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Provo • You know your freshman season is not going as well as you would have liked when you were once a top-100 recruit but you are celebrated more for your hilarious antics and comedic routines on the bench than your rebounds, points and assists on the court.
That's the situation BYU's 6-foot-10 forward Payton Dastrup finds himself in, eight months removed from an LDS Church mission to Panama that saw him gain 40 pounds and lose some of the shooting and ball-handling skills he displayed as a highly recruited star at Mountain View High in Mesa, Ariz.
"It hasn't been the first year at BYU a lot of people had in mind, including myself," Dastrup said last week. "But it is coming back, slowly but surely."
Some critics contend that the missionary program gives BYU an advantage because its players are often older and more mature than their counterparts. But for every Tyler Haws, Kyle Collinsworth and Eric Mika players who have returned from two-year church service without skipping a beat there's a Payton Dastrup. He was good enough in high school to be recruited by the likes of Kansas, Arizona, UCLA, Virginia, Florida and Ohio State.
Dastrup, ranked No. 98 in the ESPN Top 100 and No. 84 by Scout.com, committed to Ohio State and coach Thad Matta a week before the November 2013 signing period, saying the Buckeyes were better at "getting people into the NBA." But he changed his mind a couple days later and signed with the program he dreamed of playing for most of his life, BYU.
Dastrup mostly has been a nonfactor for the Cougars (19-10) with two games remaining in the regular season Thursday at Portland and Saturday at No. 1 Gonzaga. Buried on the bench until recently, he has appeared in just 20 games and averaged just 1.4 points and 1.5 rebounds in 4.5 minutes per game.
Assistant coach Quincy Lewis said recently that Dastrup "has made great strides" the last month, and coach Dave Rose said Dastrup has earned more playing time through his hard work in practice and as his fitness level has improved. Dastrup played 12 minutes and scored five points in the 99-83 loss at Pepperdine on Feb. 9, but got just 6, 7 and 4 minutes the next three games against San Francisco, San Diego and No. 20 Saint Mary's.
"Payton just needs time out there to feel more comfortable," Rose said. "But I think his attention to detail, as far as being accountable to what we want him to do, is getting better. I think he's in better shape. He can play longer periods of time, longer stretches. But he still is relatively new to that time out there. I just hope we can get him more minutes and he can feel more comfortable because I like what I see and I like the potential that he has."
Dastrup weighed 230 pounds in high school and when he left for Panama City, but he returned at 270. He's down to 255 and getting over "mission legs" that have delayed his progress.
"I feel like I am getting there still," he said, helped in part by consulting with Collinsworth a "clean-eating guru," Dastrup said on a proper diet for an athlete.
"In terms of conditioning and getting up and down the floor, I feel a lot more comfortable than I did at the beginning of the season," Dastrup said. "And with time, with practice, with the conditioning that we've done, I feel like I am really coming into my own. If it doesn't show the rest of the season, next year for sure it will be noticed that I am back at full strength and full capability."
Dastrup said when he returned last June, he met with Rose and they discussed the possibility of redshirting, but they mutually agreed it wasn't in his best interest. Rose said in October that Dastrup, fellow freshman Yoeli Childs, Mika, junior Jamal Aytes, senior Kyle Davis and sophomore Braiden Shaw would combine to give BYU the best frontline in the coach's 12-year tenure.
But Davis suffered a season-ending knee injury, Dastrup was not ready physically, Shaw has turned out to be nothing more than a role player and Aytes hasn't delivered much in limited playing time. Mika and Childs have been forced to carry the load.
"At the beginning of the season, I didn't see as much time as maybe I would have liked to, which is understandable, coming off a mission," Dastrup said. "But the increase in minutes the past few games, I have tried to just go in and play my game, not do anything too crazy, do what I know I am capable of doing and just help the team as much as I could."
He's also struggled to find the right position. BYU recruited him as a stretch four, a guy more adept at facing the basket and hitting shots from the perimeter. But he's just not quick enough to guard opposing power forwards and wings, especially when they take him outside, and Mika and Childs are better in the post.
"We have seen bits and pieces of what I am capable of doing, and once I get my confidence back then I will be able to do a lot to help the team and be comfortable with the style of play and the coaching staff we have here," he said. "After the season, we are going to get right back at it as soon as possible and prepare for the success that we are going to have in the years to come."
Then BYU fans will see the real Payton Dastrup, he concluded, the one many big-time programs wanted when he was in high school.
• Named a four-star recruit out of Arizona's Mountain View High by ESPN, Scout and Rivals
• Averaged 16.5 points and 13 rebounds per game as a prep senior and originally committed to Ohio State
• Served an LDS Church mission to Panama before enrolling at BYU
• Has appeared in 20 games as a BYU freshman and scored 27 points in 90 minutes of action