Robert “Gus” Yalden is someone who immediately stands out due to his size. Pushing 6’10 with a frame that will immediately give him a presence even at the college level, Yalden has already been offered by a good number of high majors. Beyond his rare strength and size, he has shown an ability to make quick decisions on the move while displaying a shooting touch one does not expect from a true five man. His combination of post play and ability to stretch make up for some of the athletic limitations. Yalden thinks the game very well and his effort seems to be a big part of his effectiveness.
Starting off his high school play at Mater Dei HS (CA), he moved to North Carolina and then quickly to his current location of IMG Academy (FL). At both of his HS stops he faced a number of big men going to Division I schools, a tremendous experience considering he will graduate high school in 2023. Growing up in Wisconsin, getting an offer from the Badgers was a huge deal for Yalden. They are part of a list that includes the likes of Auburn, Florida State, Maryland, Nebraska, Rutgers, Stanford, and Winthrop. Yalden is also receiving interest from many other high majors and is keeping his options open at this time.
In a year that has seen many changes going on in the world, Yalden is also evolving. He has focused on his conditioning, trying to expand his offensive game at each level and facing the tough task of guarding IMG’s loaded front court, not to mention the schedule they have faced this season. Becoming an expert at verticality and drawing charges, he is also learning to refine the off-ball skills that coaches love from their centers. This includes screen-setting and passing from the short roll and ambidexterity. Yalden certainly has been challenged in his high school career and he is handling it in a way that has some of the NCAA’s most prestigious coaches taking notice.
This interview looks into Yalden’s family history, his basketball journey, what he brings to the table as a player, highlighting past teammates, breaking down some of his recruitment and showcases that he is well ahead of the curve in terms of his aspiration to eventually delve into a successful career post-basketball.
For the next installment of the Pro Insight Q&A series, we present 2023 prospect Gus Yalden, from Appleton, Wisconsin:
Pro Insight: Can you tell us a bit about your background and where you grew up?
Gus Yalden: I’m from Appleton, Wisconsin. I was born in College Park, Maryland. From there, I moved to Wisconsin and then to Nebraska, and back to Wisconsin. I grew up with my mom most of my life. My dad wasn’t around too much, but I still got to spend time with him. My mom was a college basketball coach at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. She coached there for a couple of years until she moved on to get her master’s degree and became a surgical technician. From there, she became one of the associate people at Swedish Medical Center in Denver, Colorado, where she works now. So, growing up was always fun because I was always around basketball. She was a basketball coach at Waupaca High School, so I grew up around basketball my whole life. But I never really started to get into the game until seventh or eighth grade when I first started to play travel ball — AAU ball and stuff like that. I played on a local team in Nebraska called the Kearney Kings and we played in three or four tournaments a year. Then I played for my local middle school team and we would play the other local Catholic schools. Other than that, I was a hockey player; I grew up playing hockey with my cousins. I started skating when I was two or three [years old] and I played hockey with my cousins for the Tri-City Storm in Nebraska. From there, I wanted to start to play hockey more competitively, so I moved to Wisconsin where it just didn’t turn out. From hockey, I made the transition into basketball where I really started to love to play the game.
PI: What about basketball made you fall in love with it?
GY: I really liked the basketball part because my mom had played it, I was tall, and I was good at it. That’s what made it really fun for me, was that I could dominate and be really good and successful. From there, it started to be something that I could just do for fun, go outside and shoot hoops and be a way for me to exercise that was really fun. And all my friends liked to play it, so I just started to get into it and the more I started to play the more I started to really love spending time playing and being around people who played it. From there, I just started to get better and I had a natural eye for the game and a different style of play than everyone else. My feel for it is so much different than other people and that’s what made it fun. I could do things that other kids couldn’t because I wanted to or had the ability to.
PI: What did you learn from your mom with her being such a successful high school and college coach?
GY: I learned a lot from her. She was the one who taught me how to shoot, how to dribble. But most important, she was a post player and I’m a post player. She learned everything on her own. Her back to the basket game, she watched Hakeem Olajuwon and other people as much as she could to learn her moves, and then she would add a little twist to them. When I was in middle school and I was playing for my team, she taught me how to shoot hook shots, the up-and-under, the step-through, as much as she could. And from there I started to get creative with it where it was a step-through and then an up-fake and go back, whatever it was. She taught me and I just modified it. A lot of stuff I learned was from her. The only thing she didn’t teach me was how to shoot a three. She only shot two in her whole career playing, so I had to learn that on my own. She did teach me how to shoot but it was mostly mid-range and free throws. But other than that, growing up around her there were constant people who were around that played the game and were supportive. It was really cool to go to her games and watch them play because I knew them. A couple of them would babysit me or I would go to their house and it was really cool being around that. So, I built a lot of relationships with those people and it was really fun. Other than that, I would just wake up and go see my mom after she was done with school and practice and I would have a ball and dribble it around and do whatever. I would always be around a basketball setting.
