Back in the NBA again, Jimmer Fredette endures a rough shooting night but gets a lot of love in his return to Utah

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) as the Utah Jazz host the Phoenix Suns, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Monday March 25, 2019.

As a guard at BYU, Jimmer Fredette led the Cougars to national prominence by leading the nation in scoring. As a senior, he wound up winning National Player of the Year honors, and eventually became an NBA lottery pick, and one of the most celebrated basketball figures ever to grace the state of Utah.

His NBA career never quite reached the same heights, however. Less than three years after being a draft-night acquisition of the Sacramento Kings, he was waived. Over the next few seasons, he got some limited opportunities — 54 games with the Pelicans, eight with the Bulls, two with the Knicks — but never managed to stick. In 236 career NBA games, he’s averaged just 6.0 points on 41.1 percent shooting.

After a stint in the G League, Fredette went overseas and carved out a nice living for himself, playing the last three years with the Chinese Basketball Association. Still, fans of his have always maintained he deserved another shot at the NBA. And he never gave up hoping for one.

Once the Chinese league’s most recent season ended, and he became eligible to sign with an NBA team, the Phoenix Suns decided to give him that opportunity — signing him for the remainder of the 2018-19 season, with a team option for next season.

“I always hoped for it. I always hoped for it. That was the goal — to be able to do that after this season. I had it in my mind that it was gonna happen — you gotta speak things into existence sometimes if you want ’em to happen,” Fredette said at the Suns’ shootaround Monday morning at Vivint Smart Home Arena, hours before taking on the Jazz. “But obviously, when a team does call, you never know what’s gonna happen, you always take it slow at first — you never get your hopes up too much. But once you get there and you sign on the dotted line, then you can get excited and ready to go.”

The 30-year-old Fredette made his NBA return on Saturday in Sacramento against the Kings — his first NBA organization, which wasn’t lost on him. He played only four minutes and went scoreless, missing a 3-pointer (his only shot of the game). He did grab two rebounds.

While he likened getting back out there to “riding a bike,” he also acknowledged the difficulty of going up against top competition. Then again, that was the idea behind coming back in the first place.

“It’s fun to compete against the best players in the world,” Fredette said. “As a competitive person, that’s what I want to be able to do — go out there on a nightly basis and play against the best.”

Fredette believes himself to be much-improved as a basketball player since he last played in the league in the 2015-16 season, saying he’d become a better catch-and-shoot player after playing almost exclusively off the ball in China. He also said he was a far better defensive player now, noting that he’s “gotten stronger … leaned up a little bit, and gotten quicker.”

The results didn’t necessarily show in his second game back, against a tough defensive opponent in the Jazz, but in front of an adoring audience. He scored six points Monday night, albeit on 1-for-10 shooting from the field and four made free throws.

Still, he said after the game, while he was frustrated with his shooting, he couldn’t help but appreciate the experience.

“There’s a lot of emotions that come in to coming back to Utah, obviously. I get in to the game, the crowd is definitely crazy. So I appreciate the fans and everything,” he said. “But I felt pretty amped up about the game. A lot of my shots were a little bit long. But it felt good to just get out there and just be aggressive, play my game and know if I keep doing that, everything’s gonna be good.”

Jazz forward Kyle Korver, meanwhile, said that you couldn’t help but notice the crowd’s reaction to Fredette and appreciate his path in getting back.

“Good for him. He’s got such a story. His basketball story is filled with ups and downs, some good and some tough,” Korver said. “I just really respect that he keeps on battling. It’s good to see him out there again.”