Branden Carlson reflects on his Runnin’ Utes career — which might not be close to over
Senior center will lead surprising Utah into Pac-12 tournament, then decide later this spring if he’s coming back for another year
Branden Carlson believes that if family trends continue, there is a good chance that his first son — assuming the University of Utah’s 7-foot center and his wife, Maddy, are blessed with one — will grow up to be exactly 7-foot-4.
The reason why Carlson is playing Nostradamus is because his great grandfather was 6-foot, his grandfather was 6-4, and his father, Bryan, is 6-8.
“At this point, I don’t know. Pretty much whenever it feels right after the season, I will make my decision of whatever it is. I have thought about it, but I haven’t come anywhere close to a decision.” — Utah basketball star Branden Carlson
“In my family, we have a weird thing. It has been a four-inch increase from the previous generation,” Carlson said. “I’m a 7-footer, so if it keeps going like this, my kid will be 7-4.”
But there is a catch: Carlson has a twin brother, Hayden, who is just over 6-foot, nearly a foot shorter than him. Perhaps realizing he got the, um, short end of the stick in the height department, Hayden didn’t pursue sports much growing up and instead became an accomplished singer and musician.
So “BC,” as his coaches and teammates call him, has part of his long-term future figured out, but doesn’t know yet what he will be doing next season.
The fourth-year Runnin’ Ute and two-time All-Pac-12 performer told the Deseret News last week that he hasn’t decided yet whether he will take advantage of an NCAA-allowed extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic altering the 2020-21 season and return to Utah next season, or try his hand at professional basketball.
It’s the question everyone is asking of Carlson as he leads the Utes (17-14) into the Pac-12 tournament this week in Las Vegas.
“At this point, I don’t know,” Carlson said. “Pretty much whenever it feels right after the season, I will make my decision of whatever it is. I have thought about it, but I haven’t come anywhere close to a decision.”
Obviously, the Utes, who went 10-10 in the Pac-12 to get the No. 7 seed for the conference tournament, could really use their best player and leading scorer (16.0) and rebounder (7.4) next year in their planned journey back to national prominence, but coach Craig Smith said Monday that he hasn’t broached the topic with Carlson.
Nor has Smith talked to the other players with decisions to make: seniors Jaxon Brenchley and Bostyn Holt and walk-on Eli Ballstaedt.
The only player out of eligibility is wing Marco Anthony, who averages 9.8 points and 6.7 rebounds and will surely be missed.
“We have not talked about that. I never do with our guys during the season,” Smith said. “I think there is a lot to go through in those kinds of scenarios, and just with the situation with everything — fifth-year guys, COVID, just everything, we have not talked about it.”
Carlson said he hasn’t sought the advice of NBA scouts or the like, and probably won’t until after the season. He will likely declare for the draft and go through the draft combine — if he is invited — and then make a decision in June.
Another factor to consider is his age. Having served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Manchester, England, before enrolling at Utah in 2021, Carlson is older than the typical college senior.
He turns 24 in June.
“I haven’t gotten that in-depth into (factors) like that,” he said. “There are so many options that I haven’t really thought a ton about.”
In spring 2020, Carlson married Maddy Wolfe, who is now in her second year of law school at the U. She interned for a district attorney last summer and plans to intern with a private law firm this summer, and her education will also factor into his decision, he said.
The couple grew up fairly close to each other, and knew each other in high school when Brandon was at Bingham and Maddy was at Herriman.
“After my mission we just reconnected at another friend’s (mission) homecoming and we started talking and dating from there,” Carlson said.
Maddy is 5-foot-8.
Carlson is on track to graduate this spring with a degree in strategic communication, but wants to work in sports when his playing days are over as a coach or athletic trainer or something like that.
A college career of steady growth improvement
Carlson recently sat down with the Deseret News to talk about everything from his childhood, high school career, church mission and marriage to his steady improvement as a Runnin’ Ute.
He has not only gotten bigger and stronger throughout his career — when COVID-19, appendicitis and a severe ankle injury weren’t plaguing his third year — he has steadily grown out his hair and steadily improved his ability to score, rebound and block shots.
He averaged 7.0 points as a freshman, 9.4 as a sophomore, 13.4 as a junior and is at 16.0 this year. His rebounding averages have gone from 3.9 to 4.6 to 6.1 to 7.4.