PI: For people who haven’t seen you play, describe some of your greatest strengths on the court.
GY: For those who haven’t seen me play, I would say my greatest strength is my ability to be a post player who can handle the ball, shoot the ball and pass the ball at a really high level. My natural size gives me an advantage in the post but when a taller defender out-matches me, then I have the ability to make plays on the perimeter. Whether it be a three, a dribble-drive kick, or something along those lines. Whoever is guarding me, I have some way to score or a way to do something productive. Another thing I’d say is that this year as a role player I learned how to be a hustle player: take charges, grab offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, set good screens, be able to play off the ball really well, to get myself open when I don’t have the ball in my hands. When you have seniors and juniors ahead of you who are really highly ranked and really really good, then it’s hard to have the ball in your hands all the time as a big sophomore. So, I learned how to play off the ball, setting off-ball screens, on-ball screens, back screens, flare screens to get myself open looks. Probably the one thing I’ve learned the most this year is offensive rebounding. We are a really good shooting team but when you shoot really well, you shoot a volume of shots so learning how to rebound those missed shots is the reason why I got some of those points in games this year. I was able to get really easy stick backs from missed shots.
PI: What are you still trying to work on and improve?
GY: I would say that the one thing I’m working on the most is my lateral quickness and my speed because that’s the one thing I need to focus on to be really proficient at the next level. That’s why I came here, to be at peak performance with my body and how fast and quick I get. The person who helped me the most here was Coach UJ [Johnson]. He was one of the big reasons my mom and I decided to come here. I’m actually super proud because he just accepted a job at Alabama Football. He won’t be here anymore. He was the big reason why I am quicker, faster, more explosive now. That’s the big thing I’m working on so that I can not only be able to guard a five, but I can guard a three or a two, so that I can be that guy that can be interchanged anywhere on the court.
PI: You made the move from Mater Dei to IMG this past year — what went into that decision?
GY: Mater Dei was kind of a rushed decision. I was at Xavier High School in Appleton [Wisconsin]. I went to the Pangos All Frosh/Soph camp in Chicago where I was noticed by some people who wanted me to go out and play on the west coast and they gave me those connections. I went out and visited a couple schools and I thought Mater Dei would be nice and it was in the transition of my mom moving to Colorado, so I was already not going to be playing in Wisconsin. As you know, Colorado basketball isn’t really that great of a spot to be playing in, and the league I would’ve been playing in would have not been that great. So, we made the hasty jump to just go to Mater Dei and if it works out, it works out and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll go find something else. It was really good for me. I thank all of the people who helped me there because they gave me the first opportunity in a big basketball scenario. Playing against Devin Askew who’s starting at Kentucky now. Playing against Wilhelm [Breidenbach] who’s going to Nebraska, Nick [Davidson] who’s going to Nevada, Harrison [Hornery] who’s going to USC. They were all super good and as a freshman stepping in and playing against them was really hard to do. I learned a lot from it. I didn’t play much but the thing I gained the most was the practice experience and the ability to start to play at the high school speed. That set me up to play AAU in Wisconsin, where I put up great numbers and played really well. I caught the eye of a lot coaches and from there I knew [Mater Dei’s] three bigs would be returning. That would mean I would be the fourth big man and come off the bench and wouldn’t get a ton of minutes with three seniors ahead of me. We made the decision to go to the Asheville School in North Carolina and we quickly got the opportunity a couple of months later from IMG. When a school like IMG recruits you, there is really no chance to say no. It’s probably the best high school in America in terms of facilities, school, cafeteria, dorms, it is unbeatable. On top of that, you have Coach [Sean McAloon], Coach Trey [Draper], and Coach J.T. [Thomas] who’ve all coached McDonald’s All-Americans. Most recently a pro in Josh Green; also Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Armando Bacot, the list goes on and on of who they’ve coached and who’s come through here. You’d almost be a fool to say no to that.
PI: How tough is it going against highly-ranked players every day in practice? How has that grown your game?
