Provo • It wasn’t easy leaving BYU in 2016. It also wasn’t easy coming back three years later.
But BYU graduate transfer Jake Toolson says he had to go through both trials to make himself whole. And he’s happy he did.
“I never wanted to be anywhere else — this is where I wanted to be,” Toolson said. “I think I needed to leave, though, so I could be everything that I wanted to be.”
Toolson, in his return to BYU, is averaging a team-high 15.3, 4 rebounds and 3.3 assists for the Cougars, who are off to a 3-1 start and visit Boise State on Wednesday.
The 6-foot-5 guard had his best shooting game of the season at Houston, when he hit 5 of 8 from the field and was 4 for 4 from the 3-point line.
The seeming ease with which he has transitioned back to BYU, however, stands in stark contrast to his initial stint in Provo.
The first time around, Toolson came here straight out of Highland High School in Gilbert, Ariz. He proceeded to struggle both on and off the court. Mostly, it was due to the transition of leaving home and starting college, but the bottom line was, he wasn’t happy.
On the floor, Toolson averaged 2.3 points in just under 8 minutes per game during his first season (2014-15), then 3.9 points as a sophomore before taking a medical leave, ending his season. It was after that he opted out, transferring to Utah Valley to play for a guy named Mark Pope in neighboring Orem.
Toolson, the nephew of former BYU great Danny Ainge, acknowledges that he struggled with the initial change of going to college — moving away from home, the difficulties of classes and playing at a different level. It was a huge life adjustment, and he struggled with it.
“It was a learning experience,” Toolson said. “I was young. There were some things that were out of my control that I had to deal with. For me, it was about facing that adversity and just move past it. I'm grateful for that experience because it's helped shape me into the player and the person I am now.”
Under Pope, Toolson blossomed at UVU. After sitting out his first season under NCAA transfer rules, Toolson helped lead the Wolverines to their first back-to-back 20-win seasons in program history. The Wolverines notched 23 wins in the 2017-18 season and 25 wins in 2018-19.
Last season, Toolson was named Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year after averaging a team-best 15.7 points, with 4.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists.
Toolson gives no small amount of credit to his early experience with BYU for helping turn things around. Everything was easier the second time around.
“I didn’t want to make the same mistakes, and I had learned a lot from that,” Toolson said. “Just being a little older and wiser, and coming to UVU just having a fresh start really helped me start from square one. And I just built from there.”
If Toolson calls leaving BYU one of the hardest things he’s ever done, so was the decision to come back. Leaving the school that helped make him a star was difficult. He also was leaving a comfort zone he and others had worked hard to create.
But when Pope was hired as BYU’s next head coach following Dave Rose’s retirement in April, the prospect of staying with his coach and returning to where it all began proved irrisistable. The following month, Toolson announced his commitment to BYU for his final year of eligibility as a grad transfer.
"Coming back here, it was not an easy decision for him,” Pope said. “His first experience here was really hard — his own admission — just because he wasn’t ready. So, for him to come back here and stare down whatever demons he has remaining and just beat them to a pulp is pretty fun for all of us to watch, I think.”
If Toolson was a little hesitant at first about making the move back to BYU and worried that some of what he struggled with the first time might creep back, the concerns vanished quickly. Both Toolson and BYU have changed.
Now, an established mainstay on the Cougars’ roster, Toolson has at least 27 games left in a BYU jersey to finish up what he started five years ago.
“I think it’s fate,” Toolson said. “I never thought that this would be the position that I’m in, but I’m so glad that I’m back and finishing the story that started a few years ago.”
BYU AT BOISE STATE
At ExtraMile Arena, Boise, Idaho
Tipoff » Wednesday, 8 p.m. MT
TV » CBS Sports Network
Radio » 1160 AM, 107.5 FM, Sirius XM 143
Records » BYU 3-1; Boise State 1-2
All-time series » BYU leads 9-4
Last meeting » BYU 94, Boise State 56 (Dec. 10, 2008)
About BYU » The Cougars are coming off nail-bitter in Houston, where TJ Haws hit a buzzer beater to beat UH, 72-71. … Kolby Lee posted a career-high 14 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists in the victory. … The Cougars continue to get outrebounded by opponents, most recently 38-34. … The last time both teams met, BYU scored 61 points in the second half to beat Boise State.
About Boise State » The Broncos are on a two-game losing streak after dropping a road game at No. 15 Oregon. … Boise State struggled with 3-point shooting, going 6 for 23 from beyond the arc, against the Ducks. … The Broncos are led by Derrick Alston, Jr., who is averaging 25 points and 4.3 rebounds.