He has blocked 63 shots this season, 20 more than he did as a freshman and 25 more than last year.
“He is a heckuva player,” Smith said after Carlson scored a career-high 28 points on 11-of-12 shooting in a 77-63 win over Washington State on Jan. 19. “I am so proud of him and where he has come from, and how far he has come. And now you get to this point, man, and he is doing everything in every single way that he can. He is a high-level dude.”
He’s now listed at 228 pounds, after beginning his college career under 200. And what about that hair? It was trimmed a bit before last Saturday’s 69-60 loss at Colorado, but still requires a headband to control.
“It is a love-hate relationship with this hair, for sure,” Carlson said, laughing. “Some days I just hate it and just want to go back to short hair. But then I look at some pictures when I had short hair and I say I did not look too good with short hair.
“So I don’t know. Sometimes I cut it a little bit short, and sometimes I just let it grow. It depends on what mood I am in.”
Growing in the game
Carlson’s father played college basketball for Chico State in Northern California and was his first coach, when he was in the second grade in Visalia, California. It was also Bryan Carlson’s idea to spell Branden’s first name with an “e” rather than the traditional “o” — perhaps so it would end like Hayden’s name.
“It is a little unique, I guess,” Branden said.
The family moved to South Jordan in the middle of winter when Branden was 8 and in the third grade.
“It was crazy to come here with all the snow, but it was exciting,” he said.
Branden Carlson was always taller than his classmates, but was never a dominant player in organized leagues and almost didn’t make the sophomore team at Bingham High.
“We kept him because he was tall and could run like a deer,” then-junior varsity coach Travis Ohrn told the Deseret News in 2020. “You could tell he was athletic, but just hadn’t grown into his body yet.”
Carlson admits that he was a “late bloomer,” saying he was uncoordinated and not much of a player until his junior year at Bingham.
“I had a big growth spurt from my freshman to sophomore year and grew six or seven inches,” he said. “But I was not talented at all, not skilled at all.”
Carlson still remembers the first time he beat his 6-8 father in a one-on-one game. He was 16.
“It has been annoying because my younger brother (Devin) beat my dad in one-on-one when he was 13. But I always say it is because my dad started getting bad knees and a bad back.
“My dad was a lot younger when I was that age. He was able to move better and was able to bully me,” Carlson said. “My brother came at the right time.”
Definitely a late bloomer
Carlson didn’t even start when he was a junior at Bingham and played limited minutes because the team’s center and dominant post player at the time was Yoeli Childs, who led the Miners to a state title, earned Deseret News Mr. Basketball honors and, of course, went on to have a standout career at BYU.
Carlson credits practicing against Childs his sophomore and junior years, and AAU ball the summer between his junior and senior seasons, for helping him get comfortable on the court. His exploits that summer, and his frame that reached close to 7 feet, drew the attention of college scouts, although his junior season numbers were meager.
Picking, and staying, with the Utes
During his senior season, after he had signed with the Utes, he averaged 13.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game and helped Bingham win another state title.
Carlson says he doesn’t remember the exact number of scholarship offers he entertained that summer and fall before his senior season, but it was a lot.
“My final four that did offer me and I narrowed it to were BYU, UCLA, Stanford and Utah,” he said.
Looking back, he says he “definitely has no regrets” about going on a mission, or choosing the U. and not following Childs to BYU.
“Going on a mission was one of the best things for me, and I think it helped me with my career here at Utah,” he said.
Runnin’ Utes on the air
No. 7 Utah (17-14)
vs. No. 10 Stanford (13-18)
Wednesday, 7 p.m. MST
At T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700
Carlson was primarily recruited to Utah by head coach Larry Krystkowiak and assistant Tommy Connor. When Krystkowiak was fired after Carlson’s sophomore season, he had a tough decision to make: Leave for supposed greener pastures and an established winner, or give Craig Smith a chance?
He chose the latter, obviously, even as many of his teammates hit the transfer portal before landing at big-time programs such as Texas, Illinois and Maryland.
“I mean, I thought about it. I said, ‘Should I go into the portal and see what my options are, what interest there is? Should I do it before they hire a new coach?’ I had those kinds of thoughts,” Carlson told the Deseret News in 2021. “But I never took it too seriously because I was going to end up at a new program with a new coach no matter what.”
Now he’s got yet another decision to make. And it has nothing to do with how long to grow his hair.