When Mikael Jantunen, who was born and raised in Helsinki, Finland, walks into the University of Utah men’s basketball locker room in the Huntsman Center, he can’t believe his ears.

Yes, his ears.

No fewer than eight languages are spoken at any one time among the Utes, who have six players born outside the continental United States on their 2020-21 roster. That number could balloon to eight next year if senior guard Alfonso Plummer (Puerto Rico) returns for an NCAA-allowed extra year and recruits from The Netherlands (Norbert Thelissen) and Serbia (Lazar Stefanovic) join the team.

“It is a pretty cool experience, walking into the locker room and hearing guys on their phones, speaking all kinds of languages to their families, or even their teammates,” said Jantunen, who speaks excellent English but can also converse in Swedish and his native tongue, Finnish. “There might be a guy speaking Spanish, or one speaking Jamaican, or French or Senegalese. I think that it is pretty cool, all the different languages that are spoken around here.”

All six of the “internationals,” as they are commonly called, speak English well, so communication issues are rare, coach Larry Krystkowiak said.

“Basketball is kind of a universal language anyway,” the coach said. “I have played professionally overseas (Italy and France), and even the terms overseas are still communicated in English. A pick-and-roll is called a pick-and-roll anywhere you go, for example.”

“It is a pretty cool experience, walking into the locker room and hearing guys on their phones, speaking all kinds of languages to their families, or even their teammates. There might be a guy speaking Spanish, or one speaking Jamaican, or French or Senegalese. I think that it is pretty cool, all the different languages that are spoken around here.” — Utah basketball player Mikael Jantunen, from Finland.

Plummer and freshman guard Ian Martinez (Costa Rica) speak Spanish, sophomore Jordan Kellier (Jamaica) speaks the Jamaican dialect of Patois, redshirt sophomore Lahat Thioune (Senegal) speaks French and Wolof, freshman guard Pelle Larsson (Sweden) speaks Swedish and a little bit of Finnish when he’s around Jantunen, which is often.

Sophomore guard Jaxon Brenchley, from Providence, Utah, can speak Mandarin Chinese, having served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Taiwan.

Sophomore center Branden Carlson, who served a mission in Manchester, England, says the diversity appealed to him as a recruit out of South Jordan’s Bingham High.

“I have really enjoyed it, to be honest,” Carlson said. “It has been great to get to know people from not just different states, but from all over the world, places like Finland and Sweden, Puerto Rico, Senegal. It has been amazing to get to know them and their backgrounds.

“Everyone is different, but we have all come together,” Carlson continued. “We are great friends. We just love spending time with each other on and off the court.”

International flavor part of Utes’ history

Of course, Krystkowiak and his staff didn’t try to replicate the United Nations in their locker room. It just worked out that way. Besides, the program has a history of developing outstanding international players, including Hanno Möttölä  (1996-2000) of Finland, who was Jantunen’s coach at Helsinki Basketball Academy, and Australians Andrew Bogut (2003-05) and Luke Nevill (2005-09).

Krystkowiak himself recruited Jakob Poeltl (2014-16) of Austria, now with the San Antonio Spurs, making a couple of trips overseas to visit the big man personally. Poeltl has said those visits were a big reason why he chose the Utes.

“International recruiting is a little bit of a niche for us,” Krystkowiak said recently. “When I first got this job and when our staff was hired, I loved the fact that the program had an international flavor already. … And there is a little bit of safety in the fact that we have had success, and we enjoy taking in international players.”

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One of Krystkowiak’s first international recruits after he got the Utah job in 2011 was 7-footer Dallin Bachynski of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, by way of Southern Utah University. Other foreign-born players at Utah the past 10 years include Brazil’s Renan Lenz (2012-14), Serbia’s Marko Kovacevic (2013-14), Germany’s Kenneth Ogbe (2013-16), Serbia’s Novak Topalovic (2018-19) and Jakub Jokl of the Czech Republic (2016-18).

Krystkowiak said longtime assistant Andy Hill, who has been with him all 10 years at Utah, “has a niche on our staff to find international kids and get involved recruiting them.”

Hill has been traveling to the under-16 and under-18 world championships for years, at no small expense to the university, to give the program a presence overseas, particularly in Western Europe. Those efforts are starting to pay off in the form of Jantunen, Larsson and next year’s expected arrivals, Thelissen and Stefanovic.

“If you want somebody to come from another country to here, I think it is important that you make an effort to spend time in their homeland,” Krystkowiak said.

The coach said it is important to him to have a couple of Utahns on the roster per year — Olympus High’s Rylan Jones, Bingham High’s Carlson and Jaxon Brenchley of Logan’s Ridgeline High are this year’s on-scholarship locals — and California and Arizona are always going to be basketball recruiting hotbeds for the Utes. But keeping up with the Joneses overseas is a growing priority, especially because a lot of Pac-12 teams are doing likewise.

For instance, the Cal team that upset Utah 72-63 on Jan. 16 also featured six internationals, including Australians Grant Anticevich and Kuany Kuany and Lars Thiemann of Germany.

