By BRADY McCOMBS
Nick Emery — a three-time Utah state champion and two-time state high school player of the year — was courted by college basketball super-powers UCLA, Kansas and North Carolina.
But the 6-foot-2-inch point guard spurned them all, and won’t be playing basketball anytime soon. Emery is just weeks away from starting a two-year Mormon mission to Germany.
The Brigham Young University-bound Emery is not the first elite Mormon athlete to put his career on hold for a mission, but he is among the very first who will leave right after high school at 18 under new rules announced last fall by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
By lowering the minimum missionary age for men to 18, from 19, Emery and other Mormon college athletes can navigate around the cumbersome path generations of Mormon athletes who came before them had to maneuver. The age for women was dropped to 19, from 21.
Until now, Mormon athletes had to play or redshirt for one year after high school until they turned 19. After a two-year hiatus, they come back to complete their careers. By being able to go on a mission first, Emery said he will start his BYU career more mature and with better leadership skills.
“Two years is a long time to mature and really figure out who I am,” said the 18-year-old Emery. “This is a big bonus. You can go straight out and get those two years done and then you have four straight years in college.”
The change in the minimum age, the first since 1960, already has sent ripples across Mormon culture, affecting college enrollments, and likely how young people date, marry and start families. The effects are most evident in Utah, where 1.9 million Mormons live and the home of the church’s worldwide headquarters.
It completely alters the landscape for Mormon college athletes, giving them another option as they consider their own physical and mental maturity and try to optimize playing time.
Five months after the surprise announcement from LDS officials, BYU basketball coach Dave Rose said it appears that most basketball players will go straight on a mission out of high school. The change will lead to some extra juggling of the roster at BYU in the coming years, but should reap long-term benefits for the Mormon-owned university in Provo, Utah.
“The continuity of them coming in and being here for four or five consecutive years will hopefully help us manage our roster a lot better,” said Rose, BYU head coach since 2005.
Though the church lowered the minimum age, LDS church leaders emphasized that each person should carefully assess his or her situation. That’s what BYU-bound Eric Mika did before he ultimately opted to stick to his original plan and play a year before going on mission at 19.
Rose said Mika made a good decision. Not only will he have a chance to play right away with several BYU big men graduating, but he will benefit from another year of competition after sitting out his junior season due to having transferred high schools.
For Emery, though, going early was an easy decision and one that Rose said will benefit him.
BYU already has several talented guards on next year’s team, meaning playing time would have been difficult. After the announcement, Emery quickly set into motion a plan to graduate early. He’ll enter the Missionary Training Center on May 1, and head off to serve in Frankfurt, Germany, about six weeks later. That puts him back home in May of 2015 — six months before the start of basketball season.
Under the old rules, the only athletes able to go on a mission straight out of high school were those who were already 19, meaning they almost always had August or September birthdays. That brought them back from their missions in the fall and made it difficult to get in basketball shape for the next season.
Rose predicts most players will follow Emery’s lead and go in the spring, which should make the transition back into college basketball much smoother.
Missionaries generally have one hour of physical activity built into their busy, daily schedules. But they can do more if they choose to wake up earlier. It’s up to the mission presidents how much somebody like Emery can play pickup basketball, though strenuous games that could lead to injury and compromise the goal of the mission are usually frowned upon. BYU sophomore Tyler Haws, for instance, played occasional pickup games while on his mission in the Philippines.
Though young Mormon men are expected to serve missions, it is not required. Some high profile Mormon athletes, such as Jimmer Fredette and Steve Young, skipped missions. But Emery and Mika are committed to continuing family traditions.
“Unless I’m scoring 40 points and getting 20 boards every game and going straight to the NBA, I don’t think I’ll skip out on a mission,” Mika says, jokingly. “It will be good both physically and mentally. It will get me in the right mode to just be ready to work every day. And hopefully I mature physically.”
Joe Nilson, Emery’s Mormon stake president in Alpine, said Emery wouldn’t have been scorned had he chosen to skip a mission and play college basketball, serving the church as a role model in a high-profile position.
“Here’s a young man who is literally at the top of his game and he could go to a lot of different colleges to play ball,” Nilson said. “And he’s made the decision that he wants to be a missionary for the church. That says a lot about the young man.”
There are high hopes for the BYU careers of Emery and Mika.
During their senior year, the duo teamed with junior shooting guard T.J. Haws to lead the Lone Peak Knights to a 26-1 record and atop the MaxPreps national rankings in what many considered one of the greatest seasons ever by a Utah prep team. After beating a host of national powerhouses around the country, Lone Peak doubled up Alta High School 72-39 in the 5A state championship game.
The team garnered national attention, and all three stars are ranked in the top 50 of their respective recruiting classes. Mika is ranked as the nation’s 30th best player by ESPN and Emery is ranked 45th. Haws, who has already committed to BYU, is 39th in the class of 2014. Haws said he’s leaning toward going on mission straight out of high school though he has yet to make a final decision.
Due to his epic high school career and the timing of the missionary age change, Emery is likely to become the poster athlete for this new option; with his career closely monitored to see if the new rule helped or hurt him. Emery acknowledges that it will be difficult to temporarily give up the game he’s loved since he was a toddler, but said he’s excited to see the world and preach the gospel.
“I feel like going on a mission I’ll get blessed more — not only in basketball but for life as well,” Emery said.