by Eldon Khorshidi | @eldonadam
Lone Peak (UT) High School exploded onto the high school basketball scene last season, when the then-BYU-bound triumvirate of Nick Emery, Eric Mika and TJ Haws helped the Knights to a 26-1 record. They dominated local and national competition from November to March, and were considered by some as the best team in the country.
But that was last year. With Emery and Mika now gone, people were unsure if Haws could sustain—let alone build on—the team’s success. But after a 10-2 start, and a current 18-3 record, all doubts have been quelled.
A 6-3 combo guard with range, solid bounce and elite intangibles, Haws has cemented himself as a capable leader, the best guard in Utah, and one of the top overall players in the country. Following in the footsteps of his older brother Tyler—who is currently tearing it up at BYU, averaging 23 points per game—TJ will embark on a two-year LDS mission this May, then suit up for the hometown Cougars in 2016-17.
SLAMonline recently caught up with TJ to discuss the current season, his future at BYU, his upcoming Mormon mission and more.
SLAM: You’re now a senior, and the leader of Lone Peak. How’s everything been so far?
TJ Haws: This year has been so much fun. It’s definitely a different team from last year. But the guys are fun to be around, they’re all very hard workers. We’ve been putting in hard work everyday, and the results have been rewarding. It’s definitely been a fun year.
SLAM: Without Nick and Eric around, has your tone changed to assume more of a leadership role?
TJ: I’ve always tried to be a leader, ever since I stepped foot in this program. But yeah, this year, without Nick or Eric or Talon, I’ve definitely had to step it up, in terms of being more vocal. I may be the leader, but I feel like guys view me the same as always—I’m still their friend. Our team is so committed and we’re all on the same page, so “leadership” is never an issue.
SLAM: You mentioned Talon Shumway. He was good last year, sometimes overlooked, kind of like Lone Peak’s X-factor. Is he playing in college?
TJ: He’s committed to play football at BYU, but he’s actually on an LDS mission right now. He’ll be back in a couple of years.
SLAM: You’ve had a terrific year. The team is 18-3, and you’ve been playing well. There was a stretch in January when you caught fire, scoring a school-record 40 points in essentially three quarters, then dropping 37 the next game. How have you been able to sustain last year’s success?
TJ: Well, we’ve been working really hard in practice lately, and all the guys have gained confidence to take—and make—shots. So it makes my job a lot easier, because if my teammates are making shots, it spreads out the defense, and I get one-on-one matchups. I think my strong play is a result of my teammates playing so well. It’s fun right now; we’re having a blast.
SLAM: Is there a Utah state championship you guys are aiming for?
TJ: Yeah, our goal at Lone Peak is always to win a state championship.
SLAM: Did you win it last year?
TJ: Yeah. I’ve actually won it freshman, sophomore and junior year.
SLAM: Are you more of a point guard or shooting guard, and how would you describe your game to someone who’s never seen you play?
TJ: I mostly played shooting guard during my first three years in high school. But this year I’ve been playing point guard. As a player, I try to be consistent in making the right “basketball play.” That means getting a teammate an open shot, or if I have to score, I feel like I try to make the right basketball play. I don’t force things. I use my speed really well. Lone Peak likes to push the ball—we’re a fast team, so I try to use my speed as best as I can, which leads to transition, where the court opens up. I feel like I’m a pretty good 3-point shooter. I like to shoot from outside, and I feel like I have range, so I can extend the defense.
SLAM: Is there a specific NBA player you look up to, or try to model your game after?
TJ: Steph Curry. He’s my favorite player. I love watching his game, and I try to pick up after what he does.
SLAM: What aspect of your game do you need to improve the most?
TJ: Something I’ve always lacked is strength. I feel like I’m strong, but I know I can always get stronger. I also need to improve my defense.
SLAM: What aspect of defense? Moving laterally, playing help defense, your anticipation skills…
TJ: Maybe just on-ball defense.
SLAM: How do you go about gaining strength? Is it just about eating a lot, and hitting the weight room? Is there a specific strategy to get stronger? Is that something you struggle with?
TJ: It’s funny because my brother, Tyler, me and him were born with two completely different bodies. He’s always been thick and naturally strong. And I’ve always been very slim. It’s just harder for me to gain muscle. But I feel like I work really hard in the weight room. I feel like I need to really focus on having a strict diet and lifting to really gain weight.
SLAM: Speaking of Tyler, he’s on fire at BYU—23 points per game is really impressive. Do you take things from his game?
