Just as BYU’s basketball program has waited a long time to compete in a Power Five conference, recent signee Dawson Baker has also waited a relatively long time for the opportunity to play at the highest level.  

“I think I did it the right way. I didn’t really get sidetracked by other schools calling. You’d be distracted and you’d be taking calls all day. So I had a group of four schools that I was set on, that I really wanted to explore and take seriously.” — Dawson Baker on his transfer portal experience

Growing up, the 6-foot-4, 190-pound guard from Coto de Caza, California, harbored hopes of playing college hoops, preferably at BYU. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he knows a lot of passionate Cougars fans and a few of his siblings have attended BYU. 

Despite starring at Capistrano Valley High and becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer, Baker didn’t receive a scholarship offer from the Cougars.

After serving a two-year mission, and spending three seasons at UC Irvine, he entered the transfer portal this spring, opening the door for another shot to play for BYU. 

Last month — the second time around — Baker signed with BYU. 

“It was always a dream of mine to play there for a fan base that’s so big and the mecca of everything I’m looking for in my life,” he said. “Everything is top-tier. I’m very excited to be a part of it now.”

This time, BYU is on the verge of joining the Big 12, the nation’s toughest basketball conference. Baker, who has two years of eligibility remaining, has wanted to showcase his skills in a Power Five league. 

BYU and Baker will embark on these parallel, symbiotic journeys together this season. 

“I feel like I had to really earn my stripes as a player a lot of times. I’m going into that situation and going to a team where I’ve spent three years working to earn a moment like this,” Baker said. “It definitely means a lot to me. It’s going to be a historic year for BYU, going to the Big 12. I’ll be a pioneer for that. I think that’s awesome. It will be a fun experience to look back on and think about the cool things we did for this program and the school.”

Brothers in arms

Baker has six siblings. Two of them, Davis and Dusty, played college basketball — Davis Baker at Southern Utah; Dusty at Weber State. 

Dawson attributes his own success, and his competitiveness, to his brothers’ example. They motivated him to reach his potential. 

As a youngster, he idolized his older brothers, even as they had their way with him on the court. 

“It’s shaped me as a player,” Dawson said about his brothers’ influence. “I always wanted to be like them. My goal in basketball wasn’t to be a college basketball player or to play professionally one day. It was always to be better than my brothers. No matter how high I get in my eyes, my brothers are always above me. I keep chasing them.”

Dawson learned from his brothers’ experiences on the college level. 

“Their knowledge of the game helped me a lot. I can ask them questions about things I’m struggling with,” he said. “I still talk to them after every game. I pick their brain about a lot of stuff that they’ve experienced firsthand. It’s been huge for me as a competitor and as a player. It’s still an ongoing process for me, competing and becoming better than my brothers.”

Now that Dawson is about to embark on his BYU career, Davis and Dusty continue supporting him. 

“They’re super excited. My whole family is, but especially my brothers are really involved in this process. I picked their brain during this whole process,” he said. “They’re super stoked that I get to do something that they didn’t get a chance to — play in the Big 12 and play for a program like BYU. They’re some of my biggest fans.”

High school recruitment 

BYU recruited Dawson Baker out of high school five years ago under then-head coach Dave Rose. But amid some changes on the Cougars coaching staff, Baker felt like he was overlooked.

“It was a disappointment for me,” he recalled.

Other programs also lost interest while he became Capistrano Valley High’s all-time leading scorer (2,152 points), finishing No. 1 in steals (237) and rebounds (732), and earning All-CIF honors in 2018.

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“I have two older brothers that played college basketball. For me, it was like, ‘I’m going to play college basketball, no questions asked.’ It was going to happen,” he said. “I had a lot of interest from schools in high school but it always faded away. I don’t know if it was because I was going on a mission or if I wasn’t the right fit. Coaching changes kind of happened and it was kind of a mess for me and hurt my recruitment a little bit.”

