PROVO — The LDS Church's announcement 18 months ago that missionaries can serve at a younger age has caused BYU coaches to adjust accordingly.
In the Cougar basketball program, it has been common for athletes to play one year, then serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These days, however, an increasing number of players are leaving immediately on a mission, then returning with four consecutive years of eligibility.
For example, both Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth played as freshmen, then left for missionary service. Both players returned early in the spring, giving them enough time to prepare for the upcoming season.
But more BYU-bound players are finishing high school early, like the program's most recent returned missionary, guard Jordan Chatman. He graduated early from high school and left on his mission to Taiwan. He was on an accelerated academic program and earned his associate degree before leaving for missionary service. Chatman completed his mission at the end of March.
“That’s the part of this whole missionary thing that will be the most interesting to me,” said coach Dave Rose. “Most of the guys will leave before they enroll. Most of these kids will be going out in May, the first of June and coming back in May or June.”
Former Lone Peak guard Nick Emery left last May and is serving in Germany. Another Lone Peak star, TJ Haws, is leaving this month for France.
Chatman is the first of this wave of new players to serve missions before enrolling.
“I’m really looking forward to watching Jordan and seeing how he develops over the next four or five months and fits into the college environment that he hasn’t experienced yet,” Rose said. “This next two or three years it seems like a two-year adjustment (with returning missionaries), but it’s going to take a little bit longer than that to see how this really works.”
There are many different circumstances, of course. Former Cougar Noah Hartsock returned home from his mission in late August, then started school a week later. “That’s tough,” Rose said.
Forward Eric Mika, meanwhile, played one season before his mission, and incoming freshman Ryan Andrus plans to do the same.
Certainly, Mika enjoyed a successful season before his mission, averaging 12 points and 6.5 rebounds per game in 2013-14.
“He had a tremendous freshman year. The expectations were really high for Eric,” Rose said. “To be a starter at this level for a team that made it to the NCAA tournament, and have the numbers he had his energy and his competitive spirit night in and night out was a huge factor in our success. His game improved so much. He improved as a free-throw shooter. When he gets back off his mission, we’ll have ourselves a really special guy.”
Still, Rose said, “the majority of guys” in the program will probably leave for missions right after high school — like Chatman — and return in the spring or early summer to gear up for the upcoming season.
Is it more beneficial for the program if athletes play one year and serve a mission, or complete their missionary service first before enrolling?
“What I’m looking forward to is the continuity,” Rose said. “I’ve always felt like it’s good to come play a year then have two years off after you’ve played because you experienced it and you know what the grind is. Those guys that leave right out of high school won’t have that year to know what it’s like. But hopefully, the consistency of them playing four straight years will outweigh the fact that those two years is more anticipation than knowing what it’s like."
Rose is hoping that Haws and Collinsworth, and their experience with getting back into shape after a mission, will help Chatman prepare for his first year of college basketball.
“Jordan’s got some pretty good guys to follow in Tyler and Kyle,” Rose said. “Both of those guys played before they left, so they probably have a little bit of an advantage. But Jordan is a guy who we can see that same kind of dedication and determination as far as him getting his body ready to go in the fall. ... It’s so hard for these guys to get their bodies into the best shape of their lives going into their freshman year. Then it all goes for two years and they have to do it again. No disrespect to their conditioning in high school — I know how difficult that is, too — but this is another level. It will be nice to see these guys to get into that top-level conditioning shape, then continue it for four straight years.”
Chatman’s dad, Jeff, who played at BYU in the 1980s, said Jordan will follow the blueprint that Haws established after he returned home from a mission. Haws led the West Coast Conference in scoring as a sophomore, just months after coming home.
“Tyler’s going to help him a lot. The biggest thing is, (Jordan) doesn’t have to rush his way back. He has plenty of time to get back into basketball shape,” Jeff Chatman said. “The problem people have when they get back late, like in July or August, they feel like they have to rush back, and they push their bodies too far. That’s when they get injured. Tyler and Marty (Haws) are the ones that set the standard that everyone’s following now — get back early in the year, take two months off to not play or scrimmage with basketball, but work on conditioning, work on lifting, work on skills like shooting, dribbling and passing. But wait two months to play. After those two months, play just one or two games and work your way slowly back into playing. It worked well for Tyler.”
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