Confidence has never been an issue for BYU guard Nick Emery.
Assistant coach Quincy Lewis remembers his wife asking Nick, who was in third grade at the time, if he would be as good as his seven-year senior brother Jackson — who went on to become the No. 25 scorer in BYU history.
The grade schooler answered with one word: Better.
“It didn’t matter what age he was or what age group he was playing against, in his mind he always belonged there,” Jackson Emery said. “There’s always that thing in the back of his mind that I belong no matter who I’m playing against. He’s just that kid that has a natural ability to play the game and always felt he could play anyone and everyone and anything.”
Nick Emery grew into a Utah high school star as Lone Peak High won three state titles and a national championship during his time there. He and his teammates — which include fellow BYU players Eric Mika and T.J. Haws — became well known for shocking teams from around the country in AAU tournaments.
At BYU, he’s overcome early-season struggles that included getting a one-game suspension in December for punching Utah guard Brandon Taylor, and is now on pace to finish behind former Celtics star Danny Ainge for the second-most points and steals as a freshman in BYU history. Emery’s 79 3-pointers have set the freshman mark by 35 and counting. Two weeks ago, he was named West Coast Conference Player of the Week, CBS Sports Freshman of the Week and the Wayman Tisdale National Freshman of the week.
Still, there was a time less than 24 months ago that Emery worried his hoop dreams would end prematurely.
Emery began having shoulder pain going into his senior season in high school that made his hands and arms feel cold. A doctor initially ordered physical therapy, and Emery made it through the year and left for his Mormon mission in Germany.
Then things got worse.
“I couldn’t feel my arms when I was just walking the streets in Germany,” Emery said.
After conferring with a church leader who was a doctor, Emery made the difficult decision to leave his mission early.
He came home, was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and eventually had a surgical procedure that included removing two ribs. The pain and numbness went away, but Emery’s arms still get cold. That’s why he’s worn long-sleeved shirts under his jersey since high school.
“He was scared,” said Lewis, who was the Lone Peak coach before this season. “He was really concerned because he’d waited all his life to have this stage and play ball and stuff like that. So he was really nervous about it.”
It took some time for Emery to regain his pre-mission form. Plus, he had the condition to deal with. After hundreds of shots a day to regain his form, Emery is now being compared to former BYU great Jimmer Fredette and all-time leading scorer Tyler Haws.
Emery set a school freshman record with 37 points at San Francisco two weeks ago and followed that with 31 at Santa Clara two days later.
Jackson said Emery doesn’t have Fredette’s ability as a one-on-one scorer yet, but predicts the 6-foot-2 left-hander will develop a better all-around game on offense and defense.
“In terms of trajectory of where Nick started and Jimmer started, I feel Nick is farther ahead,” said Jackson, who played with Fredette for three years.
Lewis, who has been working with Emery since seventh grade, agreed and said the next step in his progression is ball-handling.
BYU coach Dave Rose has worked to keep the ultra-competitive Emery in a good mental space. Even while having a record-setting freshman year, Emery isn’t satisfied with his game. He’d averaged 14.6 points before the 37-point outburst.
The Cougars (22-9, 13-5 West Coast Conference) are currently ranked No. 76 in RPI and are fighting for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
A red-hot Emery would help the cause.
“Nick is a very unique individual and no one pushes Nick harder than Nick,” Rose said. “He wanted to find a place where he’s been before. I’ve seen the guy score almost 30 points in a half in a high school game. I’m glad that he was able to feel that (success again) and now hopefully that confidence, we can manage how it fits with the rest of the group and our team moving forward.”