TJ: Me and Tyler are very close. I get to see him play a lot, because Provo is 25 minutes from my house, so I make sure to keep close contact with Ty. But we mostly talk about other stuff, and try not to focus on hoops so much. On the court, I’m really impressed with what he’s doing. I’m his number one fan, and I’m very happy when he’s having success. He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s really unbelievable.
SLAM: People don’t realize he spent two years away from the game.
TJ: Coming off a two-year mission, you don’t play basketball a lot—hardly ever. A mission is just to serve, and bring people closer to Christ. So you’re not playing basketball at all. You’re not working on your game.
You come home after you finish your mission, and your legs aren’t there, your shooting isn’t there, your feel for the game isn’t there. I was so impressed with him coming home. He came back, did like four-a-day workouts, and willed his way back into basketball shape.
Tyler wasn’t born with a lot of talent—he got cut from his third grade team. So he just decided he was going to work really hard, harder than everyone else. So it’s nice to see what he’s doing, and to see all his hard work paying off.
SLAM: Is that something you try to emulate? Lone Peak head Coach Quincy Lewis was telling me you’re one of the hardest working players he’s ever seen.
TJ: Yeah, my dad always instilled in us to control the things we can control. We may not be the most athletic players, but we can work hard, we can outwork people, and that’s something we can control as basketball players.
SLAM: Aside from the obvious—your brother plays there, it’s close to home, and it’s a Mormon school—why did you commit to BYU?
TJ: I committed the summer before my sophomore year. At the time, I had two offers—BYU and Utah—and I had only played one year of high school basketball. But BYU already wanted me. I felt so comfortable at BYU, and felt like there was no point in wasting my time and wasting other colleges’ time if I wasn’t thinking of going somewhere else.
Also, BYU plays the same type of basketball as Lone Peak—fast paced—which I’m very excited about. I love the coaching staff, love the atmosphere there. It was a pretty easy decision.
SLAM: If you would, educate me on the LDS mission.
TJ: [Laughs] You essentially take two years off to serve Jesus Christ. He’s given us so much in our life, so we want to give back to our Savior for two years.
You’re assigned to one of the missionary training centers around the world, and for two years, you go away from basketball, you go away from your family. You can’t watch TV, you can’t have a cell phone. You just work towards bringing people closer to Christ. We believe that, through Christ and his atonement, we can live with him forever, and we can have eternal life, and live with our families forever. And that’s something missionaries try to do—bring families together, bring them closer to Christ, and strive for eternal life. We do a lot of community service, a lot of study, and dig deeper than what we’re currently doing.
SLAM: Do you get to choose your location?
TJ: Nope. You go wherever you’re called. So my girlfriend just got called to New York. My brother went to the Philippines. [TJ received his mission letter last week. He’s going to France.–Ed.]
SLAM: From a basketball standpoint, I imagine it’s incredibly difficult to come back and get back in the groove, get back in “peak” shape, if you will.
TJ: Definitely. Well I’ve known I was going on a mission since I was as kid, so I’ve mentally prepared for this moment. I know basketball will be here when I come back, but to serve our Heavenly Father is something I feel the need to do. But it will be hard.
SLAM: Do you think it’s tough to get looked at from an NBA standpoint if you go on your mission?
TJ: I think stepping away from something you love is very hard. But like I said, you have to step back and look at the bigger picture, and think, What’s more important in life? And I feel like, as far as basketball goes, there are plenty of examples around us. I look at my brother, who didn’t play a pick-up game for months in the Philippines, and he came back and picked up right where he left off, or even better than where he was. It just takes a lot of hard work. If we come back from our missions, if we work hard, there’s no reason we can’t get back to where we are now.
SLAM: Personally, I’ve always thought Utah is one of the most underrated states, in terms of high school basketball. There are so many under-recruited kids in my opinion. From the Lone Peak group to Utah commit Brekkott Chapman to Gonzaga commit Jesse Wade to Jalen Moore, who’s currently at Utah Sate, there’s a lot of talent. Would you agree?
TJ: Yeah. I think Utah basketball is definitely underrated as far as looking at it from a national standpoint. But I feel like what we did last year proved we can play with anyone. I think a lot of Utah basketball teams are fundamentally sound, you know, we play together as a team. We have good team defense, and I feel like that’s often overlooked.
SLAM: What are your goals for the rest of this season?
TJ: As a team, we want to win the state championship. Individually, I’m trying to be an efficient scorer. I don’t want to score 25 points and be shooting 20, or 30 percent. So I’m trying to be efficient, trying to get my teammates involved. And really, I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to win each game, figure that out and make it happen.
For more on TJ, be sure to pick up a copy of SLAM 176, on sale now.