GY: We have the number-eight player in the country right now in Moussa Diabate, who, in my opinion, is still underrated. He’s going to Michigan. That is probably the hardest player I’ve ever had to play against. He’s a 6’ 10” – 6’ 11” guard who can kill you in the post. He’s the strongest player on the team and I think he’s one of the faster kids on the team. So having to guard him in the post and having him push me around, I had to immediately get better at post defense and learn how to take charges because I can’t block his shot. He’s got a 7’ 4” wingspan and he’s 6’ 10”. I had to be able to beat him to the spot so that the double-team could come. I had to learn how to push him baseline and contain him off the dribble. That was probably one of the hardest things to do. And then Jarace Walker, who’s a top-10 player in the Class of 2022, came back from his injury and then I had to start guarding him. He is a jack of all trades. He’s one of our best jump shooters and then he can just get to the rim and finish as hard as he wants. So, guarding him was a nightmare. And then Eric Dailey, Jr. he’s another like Jarace, he’s a lefty so you never know what he’s doing and he’s a master of the post fade and you can’t block that. So, I had three top-10 players in their class that I have to guard every day. It was really hard, but I started to do a pretty good job on them. I earned their respect a little bit so earning respect from players that are older than me is a good thing, it means I’m on the right track. By the time I’m a junior or senior there’s going to be another sophomore or freshman that I get to do this to and that will be talking about me.
PI: How is the recruiting process going for you?
GY: I have some pretty big offers as a sophomore considering coaches can’t talk to me, but I’m super grateful for. I got offers from Wisconsin, Nebraska, Maryland, Rutgers, Florida State, Auburn, Winthrop, Stanford, and other schools. All of them got on my recruitment early, which is really cool. But I think there are other schools that haven’t offered me yet that I am in contact with. Schools like Marquette, Louisville, Butler, other schools. One of the coolest offers I got was Wisconsin. Growing up an hour and a half away from Madison, and being a Badger fan, I was at Melvin Gordon‘s career rushing game when they played Nebraska in the snow and that was awesome. I remember going to watch Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes play Nebraska, that was two hours away from my house in Kearney. Growing up a big Wisconsin fan, it was really cool to be able to sit down and get that offer. I had been going to Wisconsin games since eighth grade, so that was amazing. Getting schools like Stanford, which is one of the highest academic schools in the country, to have them offer me was a really cool moment. Florida State, who just won the ACC, which is probably one of the best conferences in basketball, was awesome. Coach [Leonard] Hamilton is a great guy and it’s a great school. There have been so many schools I’ve talked to where I was just like ‘this is crazy.’ Growing up a basketball nerd and playing NCAA 2010 on my PS3 and learning all these schools, I’m like ‘hey I’ve seen this coach and I know these players, they are in the NBA.’ This is really cool that they want me to go to the school and give me the opportunity to play for them.
PI: What are you looking for in a school when you do make that decision?
GY: There is a lot that goes into it. I’d say that I have great options including probably the chance to go wherever I want, minus a couple of schools right now. I will probably have to go visit the schools that I really like and then they have to have a nice campus, a winning program, a good coach, a really good community around them that supports them and wants them to win, and good academics, so I am furthering myself not only in basketball but also in education. And then overall, I feel like when I find the right place, I’ll know it’s the right place because it will sit right with me and there’s no second doubting. When I did my visit here there was no second doubting it, it was like it was God‘s plan for me. So that will be a really big factor. Luckily, I’ve got really great support with my family; my grandpa and my mom have already been helping me with this process and will really help me when it gets to that level where, ‘okay time to decide.’ They will be right there with me in the process to find the right place.
PI: Do you watch more college or NBA basketball?
GY: I would definitely say college because it is more entertaining — and the players, I am so close to being there that I can compare how they play to how I play. So I would say I watch college the most. I don’t watch that much NBA but if I do it’s probably the Nuggets, the Cavaliers, or the Mavericks because they all have players that I like to associate my game with. Those guys are Jokic, Luka, Porzingis, Kevin Love. It’s been so much fun to watch those guys. I’ve been watching Kevin Love’s high school highlights for like four years now and seeing how similar we are is kind of crazy. And then Jokic, the stuff he does, I used to sit outside my backyard and just try to do behind the back passes into my trash can. So it’s just things that I can do off of them. For college basketball, I think it’s so entertaining because it is so competitive especially in the Big Ten, the ACC and the SEC — LSU might be unranked and they’ll go in and play a really good school like a Florida State or an Illinois and they’ll upset them or they’ll make it a really close game. Those conferences, you never know what’s going to happen. Duke and UNC are both unranked right now because that’s how good the ACC is and how competitive it is. Wisconsin and Illinois were in the top-10 a couple of weeks ago and now Wisconsin might not even be ranked because they’ve had to play those tough games. In the Big Ten at one point there were nine ranked teams, so those conferences are so competitive and fun to watch, it makes it entertaining.
