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BYU Basketball Mailbag: Recruiting, Spencer Johnson Status, Expectations, and More

NCAA Basketball: Brigham Young at San Diego State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

As we turn the calendar into December, BYU is 5-3 on the year with some growing pains as they break in a new roster. This team has been tough to watch at times with the turnover issues and shooting lulls, but exciting to see the young pieces grow and cultimate in moments such as the 23-point comeback win over Dayton.

Below I answer some of the questions you asked me — thanks as always for the support!

How long is Spencer Johnson out for and who can step up defensively to fill in for his absence?

Spencer hurt his knee on Thanksgiving late in BYU’s loss to Butler. Pope has remained coy on Spencer’s status, saying “(Spencer) is convinced he’s coming back Saturday” and it will be a “day-by-day kind of thing”.

Pope told Greg Wrubell that the injury will take “a little bit of time” to heal but that it will not require surgery.

Here’s what I do know: Spencer had an MRI on his knee Monday after coming back from The Bahamas. Two sources told me that he is expected to miss an extended amount of time, with one source close to the situation saying he’s likely to be out 4-6 weeks. At this time I don’t know exactly what his knee injury is. BYU’s WCC opener is December 29, exactly 5 weeks after Spencer hurt his knee, so he could feasibly be back in time for WCC play.

BYU’s two biggest remaining non-conference games are December 10 versus Creighton and December 17 versus Utah, so I expect Spencer to miss both of those.

Losing Spencer is no doubt a blow to this BYU team — he is one of the most tenured players on the roster and is third on the team in scoring with 11 ppg and one of the best defenders. However, BYU is 2-0 in his absence, including a 23-point comeback against a Dayton team that was in the preseason top 25. One silver lining is that young guys such as Dallin Hall, Richie Saunders, and Trey Stewart will get additional minutes. All three provide unique skill sets, and I’ve been particularly impressed with Hall and Richie Saunders in the first 8 games right off their missions. Tanner Toolson got his first run of the season versus Westminster and responded with 3 threes. He had an ankle issue coming home from his mission that slowed him down, but I would expect him to get minutes with Spencer out now that Tanner is healthy.

Creighton is ranked #7 in the country and is likely a loss no matter who is playing, but if BYU can beat Utah at home and hold serve against the rest of a December schedule that is very friendly then they will be in a good position once WCC play starts. Those are manageable tasks, even without Spencer.

Atiki and Fouss are great, but clearly size (not length) is an issue for this team. Who are some targets that BYU is in the mix for that will help that?

BYU’s size down low was a concern coming into the season, but it fortunately hasn’t been an issue yet. San Diego State’s JaeDon LeDee bullied BYU inside for 23 points, but outside of that BYU has been more than capable down low.

One of BYU’s strengths through 8 games is rebounding — according to KenPom, BYU is 33rd nationally in offensive rebounding percentage and top 100 defensively out of 363 D1 teams. Fouss and Atiki are great rebounders at the five and Gideon George has been a very active offensive and defensive rebounder from his wing spot. An injury to Fouss or Atiki would certainly put BYU in a compromising position at the 5 spot, but if those two and Noah Waterman remain healthy then I don’t have too many concerns about how BYU can hold up down low in the WCC.

With that being sad, BYU absolutely needs more interior dudes for the Big 12. BYU was a one of three finalists along with Texas and Houston for 3-Star big man Cedric Lath, but Cedric ended signing with the #1 team in the country, Houston.

One guy BYU will for sure get next season is 6-foot-8 forward Jake Wahlin. A top 200 recruit in the 2021 class, Jake signed with BYU before he left on his mission to Lithuania in June 2021. He will be back next season and is an intriguing player with his ability to shoot and put the ball on the floor. Wahlin will need to put on some weight and isn’t a 5 man, but he can be a skilled 4 or wing who can stretch the floor. Yoeli Childs gave Wahlin his stamp of approval.

BYU may elect to sign a HS or JUCO transfer during the April signing period, but I think it’s more likely they hit the transfer portal. This will be the first year BYU can really use the Big 12 as a recruiting tool, so they will have more interest from high level players than in years past.

How many guys BYU adds depends on the scholarship situation — Rudi Williams and Gideon George are the only two graduating seniors and Jake Wahlin comes in, so as of now that leaves you with one vacant scholarship. Transfers out of the program will inevitably happen, but the number outgoing will dictate how many guys BYU can bring in. Fouss, Atiki, Waterman, Wahlin, and a transfer big is at least a start to build on going into the 2023-2024 season.

The 2024 class is still two classes away, but there are some high level forwards BYU is after there. Malick Diallo is a 6-foot-10 big man that preps at Wasatch Academy. He is a 4-Star recruit and top 100 player in the 2024 class. BYU was the first school to offer him and has been on him for several years now. Mark Pope even went to Madagascar to watch him play this offseason. A Mali native, Diallo is good friends with Fouss and has attended several BYU football and basketball games. Several high-level schools are after him, but BYU is right towards the top of the list.

Two other 4-Star recruits in the 2024 class BYU is heavily after include 4-Star Idaho forward Isaac Davis and 4-Star forward Brody Kozlowski. Brody’s dad Travis played football at BYU and his mom Kristen played volleyball, basketball, and is currently a BYUtv analyst.

