Q & A with Emily Potter, Utah’s standout sophomore post, primed for a breakout season

Photo courtesy of Bryan Byerly, Utah Athletics.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Lynne Roberts was asked about Emily Potter. The first-year Utah coach said simply of the redshirt-sophomore Ute, She’s a stud.

It’s hard not to think in levels of hyperbole when it comes to Potter, a redshirt-sophomore. Here is a 6–6 post who is one of the most gifted athletes in the Pac-12 Conference.

At Pacific, Roberts’s previous coaching destination, her teams played fast, but it was a pace grounded in technical acumen. Canny distribution and smart cutting were the norm. It will take time to fill Utah’s roster with the type of athlete who can make the system hum in a Pac-12 setting, but the good news is, Potter will make an immediate impact. Twenty-nine points and 12 rebounds, in just 25 minutes of an exhibition game last week, attest to talent rapidly becoming tethered to production.

On Friday, Utah opens its season at home against a very good South Dakota team. The night before, Potter took time to speak with Alley Whoops.

Alley Whoops: Not only were Michelle Plouffe and Taryn Wicijowski upperclassmen when you entered the program two years ago, they were fellow Canadians who’ll go down as two of the best ever to play for Utah. What did you learn from each of them?

Emily Potter: Yeah, definitely having multiple Canadians on the team made it feel like home. I came in expecting to learn a lot from them and play behind them my freshman year, but unfortunately, Taryn got injured. (Wicijowski missed the ‘13–14 season to injury.)

So, Taryn and I have never actually played a game on the court together. But last year, being out, anything you can pick up, from great players that have been in this program, it’s great.

AW: When Utah players are asked about their favorite things about Salt Lake City, the scenery is a frequent response. What do you love about SLC? Does it remind you of home, in any way? (Potter is from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.)

EP: It definitely does not remind me of home. (Laughs) I come from very flat prairies, so I thought the mountains were a nice change of pace. It’s definitely very pretty here. I like the weather; it’s not as cold as it is at home. It’s much hotter. I love campus, and all the great facilities we have here.

I live on campus, and I live in our new team room, and our study hall, and our weight room, and our training room—they’re all located right beside each other. It’s great.

AW: How did you get your start in basketball? Who were some of the biggest influences in your skill development?

EP: I didn’t start playing until junior high, so seventh grade, but I always knew it was something I wanted to do. Both my parents played, and my dad was a junior high coach for 10+ years, and both my older sisters played. I just started doing skills a couple times a week in the seventh and eighth grades; there was a Junior Bisons program at the University of Manitoba.

That’s where I spent my junior high days. So, we didn’t play games, we didn’t really have any tournaments; maybe just three tournaments a year, where we’d go to states, or play in the city. But mostly, we just worked on skills on Sundays, and one night during the week. Just form. It wasn’t the funnest thing, but it really helped me.

And then, my freshman year of high school, that’s kind of when I decided this is something I want to do—I want to play basketball year-round, throughout the summer. And we have a provincial team program, so each province in Canada has their best players play on that. Then, there’s a nationals competition, where each provincial team plays each other, so that was definitely helpful. It was the best players in the province, all working together.

And then from there, I had a really great high school coach, and my high school program has a history of doing well. Bryan Kornberger—he was a saint. Opened the gym for me every morning to go in and shoot, my junior and senior years, to get ready to go to college.

AW: You missed last season after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament. How did the injury happen? What were the toughest parts of recuperation? What was a “day in the life” of rehab?

EP: It happened at the end of September (2014), it was one week from the start of official practice. There was one week left of preseason, when you have your two hours a week that you can get in with your team, so we were doing a team practice for an hour.

The ball got turned over, and I had it, so I was on a breakaway layup, and I planted, and my knee just gave in, and I felt a snap. It was…something I’d done a million times, and we’d been doing a lot of ACL rehab as a team throughout the summer, and testing too, and I really wasn’t that high at risk, but it just happened. Yeah.

It seems so little, looking back on it, but it requires surgery, and nine, 10 months before I was cleared to do full contact again on the court. So it’s crazy how something that little can take away an entire basketball season. I’ve twisted an ankle before, so I’ve sat out for a couple weeks, but it was really…it was really difficult for me, especially with how good I felt last summer. I was really excited for the ‘14–15 season, and the things we’d be capable of doing as a team.

