Tuesday, March 31, 2020 | 2 a.m.
The 5 a.m. wake-up calls followed by long days full of lifting weights, practicing, going to class and studying had become too much for Tyler Bey. The former Las Vegas High basketball standout had decided he was going to leave Middlebrooks Academy in Los Angeles only shortly after arriving in the fall of 2015.
“We were having to do things I never had to do and it was hard for me,” Bey says. “I went through a lot of ups and downs, mostly downs. I was depressed and wanted to go home.”
Bey called his mother, Toya Mays, and his AAU coach/“father figure” Lamar Bigby, to tell them of his plans to come back to Las Vegas. They weren’t having it. Bigby asked Bey if his ultimate goal was still to play Division 1 basketball in a power conference and eventually turn professional. When Bey responded affirmatively, Bigby’s tone turned from gentle to stern.
“You’re not leaving, Tyler,” Bigby remembers telling Bey. “You can’t be afraid to be special and be great. Your whole life you’ve been afraid to be successful, and part of being successful is adversity. You’ve got to go through something.”
Bey got through it, stayed at Middlebrooks and reached all of his goals. The 6-foot-7 swingman never stopped elevating his game after deciding to stay at the prep academy, where he became the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder.
Bey reached a milestone this weekend, declaring for the NBA Draft following a decorated three-year career at Colorado. He was the Pac-12 Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year this season, in which he averaged 14 points and nine rebounds per game.
Behind Bey, the Buffaloes were expected to make their first NCAA Tournament in four years before the postseason was canceled because of the coronavirus.
“I feel like moving from Vegas to L.A. really changed my mentality and the person I am today,” Bey says. “It was huge for me and things came out great, honestly.”
Bey left Las Vegas High after his junior year because his grades weren’t high enough to earn a Division 1 athletic scholarship. He also reclassified, pushing his high school graduation from 2016 to 2017, in part so he could have extra time playing under Bigby’s Las Vegas Knicks AAU program.
Bey had previously only played on Bigby’s team for one summer’s worth of tournaments, where he struggled to draw the attention he sought. The local basketball scene was a particular hotbed for high school talent at the time with coaches coming in droves to watch blue-chip prospects like Stephen Zimmerman (who eventually went to UNLV), Chase Jeter (Duke/Arizona), Zach Collins (Gonzaga) and Ray Smith (Arizona).
“Vegas (basketball) is small so everyone knew everyone and we would all play in a gym and there would be a lot of people there,” Bey says. “But I just remember not having that big name. I had to work for my position. It drove me to be a better player. I think that’s why when the opportunity came, I took advantage of it.”
Bigby has carved his niche by working with talented but somewhat overlooked players, which makes Bey a particularly prized pupil. Bigby has shared Bey’s story multiple times over the past couple of years to inspire his current rosters of high school players.
“Tyler’s giving hope to all the kids who are not top-100 rated kids because the growing trend is, you’ve got to be a top-100 kid to go to the top schools and then you’re going to be an NBA player one day,” Bigby said. “Tyler Bey took the road less traveled. He trusted people along the way who had his best interest at heart, and that’s a rare commodity among young kids.”
Bey made another uncommon choice last offseason by returning to Colorado. He was graded as highly as a late first-round pick ahead of the 2019 NBA Draft but, unlike most players in that position, he pushed back his professional career.
He couldn’t imagine not spending at least three years in Boulder, Colo.
“I wanted to make the most of my time,” Bey said. “I didn’t want to regret anything by leaving early. I felt like the NBA wasn’t going anywhere and we had a lot to accomplish.”
He was right as his NBA stock has stayed in the same range, if not climbed a bit after he improved his 3-point shot this season. Pushing back the opportunity again could have cut greatly into his earning potential, but he won’t leave Boulder, Colo., without some disappointment.
Bey badly wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament, something the Buffaloes unofficially secured early this past season by starting 12-2. The highlight of their hot start came in a 78-76 overtime win against Dayton, which was projected to earn a No. 1 seed in the tournament, in a neutral-site game in Chicago.
Dayton swarmed Bey with a double-team under the basket on Colorado’s final possession, allowing him to kick out a pass to teammate D’Shawn Schwartz for an assist on a game-winning buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
It was the exact type of moment college basketball is known for, but Bey declined to call it the highlight of his career. He says that’s still ahead of him.
“I’ve improved a lot in my last two years,” Bey said. “But there’s still a long way to go.”