Under different circumstances, BYU basketball’s latest addition, grad transfer Te’Jon Lucas, could have ended up at the University of Kansas.
When the former University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee point guard entered the transfer portal recently, BYU reached out to him first — within minutes — but national power Kansas was, eventually, in the mix for his services also.
On the day Lucas was scheduled to have a Zoom meeting with the Jayhawks coaches, former Arizona State star Remy Martin committed to Kansas.
“That took the scholarship away from me,” Lucas said.
But the way Lucas, who started his career at the University of Illinois, sees it, he ended up at the right program anyway at BYU under coach Mark Pope.
During the recruiting process this spring, he heard from 17 different schools — high-major, low-major and mid-major.
“I told people I didn’t care about the location or what level it was at,” said Lucas, a 6-foot-2, 180-pounder from Milwaukee. “I just wanted to find the best fit, where I can trust the coaches and coaches that can help me develop my game better and reach the NCAA Tournament and make a deep run. Coach Pope has great pieces around me and does a great job of getting the most out of his players and developing them in a short amount of time.”
While many BYU players serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Lucas is on a different kind of mission. He’s set to arrive in Provo in early June and he’s never been to the state of Utah before.
“I tell people all the time that it’s 6-8 months that I’ll be there. I’m coming there to get better as a player, get better as a person and help this team win a conference championship and survive in the tournament,” he said. “I’m only there for 6-8 months. It’s not like I have to spend five years here. It’s not that big of a deal. I want to meet the fans and be able to make a mark while I’m there for those 6-8 months.”
‘Has some Chris Paul in him’
BYU assistant Cody Fueger said Lucas is a great match for the program.
“As a person, he’s going to tell you exactly what he’s thinking. He’s got a great, positive attitude. A great outlook on life,” he said. “He’s got some great influences on his life. He’s happy and competitive, a great young man with an outgoing personality.”
As a player, “He’s competitive. He’s ready to go at all times. He’s got a great mindset for being a great playmaker,” Fueger added. “His goal is to make his teammates better. That’s what he does at a really high level. He’s a guard that has some Chris Paul in him. He sees the play beforehand. He’s a guard that can handle it. A big-time, playmaking guard that will do whatever it takes to help his team win. He doesn’t need to score but he can score.”
Last season at Milwaukee, Lucas averaged 14.9 points, 5.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game. He shot 27% from 3-point range and ranked No. 21 nationally in assist rate.
“I would say my style is to get up and down. I’m an old-style kind of guard. I like to do a little bit of everything. I can guard the best player if I have to,” Lucas said. “I also like making the guys around me better. I enjoy other people’s success as much as mine. I want to reach our common goal, winning a national championship and a conference championship. My strengths are making plays for others, rebounding, defending, doing whatever is needed on the court.”
As a junior, Lucas made the game-winning layup against University of Illinois-Chicago that earned the No. 1 ranking on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Day.
“I can score, take the last shot if I need to — I’ve had multiple game-winners in my college career,” he said. “Whatever I need to do, I’ll get it done.”
Lucas believes he will improve during his time at BYU.
“I love what coach Pope has been doing with the team with the development of players. He’s taken Barcello’s shooting percentage up,” he said. “I have a lot of trust in coach Pope. It’s a top team nationally the last couple of years that makes the NCAA Tournament. I feel like I can come in and make an immediate impact as a guard and be able to make plays for myself and my teammates.”
Cheeseheads: The Milwaukee connection
When Lucas entered the transfer portal, it took Fueger just minutes to reach out to him.
“The coaches did a great job making me a priority. I entered the portal and literally when I got the e-mail back, two minutes later coach Cody sent me a text,” Lucas said. “They were the first ones to contact me. They contacted me every day and they contacted me the most.”
This wasn’t the first time Fueger recruited Lucas. When Lucas transferred from Illinois a few years ago, Fueger, who, like Lucas, is a Milwaukee native, reached out. At the time, Fueger was Pope’s assistant at Utah Valley University.
“I had a couple of phone calls with him. I knew he was going home,” Fueger said. “I didn’t spend too much time talking to him. When he entered the transfer portal this time around, I already had his number and his mom’s and sister’s numbers already in my phone.”
Fueger had seen Lucas play AAU ball before Lucas signed with Illinois.
“We’ve had a great relationship,” Fueger said. “We talk about the (Green Bay) Packers and the (Milwaukee) Bucks, the (Milwaukee) Brewers. We’re talking about everything Wisconsin — brats, you name it. He’ll like the set-up where he can watch Packers’ games, for sure.”
“Coach (Fueger) has recruited me a couple of times. Now, he’s at a great spot with great history and great tradition. It’s good to have another person from Wisconsin,” Lucas said. “He knows how hard it is to make it out of Milwaukee. It’s always good to have another Cheesehead fan around. At least I know where I’ll be able to watch the (Packers) football games.”
BYU didn’t seem like a possible landing spot for Lucas when he went into the portal. Lucas was surprised when the Cougars’ coaching staff contacted him.
“I was like, ‘Wow.’ I didn’t think that BYU would contact me. I never thought it wasn’t an option,” he said. “I’ve always watched and heard about BYU. It was shocking. I was just grateful that they were interested.”
Leaving home — twice
After starring at Washington High in Milwaukee, Lucas signed with Illinois of the Big Ten.
