PROVO, Utah — Point guard Cooper Ainge just turned 19, yet if he knew a year ago what he knows now he’d be off on his church mission rather than in his first season as a Brigham Young basketball player.
That’s the situation of many Mormon athletes after a new rule recently went into effect that lowers the age when members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can go on a mission from 19 to 18. It’s already affecting players deciding now whether to come to schools across Utah, and BYU in particular.
Among those could be top high school recruit Jabari Parker, a Mormon who included BYU on his top five list earlier this month. He also plans to make official visits to Duke, Florida, Michigan State and Stanford.
A 6-foot-8 forward, Parker is one of the most prized recruits to come along in recent years.
While he has told some his plans were to attend college for a year then either go on a mission as his brother did, or jump to the NBA, the fact that he turns 18 in March could affect his thinking.
Coaches can’t talk about specific recruits, but BYU basketball coach Dave Rose acknowledged the new rule won’t affect this year’s team but could have a big effect on his 2013, 2014 and 2015 classes.
“For our coaching staff, it will be a process,” said Rose, who has spreadsheets that slot missions along with scholarships available and the timing of such. “What it basically does is it gives every LDS player that has a desire to serve a mission another option. What we need to do is find out what they are planning on doing. My role here as head coach is to support their decision.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has more than 55,000 full-time missionaries worldwide, spreading information about their faith and doing humanitarian work. Most missions for men are two years.
The new policy already has influenced BYU recruit Nick Emery, a guard from nearby Lone Peak High who announced on his Twitter page that he will be leaving for a mission right after graduation then return to school to play four straight years.
Having uninterrupted athletic careers can be a big plus, players and coaches said.
“It gives them a chance for a clean start right out of high school to go on a mission and then uninterrupted play when they come back if they’re ready and if they’re willing to,” said BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall, who has 38 players serving missions in 17 different countries.
On Monday night, Mendenhall said he’s already shifting plans to recruit more junior-college players in the next few years because of the rule change.
“Most of the players that were in between are going first,” he said of recruits who were uncertain of what to do depending on where their birthdates fell.
“It will affect us a lot. More junior-college recruitment in the short term to fill immediate holes because our LDS pool will be serving. So yeah, there will be a few holes that will be junior-college oriented. But there’s a nice plan in place for three years. I don’t think it will take quite that long. I think within two years we’ll probably have the cycle just about right.”
His counterpart at Utah, Kyle Whittingham, likes the change to lower the age to serve.
“In the past, you were juggling when to send athletes out who you knew were going to go on missions,” said Whittingham, who has 25 returned missionaries on his current Utes roster. “Depending on when they turn 19, do you play them for a season? ... I think this is going to lay some common ground and the rule of thumb will be to send them out right after graduation.”
Tyler Haws, who just returned from his church mission in April and is expected to be a major contributor on BYU’s basketball team this year, likely would have gone on his mission straight out of high school had the rule existed then.
“I think it makes sense to get out and come back and play four years,” Haws said. “But I’m happy with the way I did it. It feels good to have a year of experience under my belt.”
He is just glad he had about six months to get his body right after returning after spending two years in the Philippines.
“I tried to take it one step at a time,” said Haws, who was a starter as a freshman and managed only a few pickup games in the Philippines. “I didn’t want to jump into anything too quick. There have been some returned missionaries who tried to do too much, too quick and have gotten hurt, so I tried to be smart that way. The first couple of months, I just tried to hit the weights and try to get my legs back.”
Not every LDS player serves a mission.
BYU stars Steve Young, Danny Ainge and Jimmer Fredette didn’t. Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer also did not, but he wasn’t a church member when he came to BYU.
Center Shawn Bradley served his mission after playing one year at BYU then headed straight to the NBA.
Cooper Ainge, son of Boston Celtics basketball operations president Danny Ainge, still is planning to serve his, but is hopeful he can go in April, which would give him an entire summer to get back in basketball shape after being away from the game for two years.
But he clearly likes the rule change because of the options it provides.
“I don’t think everyone should go at 18 because I don’t think everyone will be ready then, but it’s a good rule for people who are ready,” he said.