The Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY -- He’s BYU’s other guard, the one without the hype, headlines or NBA scouts watching his every move.

When the 15th-ranked Cougars open Mountain West Conference play on Wednesday in Las Vegas, it should be Jackson Emery etching his name into BYU’s record books.

Emery is on the verge of breaking the all-time steals record set by Danny Ainge 30 years ago.

No one could be happier for Emery than Ainge, now director of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics.

“That’s cool,” Ainge said earlier this week. “He’s one of my favorite players that’s come to BYU … From the time he came on campus as a freshman, he’s been one of my favorite guys to watch because of the effort.”

Going into the game against No. 25 UNLV, Emery needs three steals to tie Ainge (195) and four to pass him.

“Jackson’s work ethic is a big part of the success that he’s had,” said coach Dave Rose. “You don’t get very many players that play at the same speed everyday in practice that they play in a game so Jackson practices at a really high level. He’s a great anticipator, he’s got really good straight forward speed and really good lateral quickness. Probably the most impressive thing is that he’ll stick his nose in any play. If there’s a charge he’ll jump in there and take it. If it’s a play where he’s anticipating a pass on the weak side he’ll run through it. And if there’s contact or a collision I think he even likes that a little more.

“He’s really, really impressive to watch.”

Emery isn’t even starting these days, forced to come off the bench because a stress reaction injury to his right shin often keeps him from practicing.

“Whether he’s starting or just playing, as long as he’s contributing it’s not going to be an issue for him,” BYU trainer Robert Ramos said. “He’s not a kid who needs the limelight or the publicity and all that. He’s a kid that’s just going to get it done.”

Most college basketball fans have heard of Jimmer Fredette, BYU’s bona fide star who earned preseason All-America honors and likely will be a first-round draft pick in June.

Emery likewise harbors pro aspirations, but acknowledges he might have to go overseas to pursue them.

That he is in a BYU uniform is testament to Emery’s commitment and determination.

He was recruited by then-BYU coach Steve Cleveland only to have Rose take over the program in 2005.

“My heart was set on going to BYU,” said Emery, a star at Lone Peak High in Provo. “But there were a lot of questions, a lot of uncertainties at the time.”

The 6-3, 190-pound guard had been recruited by Princeton, Air Force and all the Utah schools, but Emery ended up keeping his commitment to BYU, which had won only nine games the previous season. Unlike Ainge, he wouldn’t start his freshman year. Instead, he was an energy guy off the bench, averaging 2.8 points and 1.5 rebounds a game.

He broke into the starting lineup as a sophomore, nearly tripling his scoring average and recording 47 steals.

Then he went on a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission to Leon, Mexico, where his routine included 6:30 a.m. wake-up calls and 12-hour days proselytizing.

“Obviously when you take two years off from anything, you’re going to be a little rusty,” Emery said. “But when you have natural ability, I think it comes back to you no matter what. And I think more than anything, the mission helped me mature, which carries over to the floor. The work ethic carried over.”

Emery also got married 2 1/2 years ago to his high school sweetheart, a move that taught him how to work with others even better.

His wife, Cherese, said the guy not afraid to get bloody on the court, and battle for every loose ball and rebound, is about as easygoing and laid-back as one can get.

“He’s one of the sweetest, most caring and loving people you’ll ever meet,” Cherese Emery said, while noting that Emery insists on “cleaning day” on Saturdays and once-a-week “date” nights.

Though she sees the bruises and stitches he comes home with, Emery is not a complainer.

Two years ago, Emery left the Tulsa game with whiplash and a big knot on his head, and a gash on his left elbow that required a dozen stitches.

He was back in the lineup the next game.

“He’ll play through a lot of things that most people won’t play through,” Ramos said.

After earning his spot as more of a defensive stopper, Emery has evolved into a well-rounded player. Last year Emery hit 85 of 197 3-pointers (.491) while leading the Cougars with a single-season record 91 steals. Through 15 games this season, he already has 44 steals while averaging 11.8 points and 3.9 rebounds a game.

Of Ainge’s 195 steals, 60 came as a freshman.

So why has the record stood so long?

These days, college players are more likely to jump to the pros after two or three years.

“Not a lot of kids are leaving early from BYU,” Ainge quipped.

Ainge wants to be the first to congratulate Emery.

“I don’t know if there’s a player that I’ve seen give maximum effort night in and night out,” said Ainge, himself a player who got by on grit and tenacity. “I’m a big fan.”

AP freelancer Ken Powtak contributed to this report from Boston.