Three months after they were unceremoniously ousted from the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament by 10th-seeded Stanford, the Runnin’ Utes reconvened for the first time Monday for their first official voluntary workout of the summer.

“I have learned a lot from the process of what I need to improve on. I can come back to Utah and really focus on that for one more year.” — Utah center Branden Carlson

Washington transfer Cole Bajema and Georgia Tech transfer Deivon Smith had yet to arrive — Smith got in town Tuesday, while Bajema is still in Seattle through commencement exercises this weekend. But clearly the most pleasant surprise for coach Craig Smith, his staff and Utah basketball fans was the presence of the big 7-footer, Branden Carlson.

Having declared for the NBA draft back on March 23 after his fourth season in the program, Carlson announced May 31 via social media that he is using his “extra year” of college basketball granted by the NCAA after COVID-19 altered the 2020-21 season to return to the program.

Tuesday, the All-Pac-12 first-team center spoke to the Deseret News about the pre-draft process, why he decided to return to the Utes, and how the roster is shaping up for the 2023-24 season with the departures of guards Mike Saunders Jr. and Lazar Stefanovic and additions of Bajema, Deivon Smith, Colorado transfer Lawson Lovering and BYU transfers Hunter Erickson and Jake Wahlin.

“It has been a busy couple of months,” Carlson said. “But it has been good. It has been great having the guys back here and all that.”

Carlson said he’s been able to play a couple rounds of golf, but the past three months have been filled with schoolwork, basketball, conditioning work and more basketball. After declaring, he worked out for five NBA teams, but was “definitely disappointed and kinda surprised” that he wasn’t invited to the NBA G League Elite Camp or the NBA Draft Combine.

“It was frustrating, not being able to get over there (May 15-21 in Chicago) and show a little bit more of what I can do,” he said.

Carlson graduated in early May with a degree in communication, while 2022-23 teammates Jaxon Brenchley (finance), Marco Anthony (political science), Eli Ballstaedt (entrepreneurship) and Bostyn Holt (sociology) also went through commencement exercises.

Anthony and Ballstaedt exhausted their eligibility, while Brenchley transferred to Denver and Holt to South Dakota. Saunders landed at McNeese State and Stefanovic signed with UCLA.

Why BC came back

Carlson took plenty of momentum with him into the offseason, having led the Utes in scoring (16.4 ppg.), rebounding (7.5) and blocks (2.0) last season, while shooting nearly 50% from the field. 

He’s 26th on Utah’s career scoring list with 1,261 points.

“There’s unfinished business, I have more to give,” he said in a video posted to social media on May 31 when he announced his decision to return.

He also spoke about his “legacy as a Ute” and how important that was to him.

He said Tuesday those were big reasons why he returned, while also acknowledging that not getting invited to the combines played a role as well.

“But I still had teams that had a lot of interest in me, and saw value in me, so that didn’t affect my decision as much,” he said.

The five teams that flew him in for workouts were the Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. The Celtics flew him first class, the other four set him up in the exit row.

“The (main) feedback from teams is that they really like me, they see a lot of potential in me and all that, but they also don’t think that one more year of school would hurt, and it could really improve my stock for next year, even,” he said.

Also, Carlson’s wife, Maddy, has one more year of law school at the U., “so if I stayed in the draft, most likely, unless I went to the Jazz or something, we would be doing a long-distance (marriage),” Carlson said.

“And then, obviously, I feel like I still have a lot to learn,” he continued. “I have learned a lot from the process of what I need to improve on. I can come back to Utah and really focus on that for one more year.”

A kinship with Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe

Carlson got more out of the visits than just feedback. Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe was also at the workouts with the Bucks and Kings, and Carlson struck up a friendship with the 6-9 forward from the Republic of the Congo.

Tshiebwe decided to stay in the draft, and is projected as a late second-round pick. 

“I got to know him pretty well, and we have stayed in contact quite a bit,” Carlson said. “He is a great guy and it was great to talk with him. We sat next to each other on the plane on the way out (of Sacramento) and exchanged phone numbers and stuff.”

NIL opportunities, and a look ahead 

Some booster- and fan-led NIL collectives across the country have used NIL opportunities as an enticement to get student-athletes to stick around for an additional year or two instead of moving on to the pro ranks. For instance, sources have told the Deseret News that collectives “sweetened the pot” for BYU football players such as Jaren Hall and Puka Nacua to return, but were not successful.

Branden Carlson is returning to the Utah basketball program for the 2023-24 season
How Runnin’ Utes fared when All-Pac-12 men’s basketball awards were handed out on eve of conference tournament

Carlson said he will have some “additional opportunities” with NIL by returning to the U., but “it wasn’t a huge factor” in his decision.

“NIL was always a little bit in the back of my mind in all this,” he said. “… I have to wait and see. I have talked with some people and should have some opportunities, but I don’t have anything signed and sealed yet.”

Carlson had a solo deal with the “Runnin’ Hoops” podcast last season, and he, Madsen and Anthony had a deal to make appearances on KUTV’s “Talkin’ Utes” show. The entire team had an NIL deal with C.W. Urban, a custom home builder based in Davis County.

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His Utah legacy, he said, is far more important than money, however.

He’s currently behind Brandon Taylor (1,270) and Alex Jensen (1,279) on Utah’s career scoring list, and could theoretically move into the top 10 with another season in the 500-point range. He scored 507 last year.

Playing in the NCAA Tournament is also a major goal, along with honing his leadership skills.

“I wouldn’t say this is ‘my team,’ but I would definitely say I have more of a leadership role now,” he said. “I have a lot more responsibility, even more than I did last year. I am the only one who has been here for four years, let alone five years, so I really know this program inside and out. … I think it is really on me and Rollie (Worster) and Gabe and guys who have been around awhile to show everyone what is expected.”

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson is honored on Senior Night by coach Craig Smith, right, during game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023. Much to Smith’s delight, Carlson recently announced that he is returning to the Utes for one more year. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News
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