and downs. His best performance came in a victory over Northern Iowa in the NIT. George scored a career-high 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the field and buried 5 of 9 3-pointers.
George started 18 of 33 games for BYU last season and averaged 8.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 22.2 minutes per game. He hit 44 3-pointers (35% from 3-point range) and was the team’s third-leading rebounder.
In early April, George declared for the NBA draft.
“Today, I am taking the next step towards realizing my dream, and will be declaring for the NBA draft,” George wrote on Twitter, adding that he would be keeping the option open to return to college. He has one more season of eligibility remaining.
From his time at New Mexico JC, George collected shoes in conjunction with Timeout For Africa. As part of the effort, George played a role in sending thousands of pairs of new or lightly used shoes to people in his homeland of Nigeria.
Both George and Lohner made their respective marks at BYU. Now they’re moving on.