Rehab-wise, I had my surgery at the end of October, and looking back, it seems like time has flown. But day by day, it really, really stretched out. I just tried to look forward to the next big milestone. First, it was getting off crutches. Walking normally. A month after surgery, that’s when I could sweat again. I could get on the elliptical, I could get on the bike. Two months after surgery, you can start running, so I ran underwater, and then there was the first time I could run on the court, and jump. Just little milestones to get back, piece by piece. That first month back on the court, I could shoot free throws; then, jump shots again. It was just trying to find the small victories during rehab.

You’re starting from square one, and you’re building yourself all the way back up. I think it was a beneficial process, to kind of correct mistakes. You’ve got to completely rebalance yourself, re-grow your strength. I felt like Bambi, learning to run. There were days where I was like, I’m never going to be good at this again. You just don’t feel like yourself. But I’m here now. It’s weird. It seems far away in my mind, but it was not that long ago.

AW: Support system you relied upon during rehab?

EP: My dad tore his ACL when he was in high school, and so did my older sister, so they knew what I was going through — my older sister, especially. She played for the University of Manitoba, back home, and she’s a couple years older than me. When I was in high school, she was also in high school, and that’s when she tore her ACL, and I definitely did not give her enough credit as I should have, having gone through it myself, now. She didn’t have all the resources I had, at Utah.

I was doing physical therapy every day, so I have to credit my trainer, Lindsay. We spent too much time together! Also, the (previous) Utah coaching staff. They’re not here any more gave me ample opportunity to sit in on anything I wanted, and learn about any part of the game I wanted, to see it from a different perspective.

And also, there’s a sport psychologist we have at the university, who’s available to all the athletes. I had weekly meetings with her, and that’s something that I still try to doan outside person that you can bounce ideas and thoughts and concerns off of.

AW: How much did it help to have your mom in Salt Lake City for your surgery last year?

EP: Oh yeah, I don’t think I would’ve survived without her. Just now, I’ve been kind of sick with a cold, and I just want my mom to be here. It’s hard when you’re on your own, and living by yourself. No one takes care of you anymore. It’s just you! So, it was really helpful to have her with me. Definitely helped the healing process a lot.

AW: Your dedication to fitness has been hailed this offseason. How did you develop such a base, coming off the injury?

EP: Yeah, all the conditioning you do when you can’t play basketball was really helpful, and the more up-tempo pace of our team this year has definitely got me in the best shape of my life. Physically and mentally.

AW: In your twitter bio, there’s #PlayFor22: what is the significance?

EP: That’s for Lauren Hill, who died of brain cancer. I started following her story when it first got big last year. It was around the same time that I tore my ACL. They’d moved up Lauren’s first game last season, because they didn’t know how long she’d be healthy enough to play. So I watched her first basketball game, three days after my knee surgery. I was lying in bed, and I turned it on, and she was just really inspirational to me.

I was, you know, doing a little self-pitying at that point, really upset that I couldn’t play my entire basketball season. Then I saw her love for basketball, and she became a role model for me. Sometimes, I need to remind myself that I love it, and why I love it.

AW: This offseason, Danielle Rodriguez hailed the enthusiasm of Lynne Roberts, and her coaching staff. What impression have they made for you, these first seven months?

EP: I just think the vibe of a fresh start, and them coming in, everyone started with a really good mentality. With a new coach, everybody wants to prove themselves, so everybody’s been on their A-game. My teammates, I’ve seen them work so, so hard this past summer. It was really, really tough, but we’re definitely in great shape. We have a new strength and conditioning coach, and she’s great.

The thing I like most about Lynne is her competitiveness. I really like her fire. And we talk to each other about that, often—how we’re both really competitive. She tries to calm me down when I’m frustrated. She knows I’m doing it out of competitiveness, but she tries to steer me to remain calm.

AW: Did the staff talk with you about expectations and personal goals for this season?

EP: Consistency was one thing that Lynne really emphasized, and that makes a lot of sense to me. Whatever my team needs from me, I want to deliver that. Whether it’s 20 and 10 every night, I don’t know quite yet what we’re going to need.

But just being consistent, being that post presence that can finish when I’m needed, and being able to run the floor, and being a big presence on defense, to take away the other team’s best post. I need to be that person for my team, and always be there. I don’t want to foul, I don’t want to put myself at risk to not be able to help my team.

AW: What have been your impressions so far of Roberts’s system? How would you describe it? How do you feel you can succeed in it?

EP: I was a little nervous at first, not gonna lie. When she came in, I’d done my research on her, and I knew she played a really up-tempo style. There’s me, and there’s also Joeseta (Fatuesi), and we’re centers, and that was the first thing I asked her.

