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BYU’s Gavin Baxter not ruling out a return this season after ‘devastating’ shoulder injury

It’s not hard to imagine what the long-armed and athletic Baxter might have added to this BYU team, especially considering that Yoeli Childs has missed 13 games due to an NCAA suspension and a finger injury

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BYU Cougars forward Gavin Baxter (25) shoots the ball against the Portland Pilots during the first half of a game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019.

Silas Walker, Deseret News

PROVO — About an hour after the end of a BYU basketball practice last week, forward Gavin Baxter participated in exhausting drills with another injured player, guard Trevin Knell, under the watch of strength and conditioning coach Erick Schork at the Marriott Center Annex.

Running sprints and honing his footwork, Baxter looked like he could suit up and help the Cougars as they enter the critical final stretch of the season.

It’s not hard to imagine what the long-armed and athletic Baxter, who recorded an amazing 44-inch vertical leap during a mock NBA combine workout at BYU before the season, when he was healthy, might have added to this BYU team as a scorer, a rebounder and a rim-protector, especially considering that Yoeli Childs has missed a total of 13 games due to an NCAA suspension and a finger injury. 

It’s been nearly four months since Baxter suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder during practice. 

“It was devastating, really,” he recalled.

Baxter was injured in late September, underwent surgery in early October and he’s been rehabbing relentlessly ever since. There’s no doubt the 6-foot-9 sophomore wants to get back on the court as soon as possible.

“I really want to play but I’ve got to calm myself down and focus on my recovery,” Baxter said. “Like anybody, I want to play. We’ll have to wait and see. But it’s been a good recovery and things are going well. Right now, I feel good about it. The doctors say the recovery is 4-6 months, depending upon where the tear was, how far it tore. There’s a lot of different factors. It’s an evaluation thing. They’re looking for certain movements and range of motion.”

He’s not completely ruling out a return this season — but that decision is not up to him. 

“I’m not sure yet,” Baxter said about his status for the remainder of the season. “It will depend on what the doctor says and if he clears me. It’s going to be up to the doctor and what he thinks about my progress.”

Coach Mark Pope is cautiously optimistic, realizing that if Baxter absorbed hard contact to his shoulder again, he could risk a setback in his recovery. 

“The problem is, can he take a hit? They say nine months before you’re fully, fully 100% healed,” Pope said. “It’s six months before you are really, legitimately good to take a hit. He’s doing great. I’ve been really proud of him in terms of his mental and emotional approach because this is really hard.”

As a freshman last season, just months after returning home from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Washington, D.C., Baxter averaged a modest 4.7 points and 3.1 rebounds per game.

But he showed a glimpse of his potential when he scored a career-high 25 points and collected 10 rebounds against Loyola Marymount last February. At the end of the season he was named to the All-West Coast Conference Freshman Team. 

A top 100 recruit out of Timpview High School, Baxter set the BYU record for field goal percentage in a single season at 64.8% (59 of 91). He also recorded three-plus blocks in four games.

So expectations were high going into this season — until it ended before it began.  

“Coming into the year with a new coaching staff, with Yoeli coming back and Jake (Toolson) coming from UVU, it felt like this group was going to be special because of the pieces that we had,” Baxter said. “We were all excited and worked hard all summer long.”

In August, Childs’ nine-game suspension to open the season was announced, putting even more onus on Baxter, a role he embraced. 

Then in late September, during practice, Baxter suffered the major injury. 

“It was kind of a freak thing. As soon as it happened, I kind of knew it was serious. I got tangled up going for the ball and my arm got dislocated. I tore my labrum,” he recalled. “You work all summer to get ready for the season and it seems like it was all over just like that. It was really hard but it’s taught me a lot.”

What has he learned from this experience? 

“You don’t wish for challenges but it’s taught me a lot of patience and I’ve seen the game from a new perspective,” he said. “It’s one thing playing but when you see it from the sideline, you can pick apart different pieces of the game. That’s been good for me as well.”

While sitting on the bench, it’s been hard for Baxter to watch games knowing his presence could have made a difference this season. 

“I feel like I could have helped out there. I could have done this or that,” he said. “But it’s been impressive to me how the guys on the team haven’t used injuries or suspensions as excuses. They’ve gone out and played as hard as they can. It’s been an unexpected year but it’s been a great year so far in how we’ve responded to different challenges and the way we’re working as a team.”

Baxter credits his teammates for helping him keep his spirits up over the past few months. 

“I’ve never been part of a team like this. We’re tight. We’re a family. We have each other’s backs,” he said. “Having that support system around me with my teammates has been huge. It’s been a big part of me staying positive if I’m not out there playing. It’s been great. Yoeli and I have sat at the end of the bench together for a lot of games. I’ve learned from him and It’s been great. He knows what I’m going through and vice-versa.”

Among the positives that have resulted for Baxter has been the opportunity to build rapport with teammates like 6-foot-11 Richard Harward and 6-foot-10 Wyatt Lowell, a pair of transfers from UVU that are redshirting. 

“Wyatt can stretch the floor and can shoot. He’s been able to get into crazy shape,” Baxter said. “He’s changed his body. Richard is a big man and he’s also probably in the best shape he’s been in. It’s going to be scary next year with those two. I’ve gotten to know the guys that are up-and-coming.

“I’m pumped for next season. We’ve got a heavy senior class and a lot of skilled veterans that won’t be here,” Baxter added. “But we’ve got a talented group of guys in the program and coming into it. I’m excited to get to work with them and see how we can jell as a group.”

Baxter said after the shoulder injury, “it was hard to stomach at first” the idea of missing an entire season but he’s at peace knowing he’ll be able to play next season. He’s looking forward to being able to return to the court again, whenever that might be. 

Of course, Pope is looking forward to that time, too.

“He’s going to be a freak. This kid is so talented,” he said about Baxter. “You talk about a dude that can’t even see his ceiling, it’s so high. We’ll be excited to get him back when he’s ready.” 

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