Alex Lowry

Tony Bradley keeps big picture in mind as he eyes a bigger role in the NBA

by Aaron Falk
The propellers whirl and the tiny box takes flight.

When Tony Bradley wants to unwind, this is how the young Utah Jazz center relaxes. Sometimes he flies over a snow-covered stretch of the Wasatch Mountains, sometimes over the lights and buildings of downtown Salt Lake, the drone’s camera capturing spectacular images along the way.

“For some reason I like it,” Bradley says. “I just like cool views of things. Different angles. Especially flying high.”

Maybe it’s no coincidence.

Over the past year, the big man has learned the value of the big picture.

Bradley was a McDonald’s All-American in high school and a standout at the University of North Carolina. But when the 7-foot center from Bartow, Florida was drafted by the Utah Jazz in 2017, he was told to temper some of his expectations for his first year in the NBA. Team officials saw Bradley as a project. Talented, but raw. Instead of being a regular with the Jazz, he would spend most of his rookie season with the Salt Lake City Stars.

A year in the G League suited the 20-year-old Bradley fine.

“I’m a patient guy,” he said. “Of course, everybody is anxious to get on the court, but it’s a process.”

So, while fellow rookie Donovan Mitchell starred in front of sellout crowds, Bradley sharpened his skills in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. While his Jazz teammates traveled on private charters, Bradley squeezed his 7-foot body into a seat in coach.

“It’s nothing to complain about,” he said. “It is what it is.”

Bradley was frequently called up by the Jazz for practices, and he appeared in nine games. When starting center Rudy Gobert suffered an injury, Bradley took a two-hour Uber ride from Portland, Maine to Boston (part of a five-state tour in a span of 24 hours) to meet up with the team.

But for all his sacrifices, there were rewards.

In the G League, Bradley was a starter for the Stars. He logged nearly 30 minutes a night on the court, averaging 15.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks a game. He played. He got better.

“I just wanted to improve overall, and I feel like I did,” he said. “It was a good rookie year.”

At the end of last season, Bradley met with general manager Dennis Lindsey and head coach Quin Snyder. They liked what they had seen from his first year, but they needed to see more. Bradley left Utah, returning home to Florida to unwind. After two weeks, he was back in Salt Lake City, back at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus, back to work.

“I just felt like the quicker I came back, the better I would be,” he said.

Bradley has been a mainstay around the practice facility all summer, arriving about 8:30 each morning to work out with strength coaches Isaiah Wright and Jasper Bibbs, and then working on his game with assistant coach Antonio Lang.

Already, Bradley has felt a difference—more muscle mass, a leaner frame, more confidence on the court.

“It’s a new me,” he said.

Bradley has tried to showcase that on the court in Summer League play. In three games at Vivint Smart Home Arena last week, Bradley averaged 14.6 points and 12.3 rebounds. The center had looked good in two games in Las Vegas this week, too, before having to leave Sunday’s contest with the Knicks due to an injury.

“He’s like a double-double every night,” Jazz assistant coach Mike Wells said. “It’s just such an important growth piece for bigs. They’ve got to play. Sometimes guards can do it in drills. I’m a big believer that big men have to play. There’s nothing you can do to simulate going up and down the court, holding and wrestling and everything a big guy has to do under the basket. For a young guy, I thought Tony did an excellent job of just taking a step forward.”

There is pressure for a first-round draft pick in his second summer, but Bradley welcomes it.

“I feel like it’s a good pressure for me just to show that I’ve developed, and I’ve made some strides, some improvement,” he said. “I just want to be the best player I can be. Whatever it takes to be the best player—whatever it takes to get on the court, I have to do it.”