BYU forward Lauren Gustin has drawn plenty of attention this season, and for good reason.

The 6-foot-1 junior from Salem, Utah, leads the nation in rebounding, averaging 16.2 boards per game. She also averages 15.8 points per contest and has recorded 19 double-doubles in 20 games in 2022-23. She’s tied for No. 1 in the country in double-doubles with Louisiana State’s 6-foot-3 Angel Reese. 

“The most important thing with rebounding is effort. Just going for it every time. When you have that mindset that every time the ball goes up, I’m going to go for it, it works in your favor.” — BYU junior Lauren Gustin

Remarkably, Gustin has grabbed at least 20 rebounds in six games, including a recent stretch where that happened five times in a six-game span. Gustin tallied back-to-back 24-rebound games against San Diego and Loyola Marymount earlier this month. Those 24 boards against USD were one more than the entire Toreros team had. 

But as impressive as all of that is, for first-year coach Amber Whiting there’s another aspect of Gustin’s game that could get overlooked but means just as much to Whiting and the program. 

“When I came in, I always said she’s like a cheat code; the X-factor. I love that she gets her rebounds and scores her points, but I also love how she’s been taking on the leadership role of our team,” Whiting said. “She’s really found her voice. That’s been huge because at first, at the very beginning, she didn’t have that. Hearing her talk to the girls and help them out, just the leadership that comes out of it is what I’ve been most happy about.”

Whiting inherited a strong program from her predecessor, Jeff Judkins, who oversaw the program for 21 seasons and led the Cougars to a West Coast Conference championship and national ranking a year ago.

When Whiting was hired to lead BYU, she had never coached at this level, having previously served as the head coach at Burley High in Idaho. 

One of the things Whiting did was turn to Gustin, the only returning starter (the Cougars lost more than 80% of last year’s offensive production), to help her build trust with all the players and ease the transition between the coaching change. Next year, BYU makes a big jump to the Big 12.  

After a rough start, the Cougars (11-9, 6-3) won seven consecutive games before suffering a loss Saturday at home against Santa Clara. 

Early on, Whiting pulled Gustin aside and talked about what she needed from her. 

“We have a lot of inexperience, a lot of young players,” Whiting told Gustin. “They’re going to follow your lead. If you’re a leader and you take that on, it will make you a better player and it’s going to make them better.”

Gustin listened and decided to be that kind of impactful leader.

“We’ve had some hills and valleys. I just kept telling Lauren to stay with us and make sure you’re bringing them along — and she has,” Whiting said. “She’s done it in her own way but it’s been good to watch it coming together.”

The previous two seasons, Gustin didn’t need to be a vocal leader on a team that featured stars like Shaylee Gonzales and Paisley Harding, who moved on after last season. 

But Gustin has embraced her role. 

“It’s been a big responsibility, but the last two seasons, I’ve had great leaders and vocal leaders that have been a great example for me to pave the way,” she said. “It’s helped me step up and have a good example to take after. And the coaches having trust in me and my leadership, that’s helped me find confidence in being that vocal leader.”

Gustin added that her relationship with Whiting has “definitely grown” since Whiting was hired last spring. 

“We have a great relationship. I have a lot of respect for her as a coach. I can talk to her about anything and vice versa,” Gustin said. “It’s fun to play for her. She’s always pushing me in practice and in games so I’ve gained a lot of respect for her the last couple of months.”

‘Always in the right spot’

Gustin’s uncanny rebounding ability, of course, has been a catalyst for the Cougars. BYU needs her production, manifested by her proliferation of double-doubles. 

“If she doesn’t have that, we have a problem, right? With all the rebounds and stuff, I want her right there,” Whiting said. “She’s that type of player. She just has that motor and nose for the ball. She has to have that every night out for us to be successful.”

Gustin’s not necessarily trying to post a double-double every game, but she is focused on helping the Cougars win. 

“I’m just doing whatever my team needs me to do,” Gustin said. “That’s getting every board I can. It comes within the flow of what my team needs from me. It’s my role. We want to win, so what can I do to help us win?”

According to Whiting, Gustin’s rebounding prowess comes from her placement on the floor. 

