Not long after BYU’s win over San Francisco last week, Caleb Lohner strode into a room at the Marriott Center for his postgame interview, munching on a cookie and talking about how delicious it tasted.
“There’s some (cookies) in the locker room, if you want some,” Lohner said to the gaggle of reporters watching remotely via Zoom. “I think I’m the only one that eats them because everyone else is worried about their body. I don’t know what that means.”
That moment captured a glimpse of Lohner’s easygoing demeanor and dry wit. The athletic, 6-foot-9, 230-pound freshman from Dallas possesses a laid-back, Matthew McConaughey vibe.
On the court, though, he’s a relentless rebounder, leading the team with 6.8 boards per game. And while he missed his first 13 3-pointers of his college career, that didn’t seem to bother him at all. He just kept shooting them. He’s made 11 of his last 16.
“I started out shooting the ball differently than I am now but the process and the preparation has been the same,” Lohner said. “I kind of knew this would happen. There was a time when it was hard not to see shots fall. But now they’re falling, and I’m excited.”
All right all right all right.
When asked to describe what it was like to watch senior Alex Barcello drill a school record 7 of 7 3-pointers and score a career-high 29 points against San Francisco, Lohner replied, “Alex is gnarly, dude.”
Lohner has been pretty gnarly himself.
This week, Lohner earned a spot in the All-West Coast Conference Freshman Team and if it weren’t for Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, a projected lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft, Lohner probably would have been the league’s Newcomer of the Year.
As the No. 2-seed Cougars (19-5) prepare for next Monday’s WCC Tournament semifinals at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Lohner ranks in the top five all time at BYU in freshman rebounding per game (6.8), behind Mark Handy (8.7), Yoeli Childs (8.2), Shawn Bradley (7.7) and Trent Plaisted (6.9).
And Lohner keeps improving.
“He’s been a consistent contributor every single game, just getting better and better and better,” said coach Mark Pope. “But he’s doing it because he’s worried about the right things. I’m so impressed with this young man. I’m telling you, he’s going to be a star. If he can keep worrying about the right things, his trajectory is crazy. It’s awesome.”
Early in the season, Lohner was inserted into the starting lineup but he returned to a bench role from mid-December until early February.
Since then, as a starter during the last six games, Lohner has knocked down 25 of 39 shots (64%). During that stretch, he scored 19 points and pulled down nine rebounds at Pacific; had 18 points and seven boards at Loyola Marymount; and recorded a 13-point, nine-rebound performance against San Francisco.
“Ten games ago, he was catching the ball and looking around like a deer in the headlights,” Pope said. “Things were happening so fast. He’s making smart, consistent, reproducible plays right now.”
Lohner has taken his progression in stride.
“Some of the best learning I’ve done all year is on the court. That kind of started in the first few games. Every game, there are more and more experience points that you get,” he said. “Now I feel like I’m really comfortable with the role I play on this team. I’m having so much fun. Every game it’s getting better and better. I’m so stoked to be part of this thing.”
“Some of the best learning I’ve done all year is on the court. That kind of started in the first few games. Every game, there are more and more experience points that you get. Now I feel like I’m really comfortable with the role I play on this team. — Caleb Lohner
“Caleb’s easily been one of the best freshmen in the country this year. He’s just been so impactful, especially now that he’s in the starting lineup,” said senior Matt Haarms. “He’s such an amazing rebounder and such an amazing player already. Putting him in the starting lineup was so natural. We need him playing those minutes and he’s perfectly capable of doing it. We’re going to need that from him. Those guys have been critical to our success.”
When asked what’s impressed him about Lohner this season, Barcello didn’t hesitate.
“How hard he works. He doesn’t get too caught up in his mistakes. He always has the mindset of, ‘Hey, I made a mistake but it’s on to the next play. I’m going to try to do it better.’ He doesn’t worry about making mistakes,” he said. “At the beginning of the season, as every freshman that comes in, the game is really kind of sped up for them, that transition from a senior in high school to a freshman in college. But as the season’s progressed, he’s done such an amazing job. You can really tell that the game’s slowed down for him. I really believe it’s how hard he works and the mindset that he has.”
When he’s not playing basketball, Lohner is a thrill-seeker, spending time with outdoor activities such as riding dirt bikes. He likes to work hard and he likes to play hard.
“He’s like a surfer dude,” Pope has said, “but he’s the hardest worker and the most diligent guy I’ve had in the gym.”
The way things are going, Lohner is the future of the BYU basketball program. If Haarms, Barcello and Averette decide not to return for another year under the NCAA’s ruling to pause eligibility for athletes this season, there will be a big void, one that Lohner appears ready to fill. He possesses intangible qualities.
Against San Francisco, Lohner had a highlight-worthy, monster two-handed dunk in transition. But to Pope, that wasn’t his most impressive play that night. It was when Lohner grabbed an offensive rebound between four USF players, pivoted a couple of times, and found an open Barcello, who sank a 3.
“I know that was a raise-the-roof dunk,” Pope said, “but the rebound he made was way more impactful on the game. It was just a ridiculously athletic play. That dunk wasn’t the most important thing for him.”
To Pope, Lohner is “a freshman that worries about the right things,” not about his stats. For Lohner, it’s all about offensive rebounding and his defensive role. Lohner’s teammates enjoy seeing how difficult it is for opposing teams to block him out when a shot goes up.
“It’s incredible for a freshman to come in every single day and say, ‘Let me figure out how to be a force on the glass and how I can lock down on my defensive assignment,’” Pope said. “When you build your game that way like he’s doing, which very few players are smart enough or willing to do, you have a chance to grow into something really incredible. He continues to amaze.”
Lohner doesn’t like to talk about himself and his accomplishments — he prefers talking about his team.
“It’s a huge team effort. It isn’t an individual effort. It’s this big family that we have and it’s so great. You can see it on the court. It’s fun,” he said. “I’m just here to win games and help the team however I can. I’ve been in a special situation right now to help these three seniors accomplish their goals. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing and we’ll see how it pans out.”
For the guy that originally signed with arch-rival Utah before having a change of heart and signing with BYU last summer, it’s been quite a freshman year.
“It’s been awesome. I don’t think I could have asked for anything more,” Lohner said. “The learning, the playing with the seniors, the coaching staff pushing us and helping us and the physicality of practice, playing against each other, is helping us be a better basketball team … Playing college basketball has been super fun. I’m having the time of my life. I have no complaints.”
All right all right all right.