LAS VEGAS — There is a popular phrase around the Utah men’s basketball program to describe Washington transfer Cole Bajema, whether it comes from coach Craig Smith or seniors like Branden Carlson and Rollie Worster.

All called the 6-foot-7 graduate transfer wing an “elite shooter.”

“He really knows how to play. That dude is a lights-out shooter,” Smith told the Deseret News during the Pac-12 men’s basketball media day in Las Vegas on Wednesday.

“He is a phenomenal shooter, very high IQ. He really understands the game at a high level, and quite frankly, I knew he was good, but he’s better than I thought.” 

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Bajema’s addition is expected to be a big plus for a Utah team that was in need of some offensive help during the 2022-23 season. 

Utah shot 42.7% from the field and 33.3% from 3-point range last year, and the Utes’ average of 68.7 points per game ranked 251st nationally.

Over the season’s final six games — all losses in a stretch that curtailed the Utes’ hopes of reaching the postseason — Utah’s 3-point shooting dipped to 28.2%, and the Utes only shot above 40% from the field twice during that stretch. 

Fellow wing Gabe Madsen, who averaged 11.6 points per game and led Utah’s 3-point shooting efforts, missed time at the end of the season with a lower leg injury, while point guard Worster was also out for a brief period with an ankle injury.

There was already a need to add shooters this offseason to complement leading scorers Carlson (16.4 ppg) and Madsen, then the offseason dealt another blow, with 6-7 wing Lazar Stefanovic transferring to UCLA after two seasons at Utah.

When Smith met with reporters ahead of the team’s first practice of preseason training camp in late September, he stressed the need for the Utes to find more shooters.

“When we had those injuries, we didn’t have what we needed to — the depth in our program, the experience in our program — it just wasn’t there. Obviously that was a huge focal point for our team,” Smith said.

“You’ve always got to self-reflect — how can I do better as a coach? How can I set us up better for success? What do we need on our roster? Certainly we needed more frontline depth. Certainly we needed better shooting, consistent shooting.”

Enter Bajema, who led the Huskies with 49 3-pointers last year — if he played for Utah last season, that would have been the second-highest made 3-point total on the team behind only Madsen’s 62. Carlson is next, with 41.

“I was a part of when Cole was here (on a recruiting trip). We had a visit, and we shot together,” Madsen said when Utah opened preseason camp. “I told him it would be awesome to play with someone like him and really just open up the floor. It helps everybody offensively to have a more spread out floor and more consistent shooting all around.”

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Bajema comes to Salt Lake City from Seattle with four years of college experience at the highest levels of the sport — that includes three years at Washington and a freshman season at Michigan.

He is a career 35.5% 3-point shooter and was a first-time starter with the Huskies last season, when Bajema averaged 8.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 0.5 assists in 29.7 minutes per game. 

He shot 36% from 3-point range during the 2022-23 season, while also shooting 39% from the field and 85.1% from the free-throw line.

“From his days at Washington, everyone knows Cole is an elite shooter and can spread the floor. He’s continued to do that,” Worster said.

Bajema has shown off his 3-point abilities to the Utes first-hand — last year in the Huntsman Center, Bajema hit three 3-pointers during a Utah win over Washington in January.

He made three 3-pointers against Utah in the Pac-12 tournament in the 2021-22 season, and that same year, Bajema hit five 3-pointers in a Huskies win over Utah in Salt Lake City.

“He loves the Huntsman — he hit 3s on us, against us, and in practice he’s been shooting really well in our gym,” Worster said.

Utah guard Rollie Worster (25) battles with Washington guard Cole Bajema (22) at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

It’s more than just scoring that Bajema is showing his new teammates, though.

“He’s also proven he’s more than just a shooter. He’s been able to drive and create for others and he’s a really good rebounder, too,” Worster said. “Our last practice, he had 10 defensive rebounds as well. He’s been showing a lot of all-around game, which is huge for us and huge for him.”

Carlson said he’s seen improvements in Bajema’s man defense after coming over from Washington, where the Huskies played a lot of zone.

“He’s made a lot of improvements that way, just being able to be a really good defender as well,” Carlson said. “It’s going to be super beneficial to have him out on the floor for scoring and defending.” 

Smith echoed the sentiments of his players that Bajema has shown more than even they anticipated when he transferred to Utah, and the time getting acquainted with his new teammates during the Utes’ international trip this summer helped.

“He can do some things off the bounce at a lot better rate than I thought he would. He showed some glimpses of that in the past,” Smith said. “Just being able to get him this summer to experiment with some things and put in some different scenarios has been able to help him. We have high expectations for Cole.”