SALT LAKE CITY — Most college basketball players these days have been stars since about the time they got out of diapers. Opportunities to play organized basketball are more prevalent than ever, from the time kids are in kindergarten, through elementary school and on up through junior high and high school. The best play on competition teams, then for AAU teams for several years where they’re able to play hundreds of basketball games year-round.

Then there’s Branden Carlson. 

Although he started playing basketball around age 6 and began playing on organized teams when he was in fifth grade, by the time he got to high school, Carlson was barely good enough to make the sophomore team at Bingham High School. And mainly because he was tall — about 6-foot-6 at the time. The next year, as he was growing another half a foot, he mostly played JV ball and played about six minutes per game on the varsity, averaging 3.7 points and 2.2 rebounds per game.

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Yet before he even played a game as a senior, Carlson was offered scholarships to several major colleges, including the University of Utah, where, at 7-feet and 220 pounds, he has become the starting center as a freshman with a future that some are saying could include an NBA career. He’s coming off his best game as a Ute with a 15-point, 10-rebound, eight-block performance against Stanford Thursday night. 

Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak and others could see Carlson’s potential.

“He’s got really good hands, can run like a deer and is seven feet tall,” he said. “It’s not like you need  a sample size of five or 10 years before you sign a kid like that.”

Carlson wasn’t an overnight sensation, but close.

Travis Ohrn, junior varsity coach at Bingham, was the sophomore team coach for the Miners in 2014-15 when Carlson was a sophomore. 

“We kept him because he was tall and could run like a deer,” Ohrn said, echoing Krystkowiak. “You could tell he was athletic, but just hadn’t grown into his body yet.”

Asked if he would have ever predicted that five years later Carlson would be starting for a major college basketball team as a freshman, Ohrn laughed and said, “no way.”

On the other hand, he’s not really surprised about how far Carlson has come.

“He’s a hard worker,” Ohrn said. “Absolutely — he loved being in the gym, loved putting in the work and he could see the improvement. To go from where he was as a sophomore and to see the improvement each year, I think it motivated him, because he improved so drastically is such a short amount of time.”

Bingham’s Branden Carlson shoots during the 5A high school basketball semifinals against Layton at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 4, 2016. Bingham won 71- 42. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

One reason Carlson didn’t play much as a junior was a guy named Yoeli Childs, who was Deseret News Mr. Basketball for the state-winning Miners and has gone on to star for BYU.

Carlson battled Childs every day in practice and then played for the Utah Prospects AAU team the summer after his junior year.

“He was young and still growing,” said Ohrn. “He really took off junior year to senior year and a lot of that was playing against Yoeli Childs every day in practice.”

By the time his senior season rolled around, Carlson was ready to shine. He averaged 13.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, was named all-state and helped lead Bingham to another state championship. 

But before that season even began, he had a host of colleges lining up for his services, including BYU, UCLA and Stanford, which were his final choices before choosing Utah. 

“In the end Utah was the right school for me. I love the environment, love the team — it feels like a family here.” — Utah’s Branden Carlson

“It was a hard decision, they were all great schools, great academics, great sports programs,” he said. “In the end Utah was the right school for me. I love the environment, love the team — it feels like a family here.” 

Following high school graduation, Carlson left on a church mission to Manchester, England, where he tried to keep in shape through daily exercise, but he played more soccer than basketball on his off days.

He returned early last summer and has been working at getting his basketball skills back ever since. Carlson acknowledges it’s been harder adjusting since his mission than he thought it would be and playing in large arenas against bigger and better players. 

“I’m feeling pretty good as the season goes on and we develop as a team,” he said. “I’m feeling more comfortable in my role as a player on this team and what I can contribute. My teammates and coach have helped me to adjust.”

Carlson has started every game but one for Utah this season. He began strong with an 8-point, 10-rebound performance in his college debut at Nevada and also had a pair of 14-point games against Mississippi Valley State and Tulane. Then he hit a lull in the middle of the season, the freshman “wall” as Krystkowiak calls it, when he went scoreless in three games. However, he has gradually come on and played very well for the Utes of late.

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Even before his outstanding game against Stanford Thursday night, in his previous three games, Carlson made 72.2% of his field goal tries (13 of 18) and averaged 10.7 points. Against UCLA Sunday, he had nine points, seven rebounds and a blocked shot.

Oregon Ducks forward Francis Okoro (33) is blocked at the rim by Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) as Utah and Oregon play in an NCAA basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Carlson comes from a family of five children and is the oldest, but just by four minutes over his twin brother, Hayden. He gets his height from his parents, his father is 6-8 and his mother 5-10, but get this — Hayden is a foot smaller than Branden.

Hayden is a fraternal twin and doesn’t play basketball, but is a talented singer among other things. “I’m not a good singer at all, so I guess it all evens out,” said Branden, who does play the guitar. He can also do a standing backflip, Ohrn revealed. 

Jaxon Brenchley is Carlson’s roommate at the U. and he says he didn’t even know who Carlson was before he joined the AAU team that also included Utes Rylan Jones, Matt Van Komen and Luc Krystkowiak back in 2016. 

“When he came to our first practice, I was like, who is this guy? But he just got better and better. It’s really cool to see. He has a lot of talent, but really worked hard.”

That’s been the key to Carlson’s rapid rise from being a backup center as a high school junior to getting a near triple-double as a college freshman playing in the Pac-12 Conference: some natural ability and a lot of hard work.

“I think the sky’s the limit for him,” says coach Krystkowiak. “If he wants to punch in and put the time in with the basketball side of things and get stronger, this is just the beginning for what could be a heck of a career.”