Nick Emery, Eric Mika approach missionary age rule change differently

By Brady McCombs

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 27 2013 2:50 p.m. MDT

ALPINE, Utah — Nick Emery — a three-time Utah state champion and two-time state high school player of the year — was courted by college basketball super-powers UCLA, Kansas and North Carolina.

But the 6-foot-2-inch point guard spurned them all, and won't be playing basketball anytime soon. Emery is just weeks away from starting a two-year Mormon mission to Germany.

The Brigham Young University-bound Emery is not the first elite Mormon athlete to put his career on hold for a mission, but he is among the very first who will leave right after high school at 18 under new rules announced last fall by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

By lowering the minimum missionary age for men to 18, from 19, Emery and other Mormon college athletes can navigate around the cumbersome path generations of Mormon athletes who came before them had to maneuver. The age for women was dropped to 19, from 21.

Until now, Mormon athletes had to play or redshirt for one year after high school until they turned 19. After a two-year hiatus, they come back to complete their careers. By being able to go on a mission first, Emery said he will start his BYU career more mature and with better leadership skills.

"Two years is a long time to mature and really figure out who I am," said the 18-year-old Emery. "This is a big bonus. You can go straight out and get those two years done and then you have four straight years in college."

The change in the minimum age, the first since 1960, already has sent ripples across Mormon culture, affecting college enrollments, and likely how young people date, marry and start families. The effects are most evident in Utah, where 1.9 million Mormons live and the home of the church's worldwide headquarters.

It completely alters the landscape for Mormon college athletes, giving them another option as they consider their own physical and mental maturity and try to optimize playing time.

Five months after the surprise announcement from LDS officials, BYU basketball coach Dave Rose said it appears that most basketball players will go straight on a mission out of high school. The change will lead to some extra juggling of the roster at BYU in the coming years, but should reap long-term benefits for the Mormon-owned university in Provo, Utah.

"The continuity of them coming in and being here for four or five consecutive years will hopefully help us manage our roster a lot better," said Rose, BYU head coach since 2005.

Though the church lowered the minimum age, LDS church leaders emphasized that each person should carefully assess his or her situation. That's what BYU-bound Eric Mika did before he ultimately opted to stick to his original plan and play a year before going on mission at 19.

Rose said Mika made a good decision. Not only will he have a chance to play right away with several BYU big men graduating, but he will benefit from another year of competition after sitting out his junior season due to having transferred high schools.

For Emery, though, going early was an easy decision and one that Rose said will benefit him.

BYU already has several talented guards on next year's team, meaning playing time would have been difficult. After the announcement, Emery quickly set into motion a plan to graduate early. He'll enter the Missionary Training Center on May 1, and head off to serve in Frankfurt, Germany, about six weeks later. That puts him back home in May of 2015 — six months before the start of basketball season.

Under the old rules, the only athletes able to go on a mission straight out of high school were those who were already 19, meaning they almost always had August or September birthdays. That brought them back from their missions in the fall and made it difficult to get in basketball shape for the next season.