PROVO, Utah — BYU guard Nick Emery seemed to have a different tone on the eve of the 2017-18 basketball season. The young, brash and sometimes defiant personality looks to have mellowed some as he begins his junior year.
The Cougars will need the best of Emery, TJ Haws and a perimeter-heavy roster to end a two-year break from the NCAA Tournament.
The topic of Emery had an odd feel at BYU’s media day on Thursday. Coach Dave Rose said he wanted the 6-foot-2, 185-pound playmaker to be more confident, though he never seemed to lack any. Emery, himself, said he wants to be more competitive, but his highly-competitive nature is what got him in some trouble in the past.
The combination of those two traits led to Emery serving a one-game suspension for throwing a punch at a Utah player during a game as a freshman and being caught on camera swearing and taunting opposing fans before the West Coast Conference tournament semifinal in March.
Channeling that confidence and competitiveness may be the more appropriate term.
“It’s a lot different than my first two years, for sure,” Emery said. “Last year was a little bit of a rough year for me. To kind of move forward and move on and focus on basketball only is going to be a lot different change for me.
“I’m just looking forward to being me again and playing with that competitive edge. … I haven’t been there fully mentally. … You’ll see a lot different me this year.”
Emery will begin the season as a 23-year-old and acknowledged that he’s grown up and learned from those incidents and the “process of life.” Emery will be the centerpiece of the BYU roster, once again, and will be paired with longtime friend Haws in the backcourt.
The two four-star recruits were together on the 2012-13 Lone Peak High School national championship team and there have been high expectations since they signed with BYU. Center Eric Mika was also part of that Lone Peak team and led BYU in scoring in 2016-17, but he opted to turn pro in the summer and is now playing in Italy.
The Cougars will be much more perimeter oriented and that begins with the duo. The 6-4, 170-pound Haws was named All-West Coast Conference first team as a freshman after averaging 13.8 points and knocking down a team-high 76 3-pointers, the second most all-time by a BYU freshman. And that was his first season after returning from a two-year Mormon Mission.
“What he did last year was tremendous,” Rose said. “The most important part is to build on that. It’s a learning process for him just developing his game and being able to feel more comfortable out there.
“He’s always going to have a frail, slight-type of body, but he’s been able to learn how he can play with that and be really effective at this level.”
Haws said he wants to shoot a better percentage and has worked on his ball-handling. He shot 42.4 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from behind the arc last season.
Emery’s eying those two areas as well, in addition to his defense, overall court awareness and playing in pick-and-roll. His points average dropped from 16.3 as a freshman to 13.1 last season. The field goal and 3-point percentages also took a dip.
“I just feel like overall my game is complete,” Emery said. “I’ve always lacked certain things, but this year I’m finally dialing in on the things I wasn’t good at and now it’s showing. … And play for (my teammates).”
Guard Elijah Bryant (11.7 points per game) and forward Yoeli Childs (9.3) are the other two significant contributors returning from the team that lost in the first round of the NIT in March. BYU also gets back four players that played at least one year before going on Mormon missions, including 2015-16 sixth man Zac Seljaas.
Rose wants to be able to spread the floor and run better halfcourt offense this season with so many guards and wings. He expects to play a position-less type of ball with those perimeter players being able read defenses and make decisions off of those.
The bottom line, however, is getting back to the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars have never had a three-year drought during Rose’s first 12 years.
“This team has a chip on its shoulder,” Haws said. “There’s a different mentality with this team. I’ve seen it in practice, off the floor.
“We have something to prove. … A lot of us have a sour taste in our mouth from last year.”