An early regular-season game on Nov. 26 doesn’t seem like a momentous occasion for a college basketball player, but Utah Valley University guard Conner Toolson has a different perspective. On that day in 2016, he took another step forward out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Toolson was born in Spain, where his father was playing professional basketball. Andy had a couple of brief stints with the Utah Jazz in the NBA, but he spent most of his 10-year career in Europe before returning to his alma mater, Brigham Young University, for an assistant coaching position in 2001 when Conner was six.
With those ties to BYU, Conner grew up a fan of Cougar basketball and for a good part of his young life, he had hopes of playing there. But Toolson played his high school ball at Lone Peak, in the same graduating class that produced current Cougars Nick Emery and Eric Mika, and one year ahead of TJ Haws. When college coaches came to see the Knights, Toolson was the “other guy.”
“It didn’t get to me too much, actually. I really didn’t mind (not getting the attention),” Toolson said. “I knew eventually that I probably wouldn’t excel playing with those guys for the rest of my life, I’d always be playing behind them.
“It didn’t get to me too much, actually. I really didn’t mind (not getting the attention),” Toolson said. “I knew eventually that I probably wouldn’t excel playing with those guys for the rest of my life, I’d always be playing behind them.” — Conner Toolson, UVU guard
“I actually had a chance to transfer to Orem after my freshman year and I chose not to because they’re my buddies and I’d been playing with them all my life. We were winning and that’s really all that matters. I figured if I’m playing against them every day I’m probably going to get better than maybe being a star somewhere.”
Toolson was a big part of those state championship teams at Lone Peak and delivered big performances during the 2013 run to the MaxPreps national championship. Playing in the shadow of those higher-profile stars, the only schools that came calling were junior colleges.
“Even through my senior year, BYU was out of the picture for me,” Toolson said. “I didn’t think it would be the best place for me. I wanted to play on scholarship. I didn’t want to walk on.”
Junior College Path
So Toolson left for his two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Fort Worth, Texas, leaving decisions about his basketball future for later. Upon his return, he decided to begin his college basketball journey at one of the junior colleges that had expressed interest in him.
“I decided to go to SLCC with a few months left on my mission,” Toolson said. “I decided to go there and see what happens, play a year there and see about the opportunities.”
That turned out to be a good decision as Toolson played a key role on a Bruin team that won the 2016 NJCAA national championship. In fact, Toolson was the MVP at the national tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas. He had committed to UVU in February, but his huge performance at that national tournament created some anxious moments for UVU head coach Mark Pope.
“I’m at Hutch and here’s Conner Toolson with a verbal commitment to little Utah Valley and I’ve got coaches from the ACC and the Big 12 and the Pac 12 all hovering around saying, ‘Is this kid really coming to your place? You’ve got to be kidding,'” Pope said. “It was really nervous times for us, there’s no doubt about that.”
For Toolson, there was no wavering once he had committed to move on to UVU for this season. He was drawn to what Pope and his coaching staff were building.
“I was set on going to UVU. It was the coaches and the ability to grow, the potential it could be,” Toolson said. “We started out with nothing and just building the program, so I wanted to be part of that and make history for the school. I thought that’d be kind of cool.”
Pope was already kicking himself for possibly missing out on Toolson before that one year at SLCC. After taking the job at UVU, Pope and his coaching staff had talked about offering Toolson immediately off his mission, but they just didn’t know for sure with his having been out of sight for two years.
“He came back off his mission and I think it was only a few weeks after he got home from his mission and he came to our gym and played pick-up with our guys and I just remember getting reports from our guys that this guy is unbelievable,” Pope said. “I wanted to kill myself because it made everything way harder. He came back as a player ready to roll and get work done.”
Pope’s contact with Toolson goes back to those days at Lone Peak, when the coach was in the gym often as a BYU assistant, looking at all those future Cougars. He says that while it is probably more anecdotal than purely statistically accurate, Toolson should have received more attention.
“You would go to those games, and Nick and TJ and Eric had huge reputations, and then Talon Shumway was really good too, a really terrific athlete,” Pope said. “From game to game to game, you’d see one of those four guys just go off. They’d take turns and then … the second leading scorer on the team or the most efficient guy every time I left the gym was this guy Conner Toolson.
“He probably weighed 160 at the time, a little skinny kid, and I remember having conversations and it was, ‘Am I missing on this?’ You’d walk out of the game and everybody else would be so flashy, but Conner Toolson would be 5-for-6 from the 3-point line, 7-for-9 from the field, have zero turnovers and four assists and played impeccable defense and you’d think, ‘Wait a second, am I really paying close enough attention?'”
That 160-pound kid has now become a 6-foot-4, 185-pound man and Pope is thrilled that he finally ended up at UVU. He loves his poise and command of the game, and he still thinks he’s one of the most efficient players he’s seen.
“Conner is about as understated a person and a player as you get. What I mean by that is he’s just quiet, he’s pretty unflappable, he just goes about his business and then he just puts up these ridiculous numbers.” — Mark Pope, UVU basketball coach
“Conner is about as understated a person and a player as you get. What I mean by that is he’s just quiet, he’s pretty unflappable, he just goes about his business and then he just puts up these ridiculous numbers,” Pope said. “He’s so incredibly efficient with his game and he’s going to develop into a really, really great basketball player and I’m not overstating that. He’s going to grow into a great basketball player at Utah Valley.”
So far, the sophomore guard is averaging 14.9 points per game for the Wolverines, in 27.1 minutes per night. It’s a good start for a guy who’s been a part of winning teams everywhere he’s been. Pope saw the first signs during the season opener against Idaho State.
“Conner had been pretty quiet for us in the first four months of practice,” Pope said. “We were trying to figure out where he would fit in and in the last 10 minutes of that game he took over everything. He got every rebound, made every shot, made every play, got us a win.”
Into the Spotlight
But the biggest day, outside a championship game, for Toolson came in that Nov. 26 contest, on the road in a familiar place, BYU’s Marriott Center. He scored 21 points on a great shooting night as the Wolverines upset the Cougars 114–101. Somewhat jokingly, he had predicted this one in a discussion with one of his missionary companions.
“Honestly, right out of high school I was kind of bitter towards BYU actually. If you don’t recruit me, I’ll go somewhere else and then I’ll beat you,” Toolson said. “It’s funny because I actually remember telling one of my companions on my mission, ‘I’m going to go to a school, I don’t know where I’m going to go, but I’m going to a school and we’re going to play against BYU and beat them on their home floor.’ He texted me after the game and said, ‘Do you remember when you told me that when we were companions?’ I had forgotten about that.”
UVU is still in building mode, but Pope has the program on an upward trajectory and now that he has stepped out into the spotlight, Conner Toolson is a big part of that plan.