Utah basketball’s Pelle Larsson at the forefront of Runnin’ Utes’ overseas movement

Larsson, a budding star, heads a cast of six Utes who have international roots, with two more in the pipeline.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Rylan Jones had just wrapped up practice with his University of Utah basketball teammates back in mid-October when he jumped on a Zoom call with local reporters.

The Utes’ sophomore point guard fielded questions on a variety of topics, not to mention teammates, when the conversation turned to Pelle Larsson, the new 6-foot-5 guard combo guard who played professionally in his native Sweden last season.

Larsson was a mystery to the average Utah fan. He did not emigrate over here for high school, which basketball exports from around the world sometimes do in an effort to be better noticed by American colleges. Furthermore, Sweden has never been considered a global basketball hotbed, so its professional leagues, not to mention its national-team program of which Larsson is a part of, might be considered obscure.

By the time Jones addressed the question that day, he had been playing with and against Larsson for several weeks. He knew what he was looking at, and he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.

“He’s a freak show,” Jones said, cracking a smile as he complimented Larsson, still six weeks away from from making his collegiate debut Dec. 3 vs. Washington.

Utah pulling Larsson out of Sweden is a microcosm of how the Utes are opting to do much of their recruiting right now, spearheaded by assistant coach Andy Hill’s deep recruiting ties abroad. There are currently six players on the roster from outside the United States, including two from Western Europe, Larsson and Finnish sophomore forward Mikael Jantunen.

Next year, two more European prospects, Norbert Thelissen (Netherlands) and Lazar Stefanovic (Serbia) will come over, giving Utah eight players born outside the United States, including four from Europe.

It is not an accident that Utah has increasingly come to recruit this kind of player. None of the four European student-athletes went to high school in the United States. All of them are part of their respective national-team programs, all of them have played against grown men abroad.

American hoops vs. European hoops

Basketball in the United States at the youth level is age-based. Kids generally grow up playing against other kids their own age, whether that be in high school or in AAU. There are instances where an elite American prospect will move up an age group on the AAU circuit, but it is not the norm.

In Europe, it is not uncommon for prospects showing great promise to move to training academies run by professional clubs. Once there, the concentration is on school and basketball. Prospects will play for what is essentially the academy’s high school team, with a move to the professional club not out of the question despite the prospects being teenagers.

One extreme example is Luka Doncic. At the age of 13, the Dallas Mavericks All-Star played for EuroLeague power Real Madrid’s under-16 academy team. In April 2015, Doncic debuted for Real’s main club when he was just 16.

Larsson was just 16 when he left his hometown of Nacka and his local club, Skuru, to pursue the sport at a higher level. He moved to the northern part of Sweden and began training at an academy run by BC Lulea, which plays in Basketligan, Sweden’s top professional classification.

“Living in your own apartment, taking care of cooking, cleaning, laundry, all that stuff,” Larsson told The Salt Lake Tribune recently. “You have to be comfortable being alone, being by yourself. I think it’s a big step in your personal development.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Pelle Larsson (3) as Utah hosts Idaho, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020.

Larsson’s development came along in Lulea. He played two seasons for the high school team, but last season, he was elevated to Lulea’s professional club where he performed well. In 26 games as a rookie, Larsson averaged 7.6 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.9 assists for a club that went 26-7, but had its league’s playoffs wiped out due to COVID-19.

Sweden’s professional ranks, as well as most others across Europe, are filled with seasoned, older players, not to mention American imports that played college basketball. This is the basketball education Larsson got in 2019-20 while he was still a teenager. His new American teammates at Utah cannot say the same.

“I’ve always thought that one of the best things you can do for your development is to put yourself in positions where you’re playing against people better than you or perhaps even older than you,” said Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak, who spent parts of nine seasons in the NBA in addition to the 1995-96 playing in France. “I think that’s more common in Europe. Some of these kids are playing in professional leagues with 30-something-year-old men, so you’re forced to grow up a little bit. I think that’s been helpful when it comes to the physical nature of basketball here.”

Larsson may have played professionally last season, but the decision to attend an American college was made beforehand.

Coming to the United States

European teenagers often have to make a choice. Pursue a professional career abroad or pursue an American education and college basketball.

Growing up in basketball-crazed Serbia, Stefanovic worked his way through the academy system for the club he grew up rooting for, KK Partizan, then made his professional debut for it during the 2018-19 season. Last season, he saw regular rotation minutes for Mladost in KSL, Serbia’s top league, but American colleges started calling, the first of which was Utah, and he obviously listended.

Larsson’s situation was more unique. In the spring of 2019, before he debuted with BC Lulea, Larsson practiced for a week with FC Barcelona’s reserve team, colloquially referred to as “Barca B.” After that week, Larsson decided he wasn’t ready to play professionally, and wanted to pursue college.

As a point of reference, FC Barcelona’s main club is a Spanish League and EuroLeague power, but “Barca B,” while also a professional club, is lightly regarded as a member of Spain’s third-tier division. Still, “Barca B” should be considered a step up from the competition Larsson was seeing in Sweden.

Later that year, Larsson exploded as a college prospect after averaging 15.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.5 assists in eight games for Sweden at the FIBA Under-18 European Championships. He wound up taking official visits to Utah, San Francisco and UC Santa Barbara over a seven-day period in early-Nov. 2019 before verbally committing to the Utes on Nov. 8.

“I was basically looking for three things [in a college],” Larsson said. “A good education, a team that I would fit in and get playing time at the right level, and just a program that is known for competing, winning games and sending kids to the higher levels.”

Settling in to a new environment

In a recent interview, Larsson did not paint his adjustment to the United States as difficult.

He jokingly wonders why the college basketball shot clock is 30 seconds, while the shot clock all over the world is 24 seconds. He notes that players are more athletic here, able to “make plays from nothing,” and that beating his man to the first step and keeping him out of the paint have been points of emphasis.

There isn’t much to do nowadays thanks to COVID, so everything is focused on school and basketball. A business major, Larsson commends the academic support staff for its help, while lamenting the fact that he has had some good play and some poor play to open his career.

To Larsson, the fact Krystkowiak’s program has turned into something of a mini-United Nations is a benefit, what with players from America, Finland, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Senegal around him.

Larsson commended all of his teammates for looking out for him when he first arrived, but he noted that he has gravitated to Jantunen, whose Finnish background is as close to Sweden as he’s going to get.

“It’s really fun because we’re all different,” Larsson said. “We’re all different, but we can kind of relate to each other, all the international kids. Moving away from home to a new country, a new language for most people is a big step. I have a good connection with Mickey because we kind of come from the same place and he knows Swedish, too. We made friends really quick and we have a good connection.”

Basketball-wise, Larsson’s self-assessment of some good, some bad may be harsh, but that speaks to his own expectations given his background. Some good, some spotty, entirely optimistic might fit better, but either way, he has looked as advertised.

Larsson is a significant piece of the puzzle for a Utah team looking to take a step forward in the Pac-12.

“I think Pelle’s doing a really nice job,” Krystkowiak said. “First and foremost, he’s a guard that can make plays with ball in hand, and he’s got terrific size. Not only is he taller than many of the ball handlers that we’ve had, but he’s strong and can withstand some of the physicality that pick-and-roll coverages can bring. He’s got a really nice shooting stroke and I think he’s a terrific passer.”