BYU let Dawson Baker slip through the cracks the first time. Now, the UC Irvine transfer will be a leader on the Cougars’ first Big 12 team

The three-year starter at Irvine will have two years of eligibility to usher BYU into a new era.

UC Irvine's Dawson Baker keeps the ball from UC Santa Barbara's Jaquori McLaughlin (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game for the championship of the Big West Conference men's tournament Saturday, March 13, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ronda Churchill)

Dawson Baker can’t remember the exact details, but he definitely knows it happened.

Back in 2018, when he was coming out of high school, he was being recruited by BYU. Dave Rose was the head coach at the time and some of Rose’s assistants were expressing interest in him. Baker was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a two-time all-state selection in California; the marriage between school and player seemed natural.

But then Rose’s staff had some shakeups. Some assistants moved to Utah Valley, to join current BYU coach Mark Pope’s staff there. Others moved on to Utah State. The main recruiters of Baker were suddenly gone at the most critical time.

“I guess I kind of got lost in translation. So I think that kind of hurt me in recruiting a little bit,” Baker said. “One of [Rose’s] assistants reached out when I was a freshman and it kind of just fizzled out a little bit throughout high school.”

Nearly six years later, though, Baker is no longer the player who fell through the cracks. He is coming to BYU as a transfer, immediately tasked with being a leader in the program’s inaugural Big 12 campaign.

If last time BYU missed on Baker, this time BYU assistant coach Cody Fueger made sure to reach out to the UC Irvine guard the first day he was in the NCAA Transfer Portal. BYU needed shooting and experience. Baker had both.

In three years at Irvine, he played in 79 games and had a true shooting percentage of over 50% each year. He was the Big West freshman of the year in 2021 and then an all-conference player last year. He played in almost 70% of the minutes and led the Anteaters in scoring.

And BYU moved quickly to show its seriousness — not a repeat of last time. Within two weeks, BYU hosted Baker on campus for a three-day visit from Wednesday to Friday last week.

Driving around Provo in the car with Pope, the head coach explained how BYU was going into the Big 12 with a guard line of Dallin Hall, Richie Saunders and Trey Stewart. All are underclassmen. While they are the core for the future, BYU needed to add somebody older to make it through a Big 12 schedule.

More than that, it needed a proven scoring guard. The team finished 183rd in 3-point shooting percentage last year. Its offense ranked outside the top 80. Pope said Baker was a necessity for BYU, not just an added piece.

“They see me as a veteran guy,” Baker said. “They have a pretty young team. I’m going to come as a guy that’s probably played the most minutes in college basketball, and probably the one who has scored the most points.

“So they’re expecting that proven, veteran leadership to kind of take root on this team and lead us through the Big 12. That’s a big task, but they definitely saw my ability to consistently score and consistently do the things they’re looking for. That’s being able to shoot it, make a play when I have to and get wherever I want on the court with a dribble.”

Before Pope outlined the fit in the car, Baker had a sense of where he stood on the court. Prior to entering the transfer portal, Baker made a list of four schools he thought would need him and he wanted to play for: BYU, Utah, Utah State and Boise State. Ultimately, over 20 schools would reach out, including several Pac-12 schools and other Big 12 schools. Oklahoma came calling.

But for Baker, it was about deciding between those four schools — and it would come down to a culture fit. That is what he was mostly looking for on his visit.

So on one of the nights, Pope hosted a gathering at his house with the entire staff and the current roster. Baker got to see how his personality would mesh.

“That’s the biggest thing in this business is really getting to know the coaches and the people you’re going to be associated with,” Baker said. “Because you’re gonna be with those people a lot.”

Ultimately, Baker’s choice came down to Utah State and BYU. He chose the Cougars.

And now the task of leading this team into the Big 12 sits in front of him. He says the Big 12 is partly the reason he went with BYU. He wanted a place he could prove himself, at a school that is also trying to prove itself on a bigger stage.

The added irony, though, will be one of those teams that originally doubted him was BYU. Now, he will be one of its top guards.

“BYU just seemed like a fit where it just resembled my whole career,” Baker said. “Having to prove myself over and over again and being the underdog. It’s kind of been the story of my basketball career. Then BYU’s going into Big 12 and I thought it’d be a fun challenge. Why not just swing for the fences and go on a team that’s also hungry to shock the world a little bit, too.”