“There are a lot of kids around the world that are playing the game,” he said. “The game is vastly improved and it is advancing to where the rest of the world is catching up and I think we’ve got some real gems on our team from overseas, and guys are continuing to come, and that’s all part of the great American melting pot, basically.”

Bottom line with recruiting, Krystkowiak said, is “we love the diversity” and bringing players from different cultures to campus, “but at the end of the day, we have to win basketball games, and right now (internationals) are helping us do that.”

Big-time competition nothing new

For the only two internationals on Utah’s roster who didn’t play high school or junior college ball in the United States before joining the Utes, Finland’s Jantunen and Sweden’s Larsson, the step up in competition is not that great. That’s because they played for their respective national teams — often against grown men and professionals — long before coming to the U.S.

Jantunen, a 6-8 sophomore, had heard about Utah from Möttölä, but he knew the Utes were really interested in him when he got a message from Hill on WhatsApp during the U18 European Championships. Later, he was in China with the Finnish Senior National Team when he got a phone call from Krystkowiak.

Utah Utes forward Mikael Jantunen (20) is introduced in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Having studied English since the third grade, conversing with the coach was no problem. Jantunen had to make the decision that many young European stars have to make — turn pro with the training academy he grew up playing for, and operated by a pro team, or head over to the United States and refine his skills on an American college team.

Obviously, he chose the latter, partly because education is a family priority.

Utah’s foreign-born men’s basketball players

• Alfonso Plummer — Fajardo, Puerto Rico

• Mikael Jantunen — Helsinki, Finland

• Jordan Kellier — Portmore, Jamaica

• Lahat Thioune — Dakar, Senegal

• Pelle Larsson — Nacka, Sweden

• Ian Martinez — Heredia, Costa Rica

Joining in 2021-22

• Norbert Thelissen — ’s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

• Lazar Stefanovic — Belgrade, Serbia

“To showcase your skills from Europe to college coaches is another challenge, but it is getting more (available),” Jantunen said. “More people are getting seen in Europe now than what it was five years ago. I think more and more people are looking to the college route as an option after high school back home, too.”

Jantunen had interest from Minnesota, Georgia and Loyola Marymount, but chose Utah because he liked the people and it reminded him of Finland “nature-wise, the outdoors and the snow in the winter.”

“Once Utah offered, it was a pretty easy choice then,” he said, noting that Utah’s reputation for handling international players well “was a big thing and affected my decision.”

Jantunen said his biggest concern wasn’t adjusting to the style of basketball played in the U.S. Rather, it was “studying in a different language” that worried him. But with help from Utah’s academic advisors and others, “it has been an easy transition,” he said.

Sweet transition from Sweden

Although he is a true freshman and still acclimating to life in the United States, Larsson’s path to Utah is similar to Jantunen’s. The native of Nacka, Sweden, has been speaking English since he was 9 or 10, having learned the language in school “and from playing a lot of video games at a young age,” he said.

Larsson, a 6-5 combo guard, played competitively in Sweden for two years before arriving in Utah in September. The four-star recruit (247sports.com) averaged 15.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in eight games with the Swedish U18 team at the FIBA European Championships in Romania last summer.

Larsson’s brother, Vilgot, made the transition to America a couple years ago and is a senior on Maine’s basketball team.

“I had some experience with the professional teams, practices and tryouts, and I just decided that I needed to keep going to school and get an education,” Pelle Larsson said of his decision to put pro ball off a few more years. “I didn’t feel like I was really ready for the pro life. I felt like I still had to get some more education and get ready for life after basketball as well.”

Utah Utes guard Pelle Larsson (3) goes to the hoop ahead of Idaho State Bengals guard Austin Smellie (5) in a nonconference basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

When it became time to choose a school, Larsson visited UC Santa Barbara, San Francisco and Utah before committing to the Utes in November 2019 and signing a few weeks later.

“Utah had what I wanted — a good education, opportunity for playing time, team that wins a lot of games and helps guys get to the higher levels of basketball,” he said.

On the court, Larsson said spacing is the biggest difference between European and U.S. basketball.

“It seems like the college floor is just crowded,” he said.

Off the court, the biggest adjustment was the food.

“I gained a couple pounds the first couple of months and had to start thinking about what I eat and stuff and not gain too much weight,” he said. “It is a lot of takeout and fast food here and high-fat foods. And I think I was more used to cooking my own food, and now we get more food with the team and when we are traveling it is harder to get good food and stuff, so yeah, it is not as healthy, over here.”

Jumping through hoops

Recruiting internationally is both expensive and complicated, Krystkowiak acknowledges.

“A lot of times these young men are playing with professional teams, but you have to prove that they have maintained their amateurism, which is not always easy,” he said. “So throughout that whole process they can’t take any payments and be a pro.”

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Getting the proper transcripts to qualify academically is another barrier. Then recruits must pass a language aptitude test known as TOEFL.

Passports and visas are often required, further delaying the process. Krystkowiak says it is worth it in the competitive world of college basketball, where one or two players often make the difference between an outstanding season and a mediocre one.

“It is a little bit more advanced work, and investment, but we are proud to do it,” he said. “Our assistants really do a good job, which has led to some close relationships and our program landing some of these top international kids.”

Besides, having eight different languages spoken in the locker room is always fun.

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