“She’s always moving and finding the ball and finding space,” she said. “She has a great read and feel for when the guards drive, where to relocate. She sets great screens. The way she handles the space on the court, she’s always in the right spot.”

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How much of rebounding is taught and how much of it is natural instinct? 

“You can tell a girl to box out defensively, but she’s strong. That’s her own toughness. When I say motor, she just doesn’t stop,” Whiting said. “To get her off the boards is somebody’s task and teams have tried. They’ve been unsuccessful at it, but they’ve tried.

“That’s her will. It’s her inserting herself and her leadership and her will to go get the ball no matter what. It’s incredible. You can’t teach that or coach that. I love to watch it. It’s awesome.”

For Gustin, being a strong rebounder is a combination of desire and technique. 

“It’s a little bit of everything. The most important thing with rebounding is effort. Just going for it every time,” she said. “When you have that mindset that every time the ball goes up, I’m going to go for it, it works in your favor. … Going for every board, that’s just my mindset. When the ball goes up, I’m going to box out and no matter what, offense or defense, I’m going for that board.” 

Opposing teams have attempted to double-team Gustin to keep the ball out of her hands. But those game plans haven’t worked against her. 

“If she doesn’t get the ball in the block, she’s going to get it whether it’s an offensive rebound or she runs the floor hard to get it in transition,” Whiting said. “There’s ways she can get the ball without having to just go post up. You can try to limit her, but you can’t take everything away from her.”

Rebounding is something Gustin took to right away when she started playing the sport as a youngster. 

“I’ve always enjoyed the physicalness of it. The aggressive side of things. It’s fun to be physical and to be the underdog in some cases,” she said. “Most of the time, I go up against a lot of tall girls and they don’t expect a smaller girl to get the ball. It’s fun to be physical and that anybody can get the board. It’s about effort and grit.”

An athletic, competitive family

Considering her upbringing, and her family, it may not come as a surprise that Gustin is such a physical, competitive and talented player. 

Her dad, John, played quarterback at Wyoming. Her mom, Scarlett Overly, is a former BYU all-conference player. And her older brother, Porter, played linebacker at USC and now is with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. 

“From a young age, as long as I can remember, everything’s been a competition in my family. Sports have always been in the house. That’s all I remember growing up, just playing different sports and going to practices,” Gustin said. “Having two parents that are really competitive on and off the field, it’s been fun and motivating, growing up and seeing that; being around people that know sports and always pushing for me to be better and get stronger and do extra work.

“I’m super blessed to have parents and older siblings that really love sports in general. They know what it takes. It’s great to have examples and role models growing up.”

Gustin, the Deseret News’ Ms. Basketball in 2018, is the middle child of five children and she’s enjoyed playing, and competing, with all of them over the years. Certainly, having two older brothers was key to her basketball development. 

“A lot of times, they were rough and physical. It’s been beneficial to me to play with them. When we got to a certain age, they wouldn’t let me play with them. … They were always very competitive. I think I got a lot of competitiveness from them,” Gustin said. “Always being around them, it was motivating to see them and their success in sports.

“It was always fun to play with them. I have a younger sister that’s three years younger than me. We played basketball together. It was fun to see her develop and we pushed each other. My youngest brother plays high school basketball. It’s been fun to see everyone go through their sports and learn from each other.

“It all starts with my parents, seeing their success and being able to relate and talk to them about sports. It’s always been a highlight of things.”

Gustin appreciates the support she receives from her family and the opportunities she had to grow up playing a variety of sports — soccer, volleyball and basketball — before she settled on hoops.  

“I really like the physicality of it. I like the contact,” she said. “It’s fun to be able to push people around and have people push you around. I like that. I didn’t get that in volleyball. I love the whole team atmosphere of all five players working together to get that perfect shot. I love the team effort of it.”

Now, Gustin’s double-doubles, dominance on the boards, and strong leadership, are helping to carry BYU through a transitional period. After losing a legendary coach and a few star players after last season, Gustin and the Cougars are rebounding quite nicely. 

BYU assistant coach Melanie Day, right, holds BYU Cougars forward Lauren Gustin (12) after winning a game against Gonzaga at the Marriott Center on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News