Jimmer Fredette can pinpoint the night his life changed forever. The former BYU standout and current Shanghai Sharks star grew from a sparsely-recruited freshman to a leading player in the Mountain West as he entered his senior season, but the hysteria surrounding his National Player of the Year campaign didn’t truly begin until a January night in Provo, Utah, in 2011.
“Going into the San Diego State game, I knew there were some high expectations,” Fredette says. “We were both ranked in the top 10, the game was on national television ... I had a pretty good night, and after the game, people were tweeting about it everywhere. Kevin Durant, Nelly, other rappers and celebrities. I kind of knew things had changed after that.”
Fredette is underselling his performance against Kawhi Leonard and the previously undefeated Aztecs. BYU’s star tallied 43 points on 14-for-24 shooting from the field, draining logo threes as the Cougars’ crowd was whipped into a frenzy. The evening encapsulated the Fredette experience, providing a defining memory of one of the most delightful single seasons in recent memory. It wasn’t just that Fredette was the nation’s best player in 2010–11 (and arguably one of the greatest Naismith Award winners of the century). The joy with which Fredette played took over college basketball, creating a legacy that’s still vividly remembered to this day.
“He played with a spirit that really connected with people,” former BYU head coach Dave Rose says. “On the floor, with the fans, there’s a reason he’s probably the most beloved former player on our campus to this day.”
Rose didn’t exactly face a spate of competitors as he recruited Fredette before the 2008–09 season. Then Siena coach Fran McCaffery was the only other coach to truly pursue Fredette, and upon arriving in Provo, there were only modest expectations surrounding the future All-American. Fredette didn’t become a household name until midway through his senior season. And even at BYU, it even took a couple of years for Fredette to make his mark.
Fredette was far from a polished product during his freshman year with the Cougars. His stocky build was a bit more doughy than defined, and a lack of lateral quickness kept him largely glued to the bench early in the season. Fredette became increasingly relied upon as the season continued, but with a talented BYU backcourt headlined by leading scorer Lee Cummard and senior Sam Burgess, Fredette was more of a spot-up specialist than a lead playmaker.
“Jimmer showed some promise toward the end of his freshman year, but it was nothing crazy,” former BYU guard Jackson Emery says. “When I came back from my mission there was some buzz like, ‘this Jimmer guy can really torch the nets if he gets going.’ That’s really all I heard about Jimmer before we started playing together.”
Emery quickly became an instrumental part of Fredette’s growth from sharpshooter to superstar. While Fredette initiated the offense with an increasing usage rate in his junior and senior seasons, Emery shifted to a less glamorous role. He’d space the floor in the half-court as Fredette diced up any defender in sight. He guarded the opposing team’s best player, allowing Fredette to take a breather in between offensive possessions. And it wasn’t just Emery’s play that helped fuel Fredette’s rise.
“Jackson was my guy. He was the soul of the team,” Fredette says. “He would get on people, yell at people if something was wrong. He’d put people in their place. I didn’t have to do that, which was nice for me because I was shooting a lot of shots. It worked perfectly for our team.”
The Cougars won the Mountain West regular-season title in Fredette’s sophomore year, and the program continued to rise in 2009–10. BYU posted a 30–6 record, advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament before a loss to Jacob Pullen and Kansas State. Three years of growth set the stage for a potentially historic senior season for BYU in Fredette’s senior year. But there was no guarantee the Cougars’ leading man would return to Provo.
Rose recalls his conversations with Fredette in the summer after his junior year. BYU’s coach knew he had a delicate dance ahead, needing to strike the right balance between supporting Fredette and providing constructive advice as a potential jump to the NBA loomed. Fredette could have been a late first-round pick had he entered the 2010 draft, though there was little guarantee on that front. Rose ultimately told Fredette to follow whichever path he felt was best, even at the expense of an ascending BYU team. A departure wasn’t guaranteed, though it was expected, to a degree. But as the draft-entry deadline loomed, Fredette made a decision that was music to Rose’s ears.
“A few days before the deadline, it was a Saturday, he came down to my office,” Rose recalls. “The deadline was a couple of days later, and he told me he was coming back. He told me the goals he had, what he wanted to accomplish. He wanted to know what I could help him with.”
“It later became a situation where I wasn’t helping him all that much. He was helping us a whole lot.”
Fredette didn’t shy away from the expectations that awaited him as his senior year approached. He cited All-America status as a goal, if not an expectation, noting that his final season with BYU served as “a showcase for me to improve my draft stock.” Yet it wasn’t just the individual accolades that fueled Fredette’s decision to return. BYU’s roster in his senior season was likely the most talented in program history, with Emery joining Fredette alongside future NBA players Brandon Davies and Kyle Collinsworth. A Mountain West championship wasn’t the ceiling for BYU in Fredette’s mind. The Final Four was a legitimate possibility.
It was hard to quibble with Fredette’s expectations as BYU cruised through the 2010–11 season. The Cougars won 20 of their first 21 contests, tallying 13 double-digit wins in the process. BYU cruised past a future Elite Eight team in Arizona as Fredette tallied 33 points. It buried Utah in Salt Lake City behind a 47-point eruption from Fredette. The depth of scorers on BYU's roster prevented opponents from sending double teams en masse, and Fredette torched nearly every defender in sight. With Rose’s run-and-gun system in place, Fredette was empowered to be a true scoring dynamo. It was the perfect match between player and coach, bringing BYU within striking distance of a No. 1 seed as the calendar turned to 2011.
Fredette was a star ahead of his time as he scorched defenses a decade ago. College basketball hadn’t fully embraced the three-point revolution (just eight schools hit 300 threes in 2010–11 compared to 26 last season), and we had yet to see a flood of teams embrace isolation possessions in the halfcourt. Fredette would often look James Harden–esque as he drained step-back threes and bulldozed his way to the rim. Even a talented BYU roster knew when to clear out and let him cook. Look back at Fredette’s senior-season highlights, and you get a window into the future of basketball.
