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BYU Basketball Player Profile: Kyle Collinsworth's overlooked greatness and uncertain future

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It may sound crazy, but Kyle Collinsworth was one of the best players in the country a year ago — making it all the more difficult to accept that he may never be that way again.

Ethan Miller

I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Lean in real close. This is just between us.

Kyle Collinsworth very well may be the best all-around player in the West Coast Conference. In fact, he may be one of the top players in the country.

Sound crazy? Don't haul me off in a white coat just yet. I promise there's a method to my madness.

With all due respect to Tyler Haws (and he deserves an incredible amount of respect because he is amazing), Collinsworth is the most essential player on this year's BYU team. He truly has the capacity to do pretty much anything you ask him to do on a basketball court — he attacks the rim ferociously; he cleans the glass like a professional window washer; he makes the right pass at the right time to the right person (and often sees it developing before it occurs); and he's turned himself into a surprisingly disruptive defender in key situations, even if his sustained focus could use some additional work. He's not perfect (yet) and there's definite areas for improvement, but there's no one on the roster who affects a game more positively in more ways than Kyle Collinsworth.

This is not to discredit or diminish Haws — his prolific scoring is absolutely crucial to the Cougars' success. Indeed, it's quite the opposite. Kyle's unique presence and impact actually helps Tyler do what he does best (score the basketball in bunches) even better. Think about it:

  • Would opponents even have to think twice about sending a second or third defender at Haws if they didn't have to consider the likelihood the ball would eventually find its way back to Collinsworth, who would proceed to slice and dice their now-compromised defensive shell just for laughs?
  • Without Kyle, would Tyler get so many pinpoint passes delivered directly into his hands at exactly the moment where he briefly comes free from double coverage after curling off a screen, as if they were mounted to a laser-guided missile?
  • Would Haws be on the receiving end of quite so many open transition layups if Collinsworth weren't around to pull down defensive rebounds and immediately start the fast break all by himself in one fluid motion?

For my money, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding NO. So my assessment of Collinsworth's importance is not so much a slight at Haws (who, again, is incredible in his own right) and more a reflection of how much value he adds to those around him — including and especially the soon-to-be top scorer in program history.

But this isn't just about Kyle Collinsworth's place within the context of the 2014-15 BYU basketball team. If you remember, I made some pretty bold, perhaps even seemingly crazy claims a couple paragraphs ago. I called him the best all-around player in the WCC. I even went so far as to say he was one of the top players in the country.

By now you're probably wondering if there's any substance to these claims, or if you're just enduring the crazed rantings of a delusional, blue-goggled BYU fanboy. And while you very well may be experiencing the latter, I can say with some degree of confidence that I have evidence to back up my audacious claims — evidence in the form of numbers and tables.

Player Season Class School PPG RPG APG
Jeryl Sasser 1999-2000 Junior SMU 17.3 8.3 4.6
Evan Turner 2009-2010 Junior Ohio State 20.4 9.2 6.0
Darrington Hobson 2009-2010 Junior New Mexico 15.9 9.3 4.6
Kyle Anderson 2013-2014 Sophomore UCLA 14.6 8.8 6.5
Kyle Collinsworth 2013-2014 Sophomore BYU 14.0 8.1 4.6
Source: Sports-Reference

So what does the table say? Without many BYU fans (or anyone, really) noticing it, Kyle Collinsworth put up an historic season in 2013-2014. Only five college basketball players since 2000 have matched or exceeded Collinsworth's level of production in the three major statistical categories in a single season — that is, tallied at least 14.0 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. Five guys. In almost 15 years. That's it — and those guys weren't exactly slouches either.

Let's review: Every single one of the non-Collinsworth players listed in the table above became NBA draft picks. Three of the four were first round selections, with Evan Turner even going No. 2 overall in the 2010 lottery. (The lone first round miss? Darington Hobson, who was selected early in the second round and remains one of the most complete college players I've ever watched in person.)

So it's safe to say Collinsworth is in good company here. This is a talented group. You don't just luck into a season like that. It's not a fluke. If it were, there'd be a lot more than five guys on the list. It's a rare achievement — something to be recognized and admired.

With that now in mind, consider this: Collinsworth posted his historic season as a sophomore. And not only was he a sophomore (as you can see, that's not wholly unprecedented by itself — UCLA's Kyle Anderson was able to join the list in his second year last season as well), but he was a sophomore who hadn't participated in any kind of significant basketball activity for two years, thanks to his LDS mission.