And she said, ‘I’m going to use you guys to your strengths’. And that’s something that she’s doing and will continue to do as the season goes on. And we’ll see if or what adjustments we have to make, but we’re running the floor, and if I’m also running the floor, I know I’m going to be rewarded me for beating my man down the court.

And by running the court, that gives me a chance to establish down low and get early post-ups. That’s my favorite thing to do. If I get an early post up, there’s not much chance of me passing it back out. (Laughs) I love being around the basket, but also, the chance to get out a little bit, 10 to 15 feet from the hoop, I enjoy that as well.

AW: Lynne had a good anecdote in Wednesday’s press conference, about when she was a player, counting down the days to that first game of the season. What is the anticipation like for you?

EP: Yeah, it’s really weird. The one-year anniversary from when I tore my ACL, I was very aware of that, and then the one-year anniversary of surgery, and the first day of official practice this season, I was pumped. Then, we had a closed scrimmage against our practice guys, so that was fun for me. We had another closed scrimmage, and it hit me then, like, Wow, I’m here.

Same with the exhibition last Friday. I hope I got out all my nerves in that one. When we were huddled up before the game started, that’s when it kind of hit me, I was super happy. I had to pull myself together.

I’m not an emotional person, but I feel like since hurting myself I am way more emotional. The last two days, I’ve actually felt pretty calm, which is kind of unusual. Usually, I’m pretty nervous before games, like I was my freshman season, but I feel like I have it all figured out.

I’m not nervous, because I trust in everything we’ve done to prepare, and everything I’ve done to prepare. This is a fun time. Now’s the time to get on the court and let loose and let it fly and have fun with my teammates. I’m really excited.

Photo courtesy of Bryan Byerly.

AW: Your stat line in the exhibition last week was, in a word, efficient. How did you feel?

EP: During the games, that’s the most fun for me, I try to just play to my strengths. I had a couple of low-post moves, some passes in transition for layups, where I beat my man down the floor.

But as soon as the game is over, I’m like, Man, I should have really made *that* layup—I was 12-of-21 from the floor! So I know there’s a lot of improvement, to make some of the easy shots I missed, and working on my shot selection as well, playing slower.

I hit some shots from maybe seven feet, but I need more going into contact, getting to the free throw line. I had three trips to the free throw line, but I want it to be more than that every game. So, just focusing on staying aggressive is a focal point I’ll have for tomorrow.

AW: It’s an off day. How do you usually spend your time?

EP: An off day. Hmm…do I have class, or is it the weekend? The weekend? Hmm…sometimes I like to just go on a hike. Right behind my dorms, there’s trails to pretty much go anywhere you want, for a couple hours, and I just enjoy the weather, because it’s usually really nice here.

And homework. I usually have a lot of homework. And, movies with my teammates. Any time I’m hanging out with my teammates, it’s always super fun. Sometimes, it’s just all of us as a team hanging out together. One of the teammates that has a house, there’s 15 of us, and whenever we hang out as a group, we don’t have to be doing anything—we could just be sitting in a room with 15 of us, and we could entertain ourselves for hours.

So, they’re my family out here. Even though I live with my teammates, and I see them every day, if I don’t see them on an off day, it’s kind of weird. And finally, you know, I like resting. Sleeping.

AW: Growing up, I would’ve been so pumped to share a last name with that wizard, Harry. Were you an HP fan growing up?

EP: No, I actually wasn’t. My sister was, but I haven’t even seen all the movies. But Potter: that’s usually what I go by on campus. All my teammates, and all the athletes that know me—that’s kind of my name, here.

AW: What do you miss most about Winnipeg? What were your favorite things about it, when you were growing up?

EP: It’s really, really cold there, but I do love the snow a lot, so to have no snow here in Salt Lake City, at almost the middle of November, it’s kind of weird for me. I’ve had Halloweens, when I was a kid, and I had wear a snow suit, because it was a snow storm outside, in October. So, I do love the snow.

And Salt Lake does have a nice sense of community, and all the people are really friendly, but at home, in Winnipeg, you just know everybody—doesn’t matter where you’re going. And, all my family. If there was one thing I could change about being here, it’s that my family would be closer.

We’re going home for Christmas, and one of my parents will try to come down. This year, my dad’s coming, and my mom was here last year for my surgery, so they flip-flop who visits me, and hopefully we’ll schedule some games that are closer to home, so my family can come watch.