Fortunately for Baker, UC Irvine offered him a scholarship before his mission. 

“UC Irvine was there and they stuck with me. They had an offer for me and they were excited about my mission and how it would benefit me as a person and as a player,” he said. “It was a little hard. I wanted to be in Utah. I always thought that I deserved it, being good enough to do it. But it never happened. Maybe this was the way I needed to do it. I think now, I’m enjoying it a lot more.”

A ‘unique’ mission

Baker was called to serve in Micronesia Guam mission — some 6,000 miles away from his California home. 

The Pacific islands where he spent most of his time were primitive, to say the least. 

“My mission was very unique,” Baker said. “Very poor. No running water. No electricity. I got a full experience of real-world stuff. Places I never knew existed. I didn’t know people were still living like that.”

Baker is grateful for the lessons he learned and the emotional growth he enjoyed during those two years in a remote area of the world. 

“It was definitely a great perspective for me to see coming out of high school. It gave me a sense of gratitude for things we have here, things that we take for granted. Things that really matter — it really showcased firsthand, family, love and respect. This is life,” he said. “This is what really matters. All this external stuff of technology and social media, money, it doesn’t bring happiness. That perspective was huge for me.”

Along the way, Baker saw his spirituality soar. 

“It grew my testimony and my love for the Savior,” he said. “I grew in my knowledge of the gospel and it helped me to mature a lot more.”

Lessons learned in the mission field served him well when he returned home. 

“As a missionary, you work hard and you set goals. That’s the same thing you do in sports. Gaining that sense of motivation through the spirit of how to set goals and how to work hard,” Baker said. “That stuff translates to the rest of your life in business or sports or whatever it is.

“I felt that translation when I got back from my mission that, I know how to work hard. I know how to set goals and reach goals. I know how to make things happen. A lot of those things happened for me as a missionary. It also helped me my first year back playing basketball again.”

With the Anteaters

For many athletes, competing at a high level after a two-year mission is a long, difficult process. 

But that wasn’t the case for Baker.

“It didn’t seem that hard. It was like riding a bike. It was natural for me. The hardest thing was the conditioning level. But once you get over that, the game came pretty easy,” he said. “I worked really hard but ultimately my mindset was still there and my feel came back quick. It wasn’t too crazy for me.

“But it is a different game you’re jumping into from high school to college. That’s when you’ve got to put your head down and really learn and be coachable and focus on the right things.”

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His first season back was during COVID-19 in 2020-21. In terms of his basketball career, that was kind of a blessing in disguise. 

“With my first year being the COVID year, it kind of eliminated a lot of distractions around basketball,” he said. “Primarily, I was just focused on the game and it helped me a lot. It was all about basketball.”

Baker was named Big West Freshman of the Year at the end of that season. He started 17 games and averaged 10.7 points per game and led the Anteaters in 3-point shooting at 39.6%. Baker enjoyed a career-high 23-point performance against Cal State Fullerton. 

Last season as a junior, Baker earned All-Big West second-team honors after averaging 15.3 points and 3.2 assists per game. UC Irvine posted a 23-12 record, won the Big West regular-season title and earned a postseason berth in the NIT. 

Baker scored in double figures in 32 of 35 starts including a career-high 33-point performance at UC San Diego. He also recorded his first and only collegiate double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds) in a victory over Hawaii last January.

In 71 games over three seasons Baker shot 46.7% from the field and 36.9% from 3-point range, while knocking down 48 3-pointers.

“I can’t say enough great things about UC Irvine. The opportunity was the biggest thing for me, coming off my mission. … I was on the second-youngest team in the nation. It gave me an opportunity to showcase myself,” Baker said. “Everyone was on an even playing field when I first got here. I was able to earn my respect from the coaches. I earned a starting spot.

“The opportunity was the biggest thing for me. UC Irvine is really good on the defensive side of the ball and I learned a lot there. How to gain an edge on the defensive side. I learned a lot about the pick and roll and being a scorer on the college level.”