So what does it all mean? It means that Kyle Collinsworth came back from the frozen Russian tundra, picked up a basketball for the first time in two years, and still proceeded to perform at an historic level only matched by five other players (all of NBA-caliber talent) in the past decade and a half.

Take a moment to process that. Let it sink in. Allow it to marinate in your mind.

Yeah. I told you I wasn't crazy. He was that good.

All of which leads us to the most pressing concern that should be weighing on the minds of the Cougar faithful: It's entirely possible that Kyle Collinsworth may never be that good again.

Everyone remembers that Collinsworth's magical sophomore season ended in the most un-magical of ways: a grotesque-looking knee injury suffered against St. Mary's hobbled him at the end of the regular season and into the conference tournament, before eventually giving way in the WCC championship game against Gonzaga — tearing his ACL and ending his year before his brilliance could be seen on the big stage of March Madness.

Injuries are the worst. They're the worst not only because they take our athletes from us for the extended period of time required for the injury to heal (which is bad enough), but also because there's always the potential that they could take them from us forever. Despite all the advances in modern medicine, it often take players a while to round back into form after a major injury. Some guys are never the same. It's an awful thing to think about, but it happens.

Knees can be especially troublesome. And it may not even be a physical limitation (although that certainly could be a factor too) so much as it is a mental condition. Even if the knee is technically and physically fine, it often takes a while for the player to fully trust it — and that affects his game just enough to throw everything else out of whack. He hesitates before planting his foot to make a cut. He winces every time he comes down with a rebound. He subconsciously obsesses over whether or not everything still feels OK. It's a completely understandable and human reaction (this is not the player's fault — it's an appropriate response to an exceptionally traumatic experience), but that humanity can come at the expense of his basketball success.

To be sure, this isn't necessarily a permanent condition, nor does it happen to everyone. It's true that some guys never get over it, their careers shackled from that point on by a lingering preoccupation with knee problems that may or may not actually exist. (And if the injury recurs or complications surface, that becomes an entirely different beast.) But many take a while to build that confidence back up before ultimately returning to the same level they played at before. And others bounce back like nothing happened at all. But for every Russell Westbrook who returns from three knee surgeries in the span of seven months to turn in one of the most dominant playoff runs in recent memory, there's also a Derrick Rose who enters a period of extended athletic malaise and causes fans to speculate whether he'll ever truly recover his past excellence.

What does that mean for Kyle Collinsworth and his history-making talent? The truth is, we don't know yet — and that's the scariest thing of all.

None of this is Kyle's fault. By all accounts, he's done all the right things and said all the right things. His knee is fully repaired and healed. He's gone through all the necessary rehab. He's said he won't allow the injury to affect his mindset on the court. He's looked good in early practices and unilaterally declared himself ready to go for BYU's first game of the year. He's done everything he can do to deserve our confidence — and I fully believe that he's mentally strong enough to overcome this and continue to be the amazing player we saw before that fateful day in Las Vegas.

But I don't know that. Nobody can — at least not until he finally steps back on the court in a real game and turns himself loose. And until then, we'll be forced to wait and watch, precariously poised on the edge of our collective seat, hoping for the best while fearing the worst.

Because this is what it all comes down to for the Cougars. If Kyle Collinsworth is 100 percent healthy and able to return to a level near or (preferably) above his performance last season, BYU will be a tournament team. Full stop. No questions asked. Take it to the bank. Collinsworth and Haws together are too good, their supporting cast too deep and their coaches too smart to fail.

But if he's not — if he's not ready to go until December or even later, if he plays tentatively or (Heaven forbid) if he re-aggravates the injury — then it could be a long, hard, disappointing year. It could dampen the final act of Tyler Haws' storied collegiate career. It could be a nightmare scenario.

For better or for worse, Kyle Collinsworth is BYU's X-factor. You simply don't lose a player of his caliber and expect to recover seamlessly. He does too many things and affects the game in too many ways to simply be replaced by a lesser talent. The "next man up" philosophy can only be stretched so far.

So for now, we wait and watch and (if you are so inclined) pray. Because as bad as things could be without a healthy Collinsworth, they will be equally as good with him on the floor at full-speed, doing all the amazing things he does. That's the blessing and the curse of having one of the best all-around players in the country on your team. And if you still think that sounds crazy, maybe you should consider investing in a few white coats of your own.