Richie Saunders might not be the most interesting man in the world, as a marketing campaign in the mid-2000s suggested was possible for an elderly, distinguished-looking gentleman, but Saunders very well could be the most interesting player on the nationally ranked BYU men’s basketball team.

“I mean, he is one of my favorite teammates I have ever played with, to be honest with you.” — BYU senior Jaxson Robinson on teammate Richie Saunders

Where does one begin to tell the story of the 6-foot-5 sophomore from Riverton by way of central Utah’s Wasatch Academy?

• Is it the duck-feeding business he started as a youngster to partially fund his two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Seattle?

“I get asked more about that than anything else,” he said, chuckling, then explaining how he acquired a couple of gumball dispensing machines at a garage sale, filled them with corn and set them up at an outdoor shopping center in West Jordan near the Jordan River so people could feed ducks for a quarter.

Saunders was called to serve in Madagascar, an island country off the southeastern coast of Africa, but COVID-19 came and he was forced to stay stateside.

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• Is it the four trips he’s made to West Africa to, among other things, start an academy to teach English, help dig wells in the drought-stricken regions of that country, and build basketball courts in Mali with teammate Fousseyni Traore?

“I have just fallen in love with the people over there and just want to figure out some way in my life how I can make a big impact on them,” he said, having first made the trip with his traveling all-star basketball team when he was 14 or so.

• Or is it how he got started in basketball, waking up at 5 a.m. almost every weekday morning when he was in elementary school to work on his dribbling, shooting, passing and defensive skills with his father, Rich Saunders, a former college basketball player at UC Davis?

“It kind of sounds crazy, but we really did that,” Saunders said. “I am so grateful to my dad for all those hours in the gym. I owe a lot of my success to him.”

Those are all interesting stories, and there are plenty more, but what Richie Saunders — he goes by Richie to distinguish himself from his like-named father — wants you to know most about him is that he loves people, regardless of their nationality, race, gender or basketball-playing ability.

“I love people from all different walks of life,” he said, noting that he speaks Spanish and French and is learning Malagasy, the most common language of Madagascar, along with French.

“I want to connect with people. I love being able to learn from people because I believe everybody in their different walks of life are people we can all learn from.”

Another current BYU player, 6-7 senior forward Jaxson Robinson, said Saunders shows that love for others every day with the way he interacts with teammates and coaches.

“I mean, he is one of my favorite teammates I have ever played with, to be honest with you,” Robinson said last week. “That guy works super hard to take care of his body, work on his studies, on the court. It doesn’t matter what it is. I know I speak for everybody when I say we are very appreciative of Richie Saunders.”

A blossoming star

Saunders started in two games as a freshman last season and appeared in 34, averaging 5.5 points and 2.4 rebounds. He is taking on a bigger role in 2023-24, and got his first start in last Saturday’s 85-78 loss to Texas Tech, delivering 16 points and four rebounds.

BYu’s Atiki Ally Atiki (4), Richie Saunders (15) and Spencer Johnson (20) cheer after a basket as BYU and Houston play at the Marriott Center in Provo on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. Houston won 75-68. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

He was averaging 10.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game heading into Tuesday’s showdown with No. 4 Houston, and is often called on to guard the opponent’s best player because of his defensive prowess and versatility. In short, Saunders is turning into a star.

“How can you not love Richie Saunders, right? We say (this) about (several) guys, but he literally only knows one speed,” coach Mark Pope said. “He can’t slow it down. He can’t turn it off. Like, he is really special. You talk about a guy that vomits his whole heart and soul on the floor every single game. That’s pretty cool.

“There is no coach in America that would not do anything they could to get Richie Saunders on their roster,” Pope continued. “You know exactly what you are getting intensity and energy-wise every single game. ... To have a guy with that motor that is that constant and never goes away is pretty special.”

Advanced metrics such as player efficiency rating, plus-minus point differential and win shares per 40 minutes suggest Saunders is the best player on a team that has a lot of good players, but no great ones, no superstars.

“That dude is relentless,” said Robinson. “He keeps going to the offensive glass, defensive glass. He guards their best player, most times. He does everything.”

From Riverton to dreams of becoming a Renaissance man

Off the court, Saunders also plays piano and guitar and is vice president of the Fouss Foundation, the nonprofit he and Traore set up to better the lives of youngsters in Traore’s hometown of Bamako, Mali.

“That’s my little brother, who is now a year ahead of me in school,” Saunders said of Traore, his roommate along with Trey Stewart and Atiki Ally Atiki, who is from Tanzania. “My relationship with Fouss has always been a really important relationship with me that I valued a lot.”

Saunders said he’s always been an entrepreneur of sorts, mowing lawns and doing other yard chores since he was young. That’s why he started the much-discussed duck-feeding business, which has taken a pause as he works through problems with “varmints and other issues.”

Also away from the court, he’s a big goal setter and deep thinker. He said he meets regularly with BYU’s sports psychologist, Craig Manning.