A second chance with BYU

During last season, Baker paid attention to BYU’s program.

“Knowing the opportunity at hand, I kept an eye on them this year and the style they play is fascinating to me,” he said.

Before he entered the portal, Baker had a list of four schools that he would be interested in — BYU, Utah, Utah State and Boise State. 

“I think I did it the right way. I didn’t really get sidetracked by other schools calling,” he said. “You’d be distracted and you’d be taking calls all day. So I had a group of four schools that I was set on, that I really wanted to explore and take seriously.”

BYU coach Mark Pope and his staff contacted Baker and made him feel needed. 

“BYU was great,” he said. “They reached out every day and all the coaches were super friendly and super excited about me and very open to me about their feelings toward me as a player and how I could fit there with their program. I felt a lot of understanding and love from them, which helped me ultimately decide to go there.”

Baker enjoyed his recruiting visit to campus. 

“It was awesome. Coach Pope is a people person. He’s good at recruiting, showing his interest and love in you as a person and as a player,” he said. “Anywhere on campus, people are excited to be there and they’re friendly. It was fun seeing all of the facilities. A lot of good benefits for the athletes.”

Baker has never been to the Marriott Center for a game but he’s looking forward to that experience. 

“I know it’s a big arena and the fans pack it out. And they get loud,” he said. “That’s something that I’ll remember the rest of my life, playing in a venue like that, and in the Big 12.”

‘What they were looking for’

During the recruiting process, BYU coaches explained to Baker how he could help the program. 

“Last year they had a younger team. They looked at me as a guy with three years of starting experience, playing in big games, scoring a lot of points. I played a lot of minutes,” Baker said. “Someone that’s gone through some battles and won some games. I bring some experience and some depth to a team that was a little bit young.

“They liked my skill set and my ability to score and create my own shot and make plays for others. Those were all things they were excited about. It was what they were looking for.”

Baker said the Cougars are bringing back a solid group of returning players from last season. 

“They were in a lot of close games with good teams,” he said. “So the talent’s there, the winning’s there.”

In addition to Baker, BYU has signed big man Aly Khalifa, a Charlotte transfer, and point guard Ques Glover, a Samford transfer. Baker is looking forward to battling in the Big 12 with them. 

“(Khalifa is) a talented big guy that’s really skilled and they’re really high on him. He seems like an easy guy to play with. You can make plays just cutting to the basket. He can make passes. It seems like an easy thing to do with his skill set,” he said. “They’ve got a point guard that’s athletic and quick and will be able to (defend) Big 12 guards and make plays.

“It will be interesting how it all shapes up when I get up there and get a feel for them. Pope does a great job with what he does. He’ll give us chances to pull out games that are close and shock some teams. I’m looking to do that.”

For Baker, playing at BYU, and in the Big 12, is a chance to prove himself after a relatively long wait. Better late than never.

“I’m a player that can play at a top level in a top league and produce. I’m a good enough player, a smart enough player to make things work. My skill set is as good as it gets. A lot of it is just proving my worth as a player to myself,” he said. “This is something that, it’s taking a big swing for the fences, playing in a league like this, going from UC Irvine to BYU. Obviously, there’s a little bit of a risk factor wherever you go.

“But ultimately, just proving to myself that this is something I can do; this is something I’m meant to do and I’m good enough to do. I want to be the player that I was here (at UC Irvine) at BYU in a different league and be as good as I can get,” he added. “That’s the goal for me, to be as good as I can get, see the experiences I can have, the competition I can play against. This is the perfect opportunity to showcase that.”

UC Irvine’s Dawson Baker keeps the ball from UC Santa Barbara’s Jaquori McLaughlin during the championship game of the Big West Conference tournament Saturday, March 13, 2021, in Las Vegas. | Ronda Churchill, Associated Press