Corvallis, Ore. • Branden Carlson had never played a minute of AAU basketball as his teenage years unfolded and his time at Bingham High School wore on.
As a junior in the spring of 2016, that changed. Exum Elite Utah Prospects, an adidas-sponsored outfit and considered one of, if not the preeminent club programs in the state, came calling. Given at least Carlson’s physical stature, there wasn’t much of a discussion as to whether or not Exum Elite was going to take him on, even if he was still a project.
“We were certainly looking at him and yeah, we were going to take him,” Exum Elite 17-and-under coach Kendall Youngblood told the Salt Lake Tribune earlier this week. “We saw potential, but he’s also 6-10. You have to take him, right?”
For Youngblood, a former Utah State Aggie who coached a group of 2017 prospects with Exum Elite beginning at the 14-and-under level through their 17-and-under AAU season the year before, remembering Carlson as a project is in contrast to what the 7-foot freshman has done lately.
He is still working to figure everything out, but on Feb. 6, Carlson had 15 points, 10 rebounds and eight blocks in an overtime win against Stanford. The eight blocks stood as an example of his athleticism and his ability to be a legitimate rim protector at this level of college basketball. For his efforts, Carlson, who played with Youngblood’s son, Dason, at Bingham, was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week on Monday afternoon.
As Carlson’s play begins to take off, it is important to note he really hasn’t played a ton of basketball. At Bingham, BYU star Yoeli Childs was in front of him for a couple of years. Carlson played a bunch as a senior, but upon graduation, served a two-year church mission. He came to the University of Utah this season still raw, still very much in need of teaching.
“Branden, I’m not gonna lie to you. I used to beat him up in practice, he was a twig,” Childs said. “The way he was able to progress, work on his game and get better each year was awesome. His junior year was my senior year, and he probably played eight minutes a game, maybe less.
“It’s been exciting to see him grow as a player, as a person, and I’m excited to follow his career.”
BRANDEN CARLSON AT A GLANCE
• Redshirt freshman, center, 7-foot, 218 pounds
• South Jordan native, 2017 Bingham High School graduate
• High school teammate of BYU star Yoeli Childs, a 2016 graduate.
• Played one spring/summer of AAU basketball in 2016 for Exum Elite Utah Prospects.
• Served a two-year LDS Church mission upon graduation.
• Four-star recruit, consensus top-3 Class of 2017 prospect in the state of Utah.
• Reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Week after 15-point, 10-rebound, eight-block effort against Stanford on Feb. 6.
• Has started 21 of the 22 games he has played in this season for Utah.
Carlson’s growth was expedited when Jayce Johnson decided to finish his career at Marquette as a graduate transfer. Johnson’s departure left Carlson as the most-viable big man on Utah’s roster. As such, Carlson has started 21 of the 22 games he has played in for the Utes (14-9, 5-6 Pac-12).
“He’s getting better coaching, he puts on probably 25 pounds, and he’s playing basketball every day since his mission,” Youngblood said. “His learning curve was going to take off once they got him on campus.
“The best thing for a freshman is to be on the court, and if Jayce is still there, he’s playing behind Jayce and he takes longer to develop.”
Rewind almost four years, and Carlson is playing that spring and summer of 2016 for Exum Elite in the adidas Gauntlet, which is that sneaker giant’s answer to Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League and the Under Armour Association.
The adidas Gauntlet might not be the place to be tossing in a raw, developing big man. Youngblood knew it, but in fairness, he was not expecting Carlson to dominate. He at least wanted to see some steps forward.
“He could hang athletically, but the skill development was the tough part,” said Youngblood, who also had Utes freshman guard Jaxon Benchley on that 17-and-under team in 2016. “He never backed down, though. He competed and we were happy with where he was going.
“He’s a late bloomer, he hasn’t been worn out by the [AAU] circuit and worn out by playing so much,” Youngblood said. “He wound up being a four-star kid, not because of his numbers, but the physical tools and potential. He played that summer of AAU, and he was dominant defensively.”
Now that Carlson is truly blossoming, and seemingly still quite far from whatever ceiling he may have as a player, Youngblood expressed a sense of pride, not just in Carlson, but in that 2016 Exum Elite group, which had a bunch of talent on it.
Outside of Carlson and Brenchley, Dason Youngblood is averaging 10.4 points per game for Dixie State, which is currently ranked 22nd in Division II. Trevin Knell is a freshman guard at BYU, 6-foot-10 forward Hunter Thompson has started all 25 games this winter for Wyoming.
“It really is fun to watch these kids,” Youngblood said. “You have a little bit of a hand in there, but Branden is doing all the work to get this opportunity.”
Tribune reporter Norma Gonzalez contributed to this story
UTAH at OREGON STATE
At Gill Coliseum, Corvallis, Ore.
Tipoff: Thursday, 7 p.m.
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700AM
Series history: Utah leads, 16-11
Last meeting: Utah, 81-69 (2020)
About the Beavers: Oregon State has one of the more perplexing resumes you’ll see. The Beavers have wins over Pac-12 contenders Colorado, Arizona, Stanford, and Oregon, but have conference losses to Cal, Washington State, and Washington. Oregon State’s 14-9 record includes a 4-3 mark against Quadrant 1 teams, but also 1-3 against Quadrant 3 teams … Senior guard Tres Tinkle leads Oregon State in scoring (19.0 PPG) and rebounding (6.8 PPG). He was one of four players in double figures on Saturday when the Beavers beat rival Oregon, 63-53, at Gill Coliseum … The first time Oregon State played Utah this season back on Jan. 2, Tinkle scored 19 points, but was held to 6-for-17 shooting in an 81-69 Utes win.
About the Utes: Utah completed a home sweep of the Bay Area schools on Saturday thanks to a 60-45 decision over Cal. This marked the fifth year in a row the Utes have swept the Bay Area at the Huntsman Center … Three of the Utes’ last four opponents have been held to 56 points or fewer. They are yielding just 56.5 points per game over their last four, in which they are 2-2 … Both Gach’s availability for the weekend remains a question mark after the sophomore guard missed the last four games with a knee injury. Larry Krystkowiak indicated earlier this week that Gach had treatment was due to see a doctor for a follow-up visit … Utah is 0-5 on the road this season against Pac-12 teams, and 1-6 in true road games for the season away from the Huntsman Center, where the Utes are 10-1. Utah’s one true road win came on opening night at Nevada.