PROVO — At his press conference, Yoeli Childs sounded like he’d been injected with truth serum when asked how much he’d talked with Mark Pope in recent weeks as the new BYU coach tried to convince him to return for his senior season.
“Too many conversations with Mark Pope, too many,” a smiling Childs said, drawing laughter at the press gathering last week.
Considering Childs withdrew his name from consideration for the 2019 NBA draft, turned down big bucks to play overseas, and committed to play one final year for the Cougars, Pope would tell you they had just the right number of chats.
Whatever it takes, right?
“He’s been incredibly generous with his time, and we’ve gobbled up every ounce of it the last couple of weeks,” Pope said. “We’ve got to know each other really, really well. More important, he’s got to know himself and what he really cares about.”
While explaining the reasons why he changed his mind and decided to come back for one more go at BYU, Childs made it clear that he cares about playing with his teammates again, that he wants to help create a magical, Jimmermania-like season for the Cougar community, and that he is committed to transform into an elite, versatile defender.
The 21-year-old also cares about his new coach. It was evident from last Thursday’s media session at the Cougar Student Athlete Center that Childs and Pope have quickly bonded. Childs expressed gratitude for his old coach, Dave Rose, but he’s already quite fond of his new coach.
Judging by those who’ve followed Pope, the former Kentucky player has a knack for creating strong relationships and loyalty. Assistants Chris Burgess and Cody Fueger followed him across town. Utah Valley star Jake Toolson is coming back to BYU as a grad transfer, while Wolverines Wyatt Lowell, the WAC Freshman of the Year, and Richard Harward, and UVU recruit Trey Stewart (American Fork) are BYU-bound with Pope, too.
“BYU is very lucky to have coach Pope,” Childs said. “The way he recruited me and the conversations we had and the vision he has for this place is special. I think recruits coming up are going to see that, and I think it’s going to be really big for BYU.”
Childs became more confident in this new staff’s ability to help take his game to the next level after talking to former players, including Mr. Triple Double.
“Someone I talked to a lot was Kyle Collinsworth and his experience, especially with some of the guys on this coaching staff and what they did for his game and the work they put in with him,” Childs said. “He’s also very optimistic about the future here at BYU. We just had a lot of really good conversations about these guys.”
The first-team All-WCC player said he was impressed by the tenacity and work ethic of Pope and his staff.
“They’re a coaching staff that’s going to be in the gym all day long,” he said. "I’ll go into the gym and shoot at 11 at night and they’re up there (in their offices). I don’t know what they’re doing up there at 11, but they’re up there working.
“They’re a coaching staff that’s going to give it their all and is going to work extremely hard. The vision that they have is special. I think that they bring a belief. They bring a belief that the impossible can happen and that something special can happen. I’m bought in to that. I’m 100 percent in that something special is going to happen this year and we’re going to make it happen.”
Childs has bought into Pope & Co.’s ability to help him hone his game so he can have even more opportunities than he currently has next year at this time, and perhaps even in the NBA.
The senior-to-be’s biggest individual goal is get his defensive game on the same level as his offensive game, which is what NBA scouts and front offices have said they’d like to see.
“I think I’m very capable of being a versatile defender. I think it’s going to be about habits and reps and putting in that effort every single day in practice and challenging myself and having this coaching staff challenge me to be the best defender on every single possession,” he said. “I think over the course of the next couple of months we’ll get to the point where I am an elite defender.”
He’s talking WCC Defensive Player of the Year elite.
Pope joked that he had basically stalked Childs for the two weeks leading up to his last-minute decision to pull out of the NBA draft pool before it was too late to come back to college.
And the former Utah Valley University coach, who played at Kentucky and Washington and in the NBA, loved what he saw. Sure, Pope knows that Childs was good. Last year, for instance, the 6-foot-8, 225-pound power forward scored 21.2 points with 9.7 boards and one block per game. In an 85-75 win over UVU at the Marriott Center, Childs amassed 20 points and 15 rebounds against Pope's Wolverines.
That's impressive, for sure. But you see a different side of a guy when you get to personally work with him.
“Getting to get my hands on him on the court, that got me. It just blew my mind and got me so excited,” Pope said. “He showed me things on the court in the last week that I haven’t seen.
“I haven’t had the time to follow BYU really, really closely, but I had seen some from him. He’s got a bunch of parts of his game that are just at his fingertips, they’re not out of reach. I think he has a real commitment to developing right now and we’re all excited to see what he can do.”
Pope tossed out a self-deprecating joke when asked about helping Childs follow his footsteps into the NBA, but, jokes aside, he does see a lot of potential in the former Bingham High star.
“I could help with being the worst player in the NBA. I don’t think that’s what he’s trying to do,” Pope joked, taking a shot at his own career, which included stints with Indiana, Milwaukee, New York and Denver. “I think he’s trying to be better than that. He has a skill set that’s really unique. He’s got a chance to really expand.”43 comments on this story
That will benefit Childs and BYU, which suddenly has a strong-looking squad with TJ Haws and Childs returning and Jake Toolson following Pope over from Orem.
“How often do you have guys committed as he is sit there and say, ‘I want to be the defensive player of the year’ and understand that that’s really going to change the trajectory of his career and that’s also going to be a foundation of what this team does,” Pope added. “When you get those two things in harmony, it’s really special. It’s really unique and special.”
Unique and special could also describe the beginning of this player-coach relationship.