So while the 2023 class may not have many high school guys BYU signs, the 2024 class is one where BYU has a good chance to bring in some high level guys.

Where do you feel like this team is currently underperforming and where are they currently over performing?

Expectations were tempered for BYU coming into the year, and although BYU hasn’t been bad to start the year, they are performing about how many expected. Turnovers are the main thing that jumps out. BYU is 323 nationally in turnover percentage, with 23% of their possessions ending in a turnover. For context, BYU was 175th nationally the past two seasons with the turnover percentage 18.4% last year and 19% the year prior. In Mark Pope’s first season, BYU was 16th nationally with a 15.5% turnover percentage. Combine that with the best three-point shooting team in the country, and who knows what BYU could have done in the NCAA tournament. But I digress...

One positive sign is that BYU’s turnovers have decreased in four consecutive games. Rudi Williams’ assist numbers are increasing while his turnovers have decreased. BYU is breaking in a new team and new offensive philosophy, so the hope is that BYU weathers the early-season bumps and gets more comfortable as the season progresses.

Three-point shooting is another area that has underperformed, but has shown positive signs in recent weeks. Transfer Jaxson Robinson was just 4-23 from three in his first four games, but is 14-26 (54%) in his last four. Dallin Hall has hit five threes the last two games after not making one the first six games, and Noah Waterman is 54% on the year while Richie Saunders is 42% through 8 games.

This BYU team was built to hit the three ball, so if they can continue what they’ve done since The Bahamas in terms of shooting and start to limit the turnovers, then this will be a good offensive team.

I mentioned it earlier, but the one area BYU has performed really well is rebounding. Despite turning the ball over and having horrid stretches of outside shooting, BYU has been in every game because of their ability to create second-chance points.

Which of the freshman on the roster are you most excited about for the future?

I was really high on Richie Saunders and Dallin Hall coming into the season, and their performance through 8 games has only cemented that. Although Dallin has averaged just 5 points in 16 minutes per game, he has looked so comfortable and in control when he plays. His 5 assists versus Dayton were a catalyst for the big shots in that game, and he made the game winner versus Missouri State. I think he has already shown Mark Pope that he can be BYU’s point guard heading into the Big 12, which was my main question for him coming into the season.

Richie Saunders is giving BYU a Zac Seljaas-like impact with his outside shooting and sheer hustle. He was known for being a knockdown shooter in high school, and he is shown that with his 8-19 start. More importantly, his tenacity on the defensive end and on the glass is where he really shines. He’s already turned into BYU’s “glue” guy, and in the next season or two he will be one of BYU’s go-to offensive players.

With the focus on the transfer portal, Pope’s teams feel like they’ve never had continuity. That has bled over into our defensive identity and other aspects of the team at times. Will things ever change or is this who we are? What can be done to fix these glaring issues?

Welcome to college basketball in 2022. Although BYU has lost and brought in transfers, Pope hasn’t totally built his team through the portal. He has brought in an average of around 3 per year, and hit on some good ones like Jake Toolson, Alex Barcello, and Matt Haarms. It hasn’t been perfect either — the one that sticks out to me most is essentially trading Connor Harding for Seneca Knight. With hindsight, I wish BYU would have hung on to Connor.

Pope (and virtually every other of the 362 D1 coaches) will always bring in transfers, but he especially has had to rely on them his first few years at BYU. Pope inherited a team that had missed the NCAA Tournament 4 consecutive seasons. The prior staff had signed a recruiting class with fringe D1 players, including big man Shengzhe Li, who Pope decided not to bring in and ended up as a team manager at Oregon State.

Yoeli Childs was out the door, but Pope convinced him to stay and and brought in WAC player of the year Jake Toolson and Alex Barcello from the portal. The following year, the team was assembled of almost entirely Pope guys and got a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Last year was disappointing, and Pope decided he needed to retool the roster before BYU heads to the Big 12.

Now year 4 into his job, Pope is FINALLY starting to get the HS guys he recruited to BYU. Fouss and Atiki were great finds by the staff and are in year two, and Dallin Hall, Richie Saunders, and Tanner Toolson have all contributed right off their missions. Jake Wahlin will be back next season, and Collin Chandler is the highest recruit BYU has ever signed in the recruiting rankings era.

The key is now to get old together and add in just a couple pieces from the portal that enhance the team, not blow it up. Pope has had to gut things, but he now had a young core that I think he can build upon going into the Big 12. So while the roster construction hasn’t been ideal and Pope has had some personnel misses, you can see the vision. BYU has young guys such as Fouss, Atiki, Hall, Saunders, Waterman, Robinson, Stewart, Toolson to go along with Wahlin and Chandler that can grow old together and compete when they are upper classmen together in the Big 12. The last few classes haven’t produced quite as many high-level LDS kids as years past, but future years such as 2024 give you some prospects that you can bring in to go with this group when they are veterans and replace them.

While I would love for this year’s team to make the NCAA Tournament, I think the real value will be this young core of guys meshing together and setting themselves up for the transition into the Big 12.