Both literally and figuratively, BYU forward Gideon George has come a long way.
The 6-foot-6 junior grew up in Minna, Nigeria, a remote, poverty-stricken village more than 11,000 miles away from Provo.
George was a soccer player until he discovered basketball several years ago. But look where he is now.
In his first BYU start last Thursday, a 105-60 win at Portland, he scored a career-high 19 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in 21 minutes. He outrebounded the Pilots 13-12 by himself.
George is an integral part of a Cougar team looking to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.
“I was super excited about Gideon’s performance. The fact that he played 20 minutes and had zero turnovers was significant for him,” said coach Mark Pope. “He was able to make the simple play a lot. He gives us length, he gives us athleticism, he gives us a huge presence on the glass.”
BYU is counting on George’s contributions when it hosts No. 1 Gonzaga Monday (9 p.m. MST, ESPN).
After playing the last two seasons at New Mexico Junior College, George arrived at BYU last summer and he has been gradually improving.
Senior guard Alex Barcello has witnessed George’s development.
“He’s extremely talented. He’s very gifted. His hard work has played a huge factor into him progressing throughout this season. His IQ has grown so much just because he’s always working and always asking the coaches if he can watch film,” he said. “He asks the guys what he can do to get better on the floor. The way he communicates, and he’s been working on his communication on the defensive end, has been phenomenal. It’s been fun to watch. I think the sky’s the limit for him. The growth that he’s had in such a short amount of time has been phenomenal, and I think it’s only going to continue to grow.”
CBS Sports analyst Jon Rothstein tweeted after the Portland game, “Gideon George. Buy Stock now.”
Gideon George. Buy Stock Now.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) February 5, 2021
As a youth in Nigeria, George would watch college and NBA games at odd hours — and he loved what he saw.
“Back home, because of the time difference, it’s like eight hours. Anytime they have a 5 p.m. game, it’s like 2 a.m. in Nigeria. I’d be watching NCAA and NBA games,” George said. “I would force my dad to subscribe to TV for us to watch games. I’d be up super early in the morning watching games.”
Right now, George is living his dream of being a basketball player in the United States.
“Playing and having my friends watching at home is a blessing. The journey was hard,” he said. “I’m privileged to be at BYU. I’m loving it. I’m blessed to be here.”
George was introduced to the game when his mother sent him to find his brother, Samson, who was playing basketball at a local gym. Soon, George started playing.
Later, when he learned there would be a basketball clinic held by coaches from the United States, he and others traveled eight hours by bus.
They arrived and slept outside of the basketball camp and were chased by security guards. Brandon Goble of JUCO Advocate saw George’s potential, though George hadn’t eaten for a couple of days. That led him to getting a scholarship at New Mexico JC.
Samson George ended up playing basketball at Pittsburgh from 2017-20.
At BYU, Gideon George has endeared himself to his teammates.
“First and foremost, he has the biggest heart of probably anyone I’ve met. He cares about everyone that he’s around. He’s caring, joyful. I don’t think he’s ever had a bad day,” Barcello said. “He’s always smiling and laughing. No matter what the challenge may be or whatever situation he’s put it, he finds the joy in it. I love to call him my teammate, but I also love to call him my friend. He’s a guy that I can count on, and I want him to feel that same way about me. He’s just a great person to be around. He’s a high character guy.”
Pope said George has other talents off the court.
“He’s a big-time chef. You would pay him to come to your kitchen and cook. It’s unbelievable,” he said. “His curry sauce, I could bottle it up and sell it and make a lot of money.”
George said his mom taught him and his brother how to cook.
“It’s really hard for me to get African food out here,” he said. “I just go to whatever I can get from Walmart and make myself food.”
During the season, George has cooked up strong performances, such as his 13-point, 15-rebound game in a win over St. John’s back in early December.
In that game, he took a hard fall and he’s had his wrist taped up ever since.
“I’ve been playing through it,” George said.
His lockdown defense against Saint Mary’s guard Tommy Kuhse changed the complexion of that game as BYU rallied to beat the Gaels on the road for the first time in seven years.
Thursday’s career-best performance against Portland was spurred in part by frustration of having last Tuesday’s game at San Diego canceled.
Instead of playing, the Cougars staged a spirited practice, including a 10-minute scrimmage at the end.
“Gideon was unstoppable in that practice,” Barcello said. “He was scoring at will, grabbing rebounds, making assists and getting steals. Kind of like what he did against Portland. It was so fun because there are games where he played a lot of minutes and played well, and there’s been games where he hasn’t played a lot of minutes. For him to keep the mindset he does day-in, day-out, attacking every day for what it is, bringing his all to the table, giving 100% effort and being the best teammate that he can on any given day, I think that’s why he’s continuing to have success and why he had such a great game against Portland. It’s the attitude he has and the way he attacks every day. It definitely was fun to see him kick our butts in practice, but it was an even better feeling to see him kick Portland’s butt in the game.”
During that practice, George told his teammates, “Yeah, you can’t guard me,” he recalled. “That was the mindset I brought to the game.”
The Cougars are hoping that George brings that mindset the rest of the season. It’s a long way from Nigeria to Provo. He’s not about to stop now.