It wasn’t just Fredette’s offensive fireworks that were ahead of his time. His celebrity at BYU mirrored that of Zion Williamson at Duke, albeit with fewer avenues for adulation over social media. Just as every Zion dunk became an instant highlight, every long-range Fredette triple added to his legend. Fredette became a traveling rockstar as his senior season continued, with increased anticipation added to each performance. BYU had never seen anything like Fredette on the hardwood. It’s unlikely the program ever will again.
“I couldn’t really go into public without getting mobbed after the San Diego State game,” Fredette says. “Pictures, autographs, that type of thing. I had to leave the arena a certain way to get to my car. My life changed overnight; I wasn’t really ready for it.”
By all accounts, Fredette handled the extra attention with aplomb. Rose noted Fredette’s altruism in his interactions with fans, often at the expense of the team bus’s departure. Strategies developed to limit the hoards of admirers and autograph seekers helped take the pressure off of Fredette to a degree, and with March approaching, BYU was cruising. But the storybook season hit a serious snag days later.
Davies, a sophomore, was dismissed from the program on March 2, with a university honor code violation ending his season just weeks before the NCAA tournament began. Fredette was BYU’s star and Emery was its leader, but it was Davies who often served as the team’s defensive engine. He was an interior anchor for an undersized Cougars squad, and with him out of the lineup, a shaky defensive rotation was exposed. Davies averaged just 11.1 points and 6.2 rebounds that year, but the statistics belie his impact. BYU’s Final Four dreams took a significant hit with his departure.
“The confidence we had gave way to some more uncertainty,” Emery says. “We didn’t know if we could accomplish our goals without Brandon. We ultimately ended up going smaller, and in my mind we were a top-20 team, but are we top 10, are we top five? ...That first week after we lost Brandon there was some uncertainty over whether we could do this.”
Fredette’s 52-point explosion against New Mexico in the Mountain West tournament dampened BYU’s concerns, and after a Round of 32 win against Gonzaga, there was a reaffirmed belief in a potential run to the national title. Yet Davies’s absence proved critical five days later. A diminutive BYU team was pummeled in the paint against Chandler Parsons and Florida, and despite a valiant second-half comeback, Fredette’s college career ended with an overtime defeat as he shot just 11 for 29 from the field. He and Rose went on the award circuit in the following weeks, and the NBA came calling months later as Fredette was selected with the No. 10 pick in the 2011 NBA draft. Jimmer Mania ended in late March. It didn’t continue at the next level.
Some optimism emanated from Fredette as he started his professional career in Sacramento. Former Kings coach Paul Westphal targeted Fredette in the draft, looking to make him the star of Sacramento’s offensive system. Those plans were quickly scuttled. Westphal was fired after just seven games, and former Indiana tournament hero Keith Smart took the role at the end of Sacramento’s bench. A dysfunctional organization resulted in scattered playing time for Fredette, a theme that would continue throughout his NBA career. Fredette’s confidence wavered. His desire to play waned. His professional experience was a firm 180 from his dazzling tenure at BYU.
“There were definitely times in the NBA where I was going to work and I was like ‘man, I’m not really enjoying this,’ ” Fredette says. “It was difficult on my mind. It was wearing on me. You come into the NBA as a high draft pick and things just don’t work out how you want them to, that’s difficult.”
Fredette played for four teams in his first five NBA seasons as he failed to stick in Sacramento, Chicago, New Orleans and New York. But a stint in the D League helped mark a turning point in his basketball career. Fredette once again earned consistent minutes, and he shortly parlayed his strong showing into a contract with the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association.
The move abroad has served Fredette well. He was named the CBA’s MVP in 2017, averaging over 37 points per game in each of his first three seasons. Fredette has tallied multiple 70-point games during his time in China, with the pace and admittedly shaky defense allowing him to play as a supercharged version of the player he was at BYU. And Fredette’s success isn’t measured solely by the accolades or the scoring binges. His time abroad helped him fall back in love with the game of basketball.
“Jimmer told me one day, the first couple of years he felt like he wanted to prove the haters wrong, prove the naysayers wrong,” Emery says. “And then finally he realized, ‘If I get an opportunity I’ll make the most of it, whether that’s here or overseas.’ His attitude switched from proving people wrong to maximizing his opportunity and I think that’s shown in his performance overseas.
“Whatever the opportunity is, Jimmer is going to go out there and be himself and play to his ability.”
Fredette is now in the midst of his fourth year with the Sharks, and his first since returning from a two-year stint with Panathinaikos B.C. in the Greek Basketball League. This season has been a trying one for Fredette, with the COVID-19 crisis forcing him to largely stay in his hotel room between games. The regular season will conclude in April, followed by a two-week playoff period if the Sharks advance.
Fredette doesn’t know what’s next for him and his playing career after this CBA season. An NBA return seems unlikely. Another season with the Sharks is no guarantee. But it won’t be long before Fredette takes a trip back to Provo, back to the place that helped make him a household name a decade ago. Fans across the country will remember Fredette’s time at BYU for the 40-point outbursts and the long-range threes. But for Fredette, his love for BYU isn’t exactly about the on-court memories. Rather, Fredette’s fondness stems from the community he found.
“Every time I think about my time there I smile,” Fredette says. “I’m from upstate New York, 2,500 miles away. The people of BYU took me in, and it’s still the place I consider home.”
SI’s tournament newsletter analyzes everything you need to know about the Big Dance: what just happened and what’s happening next. Sign up for Morning Madness here.