No matter what he does on the basketball court over the next six months, Luke Worthington will always be a winner.
Sure, he may or may not end up playing a key role for the BYU Cougars, but regardless of whether he's riding the pine or his name's on the marquee, Worthington will undoubtedly carry himself in the same way — with an air of humor and pleasantness that goes beyond the outcomes of a simple basketball game.
Luke Worthington is, for all intents and purposes, a high-quality human being. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's paid attention to the Cougars since the big Wisconsinite's arrival on campus. He's 10 pounds of fun in a five pound bag. He's always quick with a smile or a joke, and a ringleader of BYU's loose locker room culture. He's the kind of guy who can miss eight consecutive wide-open 5-foot bank shots in front of a packed house and an international television audience, and then proceed to immediately give an incredibly hilarious and self-effacing interview as if no potentially mortifying occurrence had just befallen him. He's one of the good ones.
In fact, when I undertook the task of profiling Worthington for a different site prior to his freshman season, I ended up writing 1,500 words about the importance of his good-natured approach to life and how it could play an intangible yet important role in the Cougars' success. He hadn't even stepped on the court for a real collegiate game yet. It remains one of my favorite things I've ever written.
There's one portion of that article that still rings especially true, even a year later:
Look, we don’t know who Luke Worthington is as a basketball player yet. We don’t know who he will be in the future. Very few people had ever seen him on a court until two weeks ago. That makes writing a comprehensive profile about his game difficult to impossible.
We do know that he’s big, he’s got a few post moves, and he can defend the pick-and-roll like a madman. But we also know that he’s fun, that he has a sense of humor, and that he seems to be a genuinely good teammate — and despite their silliness, those things might matter just as much.
A lot has been said about how this year's Cougar team seems different than those of years past - they seem looser, more fun-loving, like they really like each other off the court and enjoy being together. If you don't think that translates on some level to their on-court chemistry, I suppose that's a reasonable opinion to have. But all my experience around the game tells me that it does. Teams seem to play better when they're having fun. They seem to share the ball more selflessly when they like each other and are invested in one another's success. They seem to win more on the court when they're tighter off it.
I don't know how much of an on-court impact Worthington will have this season. I suspect he'll have to play a fairly sizable role, considering BYU's lack of post depth. But the levity and good nature he brings to the locker room — yes, through seemingly pointless things like stupid viral videos and crazy hair styles — may very well have just as much positive effect on the Cougars' success as anything he does between the lines.
I still believe that. As much as folks like me love to try to reduce basketball to a quantifiable series of actions and their related statistics (and we've done a pretty good job of it), at its core, it's still a sport played by human beings. And as human beings, there's something real and powerful, if still inarticulable, about playing alongside someone who you really love and respect — both on and off the court. It's an effect that can't be measured. There's no advanced statistics to evaluate its impact. It just is. And you would be hard-pressed to find anyone on this year's BYU team who doesn't love and respect Luke Worthington.
And therein lies the rub. Worthington has earned his teammates' respect through his off-court actions, and those relationships will undoubtedly pay positive dividends for the Cougars moving forward. That much is not in question. But what remains unanswered is how much of a role Luke can play for the Cougars on the floor?
He was a serviceable, but limited big man during his freshman campaign. He was a solid defender, especially in pick-and-roll and post-up situations, but he was also exceptionally foul-prone. And he struggled to contribute offensively, lacking even one effective go-to post move. None of this should be surprising — each is the mark of an inexperienced player.
But now Worthington is no longer a freshman. He has a season under his belt, and with that extra year comes an expectation of improvement and growth — and we have yet to see if he can live up to those expectations.
To be sure, there have been some positive early signs. In the first two preseason contests, Luke showed off a confident one-dribble jump hook over his inside shoulder. He executed it multiple times, with both hands, from either side of the paint — so it's definitely not a fluke. That's a great sign for his development.
In more worrying news, the foul problem seems to persist. For all the size and strength he possesses that would seem to make him a naturally excellent defender, Worthington hasn't yet figured out how to use those gifts in a way that plays right up to the line of legality without crossing over it. It will be tough for Luke to have the impact the Cougars need out of him if he can't figure out how to stay on the floor for extended periods of time — so there's work still to be done.
But if anything, Luke Worthington has shown that he's willing to put in the work. His improved offensive game is a testament to that fact, and I have no doubt that he will continue working to improve his deficiencies. That's a very good thing, because with Nate Austin still struggling with a lingering back injury and Jamal Aytes now out for several months due to ankle surgery, Dave Rose will have to lean on Worthington — his only remaining post player with collegiate experience — more than ever.
Luke now has the chance to step up and seize the opportunity before him — and to become as much a winner on the court as he already is off it.