“We talk about building on our strengths and creating more skills,” Saunders said. “I feel like using my physicality and aggression in a positive way is important. … I am also working on moving on to the next play, and not letting the last play affect the present.”

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Saunders said another big offseason goal was to improve his defense. At 6-5, he’s been called on more this season to defend post players.

“There is so much growth I want to make in that area,” he said.

One of Rich Saunders’ favorite examples of his son’s insistence on valuing every person he comes in contact with happened on one of their trips to West Africa when they were putting in a well in a village that needed more water.

After Richie helped haul the building materials to the site, he set up a makeshift baseball diamond and started teaching the village’s youngsters how to play baseball. They found an old little ball and a stick they used as a baseball bat, and started learning about America’s national pastime.

“We just heard story after story of the impact that made on the local kids over there in West Africa, to be able to have somebody take the time to teach them how to play baseball,” Rich Saunders said. “But that is the kind of mindset that he has.”

Early dreams of becoming a BYU Cougar

Richie Saunders’ first memories of BYU basketball were sitting “in the top of the rafters” at the Marriott Center with his maternal grandfather, Jim Warner, “and him having his binoculars” and commenting on every play. 

“I can remember a lot of sad nights crying after losses,” Saunders said. “I still think about (Warner) a lot when I play.”

Warner died in 2012, when Richie was just starting to think about a career in basketball, and waking up early every morning.

“We would spend a lot of time in the gym, and as we tried to visualize his future when he was young, his real focus was to play for BYU … before he was 10 years old,” Rich Saunders said Monday night.

One time, the elder Saunders was up past midnight attending to his ecclesiastical duties at his church and couldn’t quite make it out of bed precisely at 5 a.m. for the basketball drills.

“I was a few minutes late and (Richie) was sitting in the entryway on the couch, waiting,” Rich Saunders said. “He gave me a little bit of a chastisement because we were losing a few minutes of our workout time. I was floored at his desire to be in the gym. He took it very seriously.”

Richie Saunders was also an outstanding baseball player growing up, leading off and playing shortstop on most of his teams. But when he was in the eighth grade he decided to focus solely on basketball.

“I started to be taken aback by what his drive was, and the price he was willing to pay,” Rich Saunders said. “There are other people who are better at the game, but I don’t know if there are many who are more committed and disciplined to go forward with what it takes to develop the skills.”

Richie made the varsity team as a freshman at Riverton High, played a lot as a freshman and started every game as a sophomore, averaging 19 points per game.

He received a scholarship offer from BYU while he was still at Riverton, Richie remembers, but it wasn’t necessarily a given that he would choose the Cougars during his two seasons playing for Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant.

He said he considered other options, other offers, because he was looking for a program with more diversity than BYU’s had at that time. Utah, Oregon State, Creighton and Utah State were among the schools he considered.

“I was very close to going elsewhere, but I just felt such a strong connection with coach Pope and these other coaches,” he said. “I am super grateful I made the choice that I did. I love being here at BYU.”

Wasatch Academy’s starting five his senior season included himself, Baylor’s Caleb Lohner (who started his career at BYU), Michigan State’s Mady Sissoko, McNeese’s Mike Saunders Jr. (who has also played for Cincinnati and Utah) and Texas Tech’s Richard “Pop” Isaacs, the guard who scored 32 points on the Cougars last Saturday in Lubbock.

“It was hard going from Riverton to Wasatch, I am not going to lie,” Saunders said. “Skyler Wilson was my coach at Riverton. There have been some hard feelings over the years, but I am grateful for him. I would not be here without him. He put me on the court as a little 135-pound freshman. I really owe a lot to him, and I wish that is something he could understand more.”

Magic at the Marriott Center … Annex

Shortly after returning home from his mission in 2022, Saunders walked into the Marriott Center Annex — the practice facility for both BYU basketball teams — and noticed Sierra Johnson shooting on her own at one end of the court.

“I thought, ‘That is a really cute girl,’” Saunders said. “I got up the guts to ask her out, and luckily she accepted. … I don’t know how I got a second date. That is one I am still trying to figure out.”

The couple got married last September.

“It is funny because during the season you don’t have much social time,” Saunders said. “You are on the road so much, and so busy with classes and everything. I had my sights all on basketball and school. But that’s just how it happened.”

Saunders has four older sisters — two played basketball and two were accomplished dancers — and remembers getting “dating lessons” from them when he was 8 years old.

“Hopefully Sierra can attest, but my sisters have always demanded that I be a gentleman,” he said. “They taught me to do little things right, which I am super grateful for.”

Lisa Saunders, Richie’s mom, says being the only boy in the family and having four older sisters contributed to his sensitivity and outlook on the needs of others.

“Yeah, he was very mothered,” Lisa Saunders said.

And prepared well to become one of the more interesting characters on the BYU basketball team.

BYU guard Richie Saunders drives on Cincinnati Bearcats forward John Newman III in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024.
BYU guard Richie Saunders drives during a game against Cincinnati in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024. Cincinnati won 71-60. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News