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Provo » A decent football player, a free safety, in his younger days, BYU guard Jackson Emery gave up the sport upon entering high school for fear of injuring a knee and ruining a promising basketball career.
But that doesn't mean the junior left all his defensive back instincts on the gridiron.
"I seemed to have a sense for knowing where the quarterback was going to throw the ball," he said. "And that has carried over into basketball. I have always had a knack for stealing the ball."
Last week against Colorado State, Emery recorded his 68th steal of the season to become BYU's all-time single-season steals leader, passing Marty Haws (1990). With 125 in his career, he's seventh on the school's career steals list and on track to possibly catch Danny Ainge, who had 195 from 1978-81.
Emery will be looking for a few more thefts on Wednesday night when the No. 13 Cougars (25-3) play host to red-hot San Diego State (20-7) in a key Mountain West Conference clash (7 p.m., CBS College) at the Marriott Center. He had three steals when the Cougars beat the Aztecs 71-69 last month in San Diego.
A member of the MWC's All-Defensive Team last season, Emery is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the best defenders in school history and is a strong candidate to win the league's Defensive Player of the Year Award, along with Utah shot-blocking ace David Foster.
The award usually goes to the league's top shot blocker, although BYU wings Travis Hansen (2003) and Mike Hall (2004) are past winners.
"I think that overall his understanding of our defensive concepts, and what we like to do, have just been terrific," coach Dave Rose said of Emery. "He's a great on-ball defender, but then he is a really good help defender, where he gets a lot of his steals.
"And then we put him on a lot of tough covers, as far as point guards and shooting guards. We have had him guard a really good three man at times. I would say that from my time here, he is one of the best perimeter defenders that we have had."
The toughest opponent Emery has been asked to guard?
He says it is Tre'Von Willis, the high-scoring junior from UNLV who is averaging 18.0 points per game, second in the MWC to BYU's Jimmer Fredette (21.5 ppg.).
"When Tre'Von is on, he's on, and the only thing you can do is make it as hard as possible. If he hits a shot, he hits a shot," Emery said. "The hardest thing about being a good defender is there are so many good offensive players. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is make them exert more energy scoring. If you are not all over them when they shoot, it is too easy."
Emery has never been asked to guard Fredette in practice, but he says he gets the chance in summer pickup games.
"It is fun," he said, without acknowledging who gets the edge. "It makes him better and it makes me better."
Emery wasn't as a defensive force when the Cougars recruited him out of nearby Lone Peak High School. Playing for coach Quincy Lewis, Emery often did not guard the opposing team's best player because his team needed him to stay out of foul trouble.
His mindset changed his freshman year at BYU.
"When I came here, I wasn't playing as much, and when you aren't playing as much, you have to figure out other ways to contribute to the team to help them win, and that way you can play more," he said. "I figured out my way was defense. They wanted a defensive stopper, and so I worked really hard on that. That's kind of what I have turned into, and that's what they have used me for. I have taken pride in that."
Partly because of Emery's commitment to defense, BYU ranks first in the MWC in field-goal percentage defense (39.6 percent) and is second in three-point field goal percentage defense (31.8 percent) and scoring defense, yielding just 63.6 ppg.
|Player ||School ||Year ||No. ||Avg./G|
|Jackson Emery ||BYU ||Jr. ||68 ||2.5|
|A.J. Davis ||Wyoming ||Soph. ||38 ||1.7|
|Roman Martinez ||New Mexico ||Sr. ||43 ||1.5|
|Chace Stanback ||UNLV ||Soph. ||38 ||1.4|
|Tyrone Shelley ||SDSU ||Soph. ||35 ||1.4|
|D.J. Gay ||SDSU ||Jr. ||37 ||1.4|
|Jimmer Fredette ||BYU ||Jr. ||35 ||1.3|
|Danny Ainge ||1978-81 ||195|
|Marty Haws ||1987-90 ||182|
|Scott Sinek ||1982-85 ||140|
|Nathan Call ||1986-91 ||138|
|Russell Larson ||1992-95 ||131|
|Lee Cummard ||2006-09 ||129|
|Jackson Emery ||2005-||125|
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