BROOKLYN – Back in October, a significant change was announced by Thomas S. Monson, the current President of the LDS Church. Instead of requiring young men to wait until they are 19 years old to be able to go on their two-year missions, the rule change now allows high school graduates to leave after their 18th birthday if they have already gotten their diploma. This change was huge news in college athletics for schools like BYU, Utah and Utah State. Now, instead of Mormon athletes having to spend their freshman season on campus before leaving for two years, these kids can serve for two years before arriving on campus and then spend four or five consecutive seasons with their team.
It’s a rule that Tyler Haws wishes he could have taken advantage of.
“I would have gone straight out, for sure,” Haws, BYU’s sophomore shooting guard, said. “I think that’s the easiest thing to do, get out and come back and have four years.”
Haws should be a senior right now. You want an idea of how long it has been since Haws last played for the Cougars? When he was a freshman, Haws teamed up with Jimmer Fredette, who had yet to become a national sensation and whose name hadn’t become verbiage meaning sinking 32-foot threes. Brandon Davies is no longer a random freshman, instead he’s 20 months removed from one of the more embarrassing and polarizing suspensions in recent memory. Brock Zylstra and Davies are the only players still on the roster from Haws’ freshman year. Perhaps most significantly, however, BYU is no longer in the same conference as Utah. The Utes moved on to the Pac-12 while the Cougars now share conference membership with the likes of Gonzaga and St. Mary’s.
Haws averaged 11.3 points and 4.2 boards as a freshman, but after one year on campus, he made the decision to serve his mission, putting a very promising basketball career on hold. Haws expected to be sent to Europe — he was born in Belgium and still has family on that side of the pond — but was instead shipped off to the Philippines.
It was a speed bump, but it was one that Haws had been looking forward to.
“It’s something I was definitely planning on my whole life, since I was a little kid,” Haws said. “It feels good to be back and playing again, but [serving my mission] was the best experience of my whole life.”
Haws will always wonder whether or not his presence on BYU’s roster in 2010-2011, the year The Jimmer led BYU to the Sweet 16, could have helped them get past Florida. That’s something that’s never going to go away. But Haws is devout. He’s loyal to his faith, and he believes that there he’s more than simply a basketball player. He realizes that there is more to life than being really good at making a ball go through a metal ring. Missing out on BYU’s dream season will sting, and that’s never going to go away, but neither will the lessons he learned and the experiences he had when he served.
“I feel like the experience that I gained on my mission can’t be gained any other way,” he said. “I feel like stepping away from the game for two years can really help you. I feel like I grew up as a person and as a leader.”
“We have a prophet in the Mormon faith, and he’s given a commandment to serve a mission. … We believe that commandment comes from God, and we feel like it’s really important. And I felt like it was something that I needed to do.”
In talking to Haws, that doesn’t feel like lip service either. He comes across as genuine, honest and open, and one can only wonder how much of that is a result of spending two years helping people in a third-world country.
Now that he’s back at BYU, Haws’ focus has returned to the hardwood, but it wasn’t an easy transition going from being a missionary to an elite level athlete. Living in Quezon City, outside of Manila, Haws’ days were strenuous, organized and long. Six days a week, he was up by 6:30 a.m., spending as many as 15 hours-a-day studying scripture and spreading the gospel of the LDS Church. He wasn’t there to train; he barely had time to check his email or do his laundry.
Playing basketball once a week, at the most, against Philippinos, who aren’t exactly known for their height, took a toll on Haws’ physical condition. He lost 10 pounds, he couldn’t run as far or as fast, he couldn’t jump as high. That silky-smooth jumper he was known for took some work before it stopped looking like a Reggie Evans free throw. “I tried to take it one step at a time when I got back,” he said. “I tried to get my strength back, my body back. I feel really comfortable right now.”
It took a lot of time and even more hard work, but Haws appears to be rounding back into game shape. In two games at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic last week, Haws averaged 22.0 points, 8.5 boards, 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals. On the season, those numbers are 22.0 points, 7.0 boards and 3.8 assists while shooting 49.3% from the field and 35.7% from three.
He’s the perfect wing compliment to Davies in the paint and Matt Carlino at the point. If he can continue to play at this level, he gives BYU a chance to compete for the WCC crown and earn an at-large berth into the NCAA tournament.
And rest assured, that’s something that Haws will work his tail off to achieve, because finding success on the court still matters to him.
But it’s no longer the most important part of Haws’ life.
“It’s changed my perspective on life,” he said. “I went to a third-world country. All I did is just serve and help people all day. I got to see how people lived and how the gospel of Jesus Christ can help others.”
“It changed me forever.”
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.