PROVO — Looking at the roster of the BYU women’s basketball team may remind some observers of the United Nations Security Council.
The Cougars have six international players on the 2018-19 rosters, including a trio of New Zealanders in returning center Shalae Salmon, guard Khaedin Tato and freshman Kaylee Smiler. In addition, BYU will field two players from Brazil (Maria Albiero and Bablu Ugwu), and welcome Signe Glantz from Ostersund, Sweden.
But don’t mistake “diversity” on the roster for cliques, Salmon cautions. That was a big emphasis of head coach Jeff Judkins and his staff in the offseason — and led to the squad’s preseason trip to Europe.
“We bonded on and off the court,” Salmon said. “Building chemistry is so important … but to be able to bond with the freshmen was huge. There are a lot of diverse players on our team this year; we’re pretty international.”
Salmon, who averaged 4.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game a year ago, came to BYU while following fellow Kiwi Kalani Purcell, the former BYU point forward who turned into a rebounding phenom before a successful career with the New Zealand national team.
That made it easier to adapt to BYU, she said. It also was a common path, Judkins added.
“You sign one kid like we did in Kalani (Purcell) from New Zealand, and girls see her success — then people just get ahold of you,” Judkins said. “It’s not like we went scouting all these girls. … It’s just word of mouth. I think by having her successful, it’s opened a lot of doors — and so is Shalae now that she is here.”
The ideal scenario is to redshirt an international player, allowing them one year to adapt to a new culture, a new style of basketball and a new system, according to the head coach.
Even within the rectangular bounds of the basketball court, American hoops can be quite the culture shock to international players.
“The roles and the way they play the game here is a lot faster. In New Zealand, we rely more on strength,” Salmon said. “The game in America is so much quicker. You have to think a lot more, and there are more specific roles. I really had to learn what I was good at, and what my role was on the team.”
In addition to the international roster, the other main component of this year’s team is youth. Seven of the squad’s 16 players are freshmen, and the team’s senior class was so small that Judkins brought in former BYU softball standout Caitlyn Alldredge — a two-time all-state basketball player at Viewmont High — to pair with fellow senior Jasmine Moody.
Only two starters return from last year’s team in junior Brenna Chase and sophomore Sara Hamson, the reigning West Coast Conference defensive player of the year who led the nation a year ago with 4.3 blocks per game.
There’s “no question” those two will be tasked to lead individually, Judkins said, especially in the early season.
“Two years ago, she was just a little freshman, and now Brenna is a seasoned veteran that goes through everything,” Judkins said. “That maturity doesn’t happen overnight. But she has really taken it to heart and done a great job.”
That’s not to say the young players won’t get chances to play — or even that they can’t excel. Former Mountain View star Tahlia White, the daughter of former BYU women’s hoops standout Bekha Stafford, averaged 23.6 points per game as a senior for the Bruins en route to all-state honors, and 5-foot-9 freshman Shaylee Gonzales posted seven career triple-doubles at Mesquite High in Gilbert, Arizona.
There’s talent in the youth.
“Our freshmen this year have come in and surprised a lot of us,” said Chase, who led the WCC in 3-point shooting en route to 13.5 points per game a year ago. “Shaylee, Tahlia, Babalu and Sig have all come in and shown us things that we haven’t seen in most freshmen classes.”
Hamson will miss the first month of the season with an injury suffered during preseason with the women’s volleyball team. But Judkins calls her rehab “way ahead of schedule,” and says she should return by the Cougars’ Dec. 8 trip to archrival Utah.
Even a return the week before at Southern Utah or Utah Valley isn’t out of the question.
Until then, the Cougars will lean on Salmon in the post, as well as former Pleasant Grove standout Malli Valgardson, the 6-foot-5 forward who redshirted last year.
Not to mention the chemistry built up from their cross-country trek through Europe.
“The trip to Europe was a real blessing with so many underclassmen,” Judkins said. “They got a good idea of what we are all about.”
BYU opens the season Tuesday, Nov. 6, with an exhibition against Dixie State. The Cougars open the regular season three days later against UC Riverside at 5 p.m. MDT, the first of three-straight home games that include visits from Pac 12 power Cal and Eastern Washington.