Mired in an offensive slump, BYU big man Caleb Lohner is looking to Christian Laettner for inspiration

Cougars coach Mark Pope wants Lohner to get out of his head, even if it means emulating the former Duke star

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars forward Caleb Lohner (33) as BYU hosts San Diego State, NCAA basketball in Provo on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.

Provo • There was a conversation between Alex Barcello and Caleb Lohner this season that took a somewhat surprising turn.

In the midst of a position change, Lohner was mired in a sophomore slump. He didn’t know the mechanics of exactly what he was doing. So instead of being bogged down in the technical details of his position, he turned to BYU’s senior point guard and simply told him who he wanted to emulate: Christian Laettner.

Not the most popular guy in the BYU program. But still, a solution.

“There have been a lot of great players, can’t we pick someone else?” BYU head coach Mark Pope — who played at rival Kentucky — said of the comparison to the Duke star. To Pope, Laettner will always be the guy who hit “the shot” against Kentucky in the 1992 Elite Eight — a 17-foot turnaround prayer.

“Caleb is such a talented player. He is a great athlete and has great physicality. He has a nose for the ball,” Pope said, ultimately agreeing with the likeness.

While Pope may not like the comparison, the meaning behind it he can support. For Lohner, the key to getting out of his offensive fog may be simplifying the game. If emulating Laettner takes his mind off the technicalities, so be it.

Laettner, of course, was known for his combination of athletic rebounding and brash style of never second-guessing himself. Lohner has the rebounding. He’s working on the decisiveness.

“Trust yourself,” Pope said. “I trust you.”

It’s been no secret Lohner has struggled this year. Nearly every one of his offensive metrics is down from his freshman season. He is shooting just 14% from the 3-point line and 41% from the field.

In his freshman campaign, Lohner had the fifth-highest offensive rating in the West Coast Conference and the best effective shooting percentage — above Gonzaga’s Drew Timme. But this year, his offensive rating has plummeted by almost 40 points in conference and he’s had weeks where he only takes a handful of shots.

“It’s not a question. I haven’t been playing how I’ve wanted to,” Lohner said. “I think there’s moments of the season where I’ve been pretty good. But there’s been moments where I haven’t asserted myself.”

There’s a number of reasons for this decline. The biggest among them, Pope thinks, is role changes due to injuries. Lohner played mostly as a forward this summer. As the season began, he slowly transitioned to more of a hybrid big man.

All of that was thrown out the window in November when BYU center Richard Harward went out for the season with a heart condition. Lohner now has to morph from a true big man all the way to a forward.

“Everyone has been changing positions around because of the key injuries we have had this year,” guard Te’Jon Lucas said. “We are learning on the fly. But you have to give credit to Caleb, who’s learning new spots. Ultimately that is what we have to do for us to be successful.”

The learning curve for Lohner, from a technical perspective, will likely continue. That was evidenced by Thursday’s game against San Diego, where Lohner went 1 of 7 from the field and played 15 minutes. He then followed that up with 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting against Portland on Saturday.

While he’s figuring out the technical details, though, Lohner can simplify the game in his head — thinking about a player he wants to be like instead of being paralyzed by decisions.

Pope has urged him to play more instinctively. For example, in practice on Tuesday, Lohner was running down the court and threw to the corner. It was the wrong read. But Pope made a point of telling Lohner his decisiveness on the play was good for the offense.

“Even if it’s the wrong decision, I’m like, ‘Go make a decision. Let’s go.’ We will live with it,” Pope said.

There was a sign last week things are starting to sink in. He scored 17 points against Gonzaga on 7-of-10 shooting. He followed it up with an eight-point game against San Francisco and a game-sealing offensive rebound with under a minute to play.

Ironically, on that play, he looked a lot like Laettner, running down the ball instinctively and stealing an extra possession for BYU late in the game. It’s still a work in progress for Lohner, but plays like that show BYU he’s coming along.

“I like his decisiveness right now,” Pope said. “[Last] week was really good for him. He felt good about making some shots. He makes a huge contribution to this team.”