PI: Do you have any mentor figures in your life?
GY: Number-one would be my mom. Obviously growing up the majority of my life with her, she taught me a lot of the things I know how to do in basketball and off the court. She is my moral compass, she taught me how to live and be good in life. She’s my biggest mentor and person I talk to the most every day. She has given me everything I have, and I am forever thankful because she took a leap of faith, knowing that I love basketball, and put me into camps and spent thousands of dollars trying to get me to camps and get my name out all around the country. She did that in seventh and eighth grade, driving me from Appleton, Wisconsin, down to North Carolina to take me to the CP3 Rising Stars Camp. She did so much for me trying to get my name out there. And now she’s just watching it and enjoying it. I would say my second mentor figure is my grandpa. Not having my dad around a lot and living thirty minutes from my grandpa, he taught me a lot of the things that a dad would teach you. He taught me how to shoot a gun, how to survive in nature if I needed to, how to fish, which is one of my favorite hobbies, and he gave me books to read. He and I talked about my favorite subject in school, history, all the time. We still talk about it to this day. He’s probably one of the most influential people in my life because he’s taught me how to do so much. He and my grandma, I grew up with them. When I was little I stayed at their house for weeks or months at a time. I go back there every Christmas, every Thanksgiving to see them. They are that influential in my life. Now I grew up a little bit and I get to play golf with my grandpa and he still beats me to this day. I also have Coach UJ [Johnson], who is our strength and conditioning coach here. Although I only had him for about six or seven months, it was a really impactful time because he has been here for so long and knows the system. This is really my first time away from home without my mom, without family nearby, living in a dorm room. I have no brothers or sisters so sharing my living space with somebody else and having him get me through that and be around me every day [helped me]. Yeah, he would make fun of me but it was all in good fun. I really like being around him because he was so nice, and he really cared about me as a person and still does to this day. He still keeps in touch with me and talks to my mom a lot. Then another one would be Coach Adam — he was my first AAU coach with the Wisconsin Crusaders. When I first started focusing on basketball, he was the guy who really made it happen. I remember I told my mom I wanted to be a professional basketball player and she said, ‘well pro basketball players get up at 5:00 AM and work out.’ I said well, how can I do that? And she said Coach Adam goes to the gym every day and plays in an old man league, do you want to go with him? So, in seventh grade I started waking up at 4:50 AM and going to play at 5:30 AM at the gym that was two minutes away from my house. Coach would pick me up or I would ride my bike over there, and I would play with 50 and 60-year-old men at Alliance Church. And then I would lift some weights afterwards. That was probably the best thing he could’ve done for me because that’s how I learned the feel for the game, playing that old-man style. And then he got me into the Wisconsin Crusaders and I played for him, and my mom was the assistant coach. It was awesome. He is coaching at a high school back home now and he is killing it there. Last one would be Coach Richie Davis, who recently passed away. I only knew him for a short amount of time too, about three years. But the time I had with Richie was really special. He did so much for me and my family in such a short amount of time. When I left Wisconsin, he kept in touch when I was in California because he still wanted me to come back and play for him. When I came back and played for him this summer, he had 17U kids that he was focusing on getting offers for. But he took me in with them and got me in touch with college coaches, he got me in touch with Under Armour, he did so much for me. He got me in touch with the people [at IMG]. He did so much for me in such a short amount of time — it was a really hard loss on my family and I, to lose him, because he had such a big plan for me, and he ran out of time. But I’m glad that he’s watching over me now.
PI: Outside of basketball, what are some of your biggest hobbies?
GY: Some of my biggest passions or hobbies outside of basketball would be video games. I like to play NHL, Call of Duty, MLB, all kinds of sports games. I like to fish, I’m a bass fisher. I really like to go out and fish as much as I can. Being in Wisconsin, there are so many lakes around you can just walk outside and go fish. I like to be around my friends and mess around and do stuff with them. I like to play card games, I am really good at UNO and games like Monopoly. I am super competitive; I really do not like losing. I really like Star Wars and The Avengers, so I’ve spent a good amount of time watching shows and movies. I really like to be outside doing stuff, I don’t like to be stuck inside all day because there is not much to do. [At IMG] we have a pool, beach volleyball courts, turf to go play and hang out on. I’m really lucky that I get to be outside with people all day. My favorite hobby is getting to spend time with my dog. I love being able to go home and play with him. Obviously with no siblings he gets bored with my mom, so when I come home and he’s there, we have so much energy and I play with him and take him out and do fun stuff with him.