As a freshman, Lucas had what he described as an “up and down” season. That year, 2016-17, the Illini beat BYU in Chicago but Lucas didn’t play in that game.
Lucas started the final 17 games of the season and at the end of which, his coach, John Groce, was fired. Under new coach Brad Underwood’s system, Lucas realized he wasn’t a good fit.
“I loved Illinois and it was close to my home city. My sophomore year, I tried to stick it out. Coach Underwood is a good coach. Coach Underwood brought the spread offense. It didn’t fit my skillset,” Lucas said. “I thought it would be best to make a transition after that year. I averaged 20-plus minutes. It wasn’t about playing time. It was finding a fit that fits me and be able to showcase my skills.”
At Illinois, Lucas played in 60 games, starting 34. He averaged 4.8 points as a freshman and 5.7 points as a sophomore.
When looking for a new home, Lucas decided to go home, back to Milwaukee.
The coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee was Pat Baldwin, who was previously an assistant at Northwestern.
“One of my best games my freshman year at Illinois was against Northwestern,” Lucas said. “(Baldwin) told me I could come to Milwaukee and be the face of the program and bring the city a conference championship. Milwaukee gave me an opportunity. I got to play these last two years. I didn’t reach my goals that I wanted to. I felt like for what I wanted to do, I had to transfer.”
So Lucas entered the transfer portal.
“Don’t get me wrong. I loved coming back and playing for my city. I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to come here and win a conference championship,” he said.
While winning a conference title didn’t happen, in one of his final games at Milwaukee, Lucas helped lead an amazing 24-point comeback that went viral. The Panthers rallied to beat Wright State in the Horizon League Tournament quarterfinals.
Now, Lucas is leaving home again — this time to go to BYU.
An assist from Haarms
While Lucas was exploring BYU as a possible destination, one of the people he talked to was former Cougars big man, 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms, who played at Purdue before finishing his career at BYU in 2020-21.
Haarms and Lucas had at least something in common — both played in the Big Ten.
“Me and Matt Haarms definitely talked before I made my decision. I got to pick his brain a little bit. I talked to (former Cougars guard) Brandon Averette,” Lucas said. “I grew up in the Midwest. It’s a different change for me. I know about the (BYU) honor code and the Mormons. I‘m trying to become more aware of my surroundings. I’m not educated on a lot of that stuff. Milwaukee’s very segregated. I wanted to make sure I know the ins-and-outs of the situation and make sure it’s the right fit. I love what I heard.”
Fueger encourages players considering BYU to talk to Haarms, Barcello and Averette about their experiences in Provo.
“Those guys love Utah. Matt said this is the most fun he had playing basketball. He loved BYU,” Fueger said. “It’s something that we encourage them to talk to those guys. They enjoyed their time here. Matt loved every second of it. He loved his teammates. When he saw that we landed Te’Jon, he was one of the first texts I got congratulating us.”
Potential impact at BYU
Fueger is optimistic about what Lucas will bring to BYU next season.
“This is his sixth year of college. He has tons of experience. He was an all-league player in the Horizon League for two years. He started a bunch of games in the Big Ten. He’s going to bring experience, toughness and an edge,” Fueger said. “And leadership. He’s going to bring all that stuff because he’s been through it all. The thing he really wants to do is win and get better. Those are the two main things that he’s focusing on. He’s going to bring a huge chip on his shoulder. We’re excited to have him.”
Lucas said BYU has everything he was looking for in a new school.
“My biggest thing was, for my last year, I wanted to go somewhere that I was comfortable and have a very successful year. I want to win and get to the NCAA Tournament and have a good run in there,” he said. “In order for me to accomplish what I want to do individually and as a team, I thought it was best for me to transfer out and find a program that has a culture and a tradition of making the tournament.”
The BYU coaching staff has made quite an impression on him as well.
“They’re very high energy guys. You can tell they love the game and they love to help people,” he said. “I’m very family oriented. That’s something that I pride myself on. I love their energy. They have a clear vision and they prioritized me and they showed me how they can help my game, as a team and individually.”
While Lucas has never visited the state of Utah, he’s looking forward to seeing it for himself during his relatively brief stint in Provo.
“I heard that it’s more beautiful than people think. A lot of people that I’m surrounded by have never been to Utah,” he said. “I’m excited to experience another part of the world. I’ve always lived in the Midwest. I’m looking forward to different scenery. I like going to different places, seeing different things, meeting different people. I love talking to people. It’s a great fan base. I’m excited to see what BYU has to offer.”
In the time since he committed to BYU, Lucas has been embraced by Cougars fans on social media.
“It’s an honor. I don’t take it for granted,” he said. “I look forward to keeping those faces happy as we try to win a conference championship. I appreciate and love the support.”
And he can’t wait to make himself comfortable at the Marriott Center. Now that the pandemic appears to be winding down, he’s looking forward to playing in front of huge crowds.
“That place looks amazing; it’s one of the best places to play in,” Lucas said. “I’ll be glad to call that place my home and play for my home crowd.”
As Lucas has learned, there’s no place like home. Right now, it’s not Milwaukee or Kansas. For a period of the next several months, his new home is BYU. And he’s hoping BYU, a place he’s never been to, will help him get to other places he’s never been before.