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BYU Basketball Season Preview: Guards

Let’s talk about the short(er) guys.

NCAA Basketball: Brigham Young at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Ladies and gentlemen, basketball season is upon us.

We’re a week away from the BYU Cougars taking the hardwood for the first time this season, when they’ll travel to Reno to take on the Nevada Wolf Pack next week.

All of which means this is as good a time as any to take a look at what the boys and blue will be offering on the guard line this year — including returning contributors, fresh faces and perhaps even an old friend returned to the fold.

Let’s go through them one by one.

TJ Haws

The youngest from the great and noble house of Haws is finally a junior, which means he’s now entering the prime of his collegiate career. And as such, the Cougars are going to need the so-called “Ginger Mamba” to produce consistently if they want to take the next step forward.

That’s well within the realm of possibility. No player stands to gain as much from assistant coach Heath Schroyer’s exit than Haws, who frequently looked out-of-place and unsure of himself in Schroyer’s offensive scheme last season, leading to uncharacteristically uneven results.

The reality is that, in order to thrive, Haws needs the ball in his hands, allowing him to create for both himself and for his teammates. When he has that freedom and control, he is often his best self on the court — and he has a knack for making his teammates better too.

If head coach Dave Rose can find more ways to put him in a position to succeed this year, he may unlock some of the best basketball of young TJ’s career at a time the Cougars desperately need it.

Jahshire Hardnett

Speaking of guys the Cougars really need to play well in order to succeed, let’s talk about the pride of Gulfport, Mississippi. Hardnett has skills that no other BYU player can offer in quite the same way. His quickness and ball-handling skills allow him to penetrate into the paint, either getting to the basket for his own offense or creating kick-out opportunities to shooters left open by the opposition’s collapsing defense. And that quickness also translates to the defensive side of the ball, where he’s one of the (distressingly few) defenders who can be relied upon to be able to stay in front of opposing point guards, preventing BYU from having to rotate to help and, thus, opening up even more weaknesses.

However, despite these obvious strengths, Jahshire had a somewhat up-and-down first campaign in Provo. His quickness was too often neutralized by opposing defenses’ lack of respect for his three-point shooting ability, as Hardnett connected on only 32 percent of his attempts. This shortcoming allowed defenders to sag off on the perimeter, making it easier for them to stay in front and cut off Jahshire’s drives before he reached his mark, even though he usually possessed an advantage in quickness.

If Hardnett is to truly live up to his potential — and the Cougars will certainly need him to play a significant role to reach their goals — he will need to knock down those perimeter shots at a higher clip this season, which should open up those driving lanes and unlock all the benefits that come with his aggressive attacks into the lane. There have been good signs so far in the exhibitions, where Hardnett has shot the ball confidently and looked more decisive in his play overall. BYU will need that performance to carry over to the real games when they travel to Reno next week.

Nick Emery

The prodigal son returns. A year after shocking BYU fans by abruptly withdrawing from school on the eve of the 2017-18 season, Nick Emery is poised to be back in Cougar blue — after a pretty significant delay. Thanks to a suspension handed down for violations of NCAA rules, Emery will sit out the team’s first nine contests, making him eligible to return against Utah State on December 5.

Thankfully (and perhaps by design?), the nonconference schedule is fairly backloaded, so Nick should be available for high-profile matchups with Utah, UNLV, San Diego State and Mississippi State — but it remains to be seen how quickly and seamlessly the squad will be able to reabsorb his presence on the fly.

When he’s locked in, Emery is a valuable asset that could help take this BYU team to another level. He’s a defensive demon who has consistently been one of the Cougars’ best (if not the best) perimeter defenders since the moment he set foot on the Marriott Center hardwood. And he’s a dangerous offensive player who opposing defenses have to account for at all times. Sure, his shot might be a bit streaky at times, but he’s already proven that he can pour 30 points on you with little notice — and when a player has that kind of explosive potential, you’re going to take him seriously.

But even though he has the potential to be a massive addition on both sides of the ball, it may be Emery’s intangibles that the team has missed the most in his absence. Nick’s as competitive a player as you’ll find, and the fire and edge with which he plays the game can be infectious — offering something that no other player on the roster can reliably duplicate. That little bit of attitude felt like it was missing from last year’s Cougar squad, and with Emery back in the fold, hopefully it can be rediscovered and properly harnessed for positive effect.

McKay Cannon

It would have been pretty hard for McKay Cannon to duplicate his introduction to the BYU faithful. After becoming eligible in a surprise decision in late November, the Weber State transfer was pressed into duty quickly, turning in impressive performances in big moments against in-state competitors Utah Valley and Utah State — including a 17-point performance in the latter contest. Everyone sat up and took notice.

It seemed unrealistic to expect Cannon to sustain that pace, and it was, with his effectiveness tailing off considerably over the course of the season. (He never reached double-figure scoring again.) Now on scholarship, McKay figures to provide some needed bench minutes on the guard line this season, particularly prior to Emery’s return.

While he won’t wow you with any one particular skill, Cannon remains a solid all-around player who can give your starters a couple minutes of breathing time. He may not take over the game or do much that’s spectacular, but he’ll be in the right spots and make the right plays. As the doctors say: “Do No Harm.”

He’ll need to do that quite a bit in November, with the Cougars down a guard. Though Haws, Hardnett and Emery figure to soak up the lion’s share of the minutes on the perimeter after that point, Cannon should factor prominently into whether BYU can get through the opening month of the season with minimal damage.

Connor Harding

And finally, a fresh face! Having recently returned from a two-year mission, Harding is looking to make an impact in his freshman season — and he should have ample opportunity.

Standing at 6-foot-6, Harding has good size for a guard and a history of playing effectively with the ball in his hands at the high school and AAU levels. Though he hasn’t put up gaudy numbers in exhibition play thus far, Connor just seems to always be doing good things on both ends of the floor. His size and athleticism allow him to be an effective rebounder (especially for his position) and capable defender, and he’s shown a willingness to confidently take and make threes, while also getting into the paint to create looks for himself (including at the free throw line) and others (he notched four assists in 19 minutes against Saint Martin’s).

Even though he’s playing just his first collegiate minutes and still has a lot to learn, Harding simply looks like he has a “feel” for the game. He looks comfortable, like he knows what he’s doing out there — even if he probably doesn’t right now. To be honest, the player that his game most strongly resembles is another big BYU guard who could do a bit of everything: Kyle Collinsworth. Take that with the appropriate helping of salt (he hasn’t played in a real game yet!), and by no means am I saying we have the second coming of the triple-double machine on ours hands here in Harding, but I’m also not saying we don’t have those things. Time will tell, but it should be fun to watch Connor develop as the season unfolds.