PI: If you were going to do something for a career outside of basketball, what would you do?
GY: I’ve always liked history so I would want to do something with history, along those lines. Something that ties in with history is law so I’d love to be a lawyer someday. And that would be really easy considering I could do stuff with athletes because I’m already a young athlete and I know that field. I also like commentating — I’d love to be a commentator even if I don’t play, I’d love to do that, or after I play. That’s something NBA players do. I love the game so much that I think I’d be good at it. I also want to be a dentist because that would be fun for me. I’ve known dentists before, and their job is pretty cool and fun, I like that field a little bit. Those are three dream careers for me if I weren’t playing basketball.
PI: What are four words that best describe you?
GY: Outgoing. Goofy. Hard-working. Kind-hearted.
I’d say outgoing because I’m up to do a lot of things that are fun. If someone asked me if I wanted to go play cricket, I’d be like ‘okay, I’ve never played cricket before, but it sounds like fun.’ Do I want to go watch the stars? Like I would love to do that.
I’d say goofy because I am an eight-year-old in a grown man’s body. I like to do fun stuff, I still throw water balloons at my friends to this day. I play with the hose, I go do fun stuff. I try to be a kid, because every day I’m treated like a pro athlete. So when I’m not being treated like a pro athlete, why not experience my time as a kid with my friends.
I would say hard-working because I want to be a pro more than anything, I want to get there. So, if there is an opportunity to get in an extra lift or get in the gym, I’d love to do that. Get in the gym, shoot shots, get a lift in, do whatever I can.
Kind-hearted. I love to do stuff for people who are in need, including the elderly. I remember when I was in fourth grade there was a woman with Parkinson’s who lived across the street from me and struggled to take her garbage cans out. So, every garbage day I would take mine out and then I would hustle over to her side and take hers out. That’s something I always liked to do. I like to help people who really need help. If I see a homeless person, I’d love to give them a dollar or two because it’s the least I can do for them. When I was in fifth grade in my elementary school I started to read to the kindergartners at my recess. I gave up my recess and I would go and read Dr. Seuss books like Green Eggs and Ham, Red Fish Blue Fish. Whatever they wanted to read, I would sit down and read with them. From there, I moved on to middle school and stopped doing it until eighth grade. I gave up my lunch and started to read with fifth graders because I was at a new middle school. I was like their middle school book teacher. We would read a book and then analyze it. That was with my fifth-grade teacher who was probably my favorite teacher of all time. I remember reading books like The Hunger Games. I loved to read and spend time with them, and it was super cool to do that. I love being around kids and I love helping people that need help.
PI: Tell us something about yourself that most people don’t know.
GY: Something about myself that most people don’t know is that I might look intimidating or I might not fit the part of a basketball player but I’m probably one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. If you want to say ‘hi’ to me, I would go out of my way to have a conversation with you. I don’t want to be the big Hollywood guy who walks into a gym and I just ignore you completely. I’d love to talk to you and get to meet you because the way I see it is if I meet a kid now and he grows up to be a really successful person, I started to build a relationship with him, then that’s a connection. Like when I’m [at IMG] and I meet the tennis kids, I try to build a connection with the tennis kids or the golf kids. Another thing I would say is that I know I look smaller when I play because I have bad posture, like I shrink size a little bit. But then when people meet me, I’m a true 6’ 9” kid, I’m a little bit bigger in person than most people think.
PI: At the end of the day, what do you want to be remembered for?
GY: At the end of the day, when I’m done playing basketball and my career is over, I want to be known as a player who helped change the game in the best way he could. Obviously, I don’t see myself having an impact of a Steph Curry or a Michael Jordan, but I see myself like a Jokic — a big who helped change the way bigs play. A big who could defend, rebound, shoot, pass, score, dribble and do whatever he could. Be that all-around player that everyone wants. I could go score if I needed to or make the right play. I could set a screen for another person to get open. I could get an offensive rebound put-back. I could get the defensive rebound and push it. I want to be the guy who is the jack-of-all-trades and can do everything that needs to be done to win. That is one thing I learned here, that I am not the best player right now and I need to learn how to play a role. And I learned how to play that role and now I don’t need to do everything myself. I can be the role player; I have that in my bag. I want to be remembered as the player who helped change the game and I want to be the player who helped off the court more than anybody else. I want to give back to people, be active in the community I play in, be active with kids and people who need help in their lives. I want to build a big gym in my hometown for kids to be able to use. We have gyms but there isn’t one gym where everyone goes, it’s all split up, so I want to build a facility back home where everyone can go to play.
Watch the full interview with Gus, here