clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Editorial: Isaac Neilson transferring from BYU basketball is more complicated than it looks

New, 2 comments

Missions and roster surprises make BYU's situation much more complicated than cursory national looks provide.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

A day after we learned Frank Bartley and Isaac Neilson would no longer be a part of BYU basketball, Jay Drew of the Salt Lake Tribune reported through an interview with Neilson that his departure was not voluntary.

Yesterday, basketball media members nationally have been holding up this story as evidence of a broken system.

Gary Parrish of CBS used Neilson's plight to illustrate the unintended consequences of the NCAA's change to its transfer policy, which creates very few reasons a transferring player can be immediately eligible.

First, let it be said that I am sympathetic to Neilson's situation, and also agree with Parrish that at the very least, a player "pushed out," "run off," or even "helped out" of his or her program should be eligible to play immediately. Student-athletes have little freedom anyway, this one should not have been taken away.

I don't need to expend any more characters on that. I don't know who would argue otherwise.

It should also be mentioned that as usual, we only have and will only ever hear the player's side. BYU and its coaches like Rose will likely never comment about such things, nor should they. They have no interest in an image battle through the media. BYU will always lose such a battle, no matter the facts.

I'm not suggesting Neilson is being dishonest, though. As he told Drew, "I guess we were just on different pages." It's clear, specific to Neilson, the coaching staff had a different vision for his future in the program than he did.

While none of these gentlemen in the national media have taken direct shots at Dave Rose and are simply using this as an example of an ugly side to college basketball scholarships, it is causing a reaction that puts Rose in the crosshairs.

I have a few thoughts on this, some of which provide context to BYU's situation that media and fans at the national level might not understand. I'd invite such parties, if this reaches their eyes, to consider this context before running Rose up the flag pole. I don't offer these thoughts as an alternate reality to rebut anything in Drew's interview with Neilson, but rather as counterpoints to the narrative that is building. I also don't offer them to take shots at Neilson himself. It's a rough situation for everyone as I will explain, and he got the brunt of it. And that sucks.

First: In a larger, general view, while it's hard to see for a player who got an "egg" dropped on him (an interesting mixed-metaphor that still works), isn't there a level of pro-player sentiment in sitting a guy down at his exit interview and telling him there probably isn't playing time in his future, and encouraging him to find a better situation? Should Rose keep a player on the bench and tell him to keep working when he knows he won't put him on the floor? How does that help the player?

Rose didn't change the rule that makes pushing or helping a player out of your program less compassionate. It still seems more humane than banishing a player to sit next to the water cooler, wasting all his eligibility.

(An aside: I use the phrase "helping out" purposely. While brutal on its face, "running off" a player is often done with a lot of help. A coach explains he doesn't see playing time in the player's future, but he has a network of coaching friends and he'll get the word out that he has a player looking for a new home. Many times, the player isn't simply cut loose, but helped to find a landing spot. I have no clue if that is or was intended to be the case for Neilson, but it does occur.)

There has been exception expressed to Rose surprising Neilson with this news at his exit interview. When else should Rose have delivered the news? It's a crappy conversation no matter when it happens. Should he have told Neilson in the long break between the WCC and NCAA tournaments? I don't see how "Hey, I don't see playing time in your future so you should think about transferring ... anyway, be ready to go in case we have foul trouble" is a better way to handle it.

Those are larger-view counterpoints to the inclination to go after Rose. I'm not saying Neilson was "done right" or shouldn't feel bitter, just encouraging a fuller look at the whole process of such a transaction.

The elements much more specific to BYU provide the context I'd wish to relate to those on the national level or those largely unfamiliar with BYU. The context sheds light on the almost yearly complex, difficult task Rose has in managing the BYU roster, and it revolves around LDS missionary service.

BYU garnered commitments from three players from the same high school who were top-100 national recruits: Nick Emery, T.J. Haws, and Eric Mika. Emery has returned from his mission and is a freshman next season, while Haws and Mika return in time to play in the 2016-17 season. Mika is 6-foot-10 and shares the same roster space as Neilson.

These three alone made for a golden era of BYU hoops recruiting. But then Rose got a surprise: Another national top-100 recruit (and another big man), Payton Dastrup, changed his verbal commitment from Ohio State and pledged to BYU -- one month before Neilson returned from his own mission. Dastrup returns home around the same time as Mika, adding two top-100 big men to Rose's roster at the same time.

In the summer of 2014, another BYU recruit named Jake Toolson had his hopes of serving a mission dashed due to some health concerns. With no scholarships available, as his expected season to join the team was 2016-17, the 3-star wing player walked on for the 2014-15 season to keep his spot in the BYU fold.

Around that same time, a BYU football commit named Corbin Kaufusi returned from a mission with his own surprise: He shot up from a 6-foot-6 defensive end to measure 6-foot-10 at the conclusion of his two years of missionary service. Despite his size, he shows phenomenal athleticism in pick-up games with the BYU hoops squad and, at 6-foot-10, feels he is simply too tall to play football. He drops into Rose's lap, walks on for the 2014-15 season, adds another big man to the roster, and by season's end shows massive promise and what seems like an unreachable ceiling.

Rose surely wants to keep his promise to Toolson in regards to a scholarship. It hasn't been that long since Rose felt the sting of losing a talented Damarcus Harrison to Clemson after an unexpected mission delay, and these are kids he's worked hard to get to come to BYU.

Somebody at BYU should probably keep a promised scholarship to Kaufusi; after all, he too signed a letter of intent with the school.

Somebody at BYU should also probably GRAB A DANG REBOUND! an opportunity afforded to Neilson early in the season with Nate Austin's injury, until he was eventually replaced in the rotation by undersized Josh Sharp, the 6-foot-7 forward who rebounded better than the 6-foot-10 Neilson. BYU went on a winning streak which correlated with this change.

Rose has two top-100 big men on their way, two of the best recruits in BYU history, and a third in Kaufusi with ridiculous upside who fell in his lap. Toolson's unexpected early addition further complicates his scholarship crunch.

Somewhere, Rose must cut loose scholarship holders to get down to the allowed maximum of 13. He's past the point of no return due to circumstances that can really only be found at the school which employs him. He is not in a spot to consider what NCAA rule changes might mean to someone who he lets go, because those rules also dictate his maximum allotment of scholarships.

Should Rose have been more careful with his offers? Perhaps. But do you want the coach of the school you cheer for to pass on 5-star players that want to play for him?

So it came down to who gets the hard discussion. His frontcourt is jammed with two top-100 big men coming soon, a guy who can do things like this and this, and Neilson (not to mention a guy like Jamal Aytes, who is a sophomore). Neilson had already been supplanted in the rotation by the guy who can do things like this and this and by a senior who was zero threat offensively.

I'm not intending to belittle Neilson here. He has good skills -- especially his ability to stretch the floor on offense -- and clearly, according to his interview with Drew, was already working very hard to get better. I won't be surprised if he becomes a solid player wherever he plays. But on this team, he already lost his spot in the rotation and two 5-star guys that occupy the same roster space are on the way.

That's the dilemma Rose faced this offseason. There was a multitude of players promised scholarships, but due to a very unusual set of circumstances, there were not enough scholarships to allot.

Does that make what happened any prettier? No. It still stinks. A kid with hoop dreams was told to move along, and that's not ultimately good no matter what the context. Also, Rose definitely has to consider how carefully he must walk from here before such matters hurt his ability to recruit.

But for what it is, context sure provides a counterpoint to the building narrative where Rose is the poster child for running off players, maniacally tapping his fingers together like Montgomery Burns and gleefully waiting for the next round of exit interviews.