Utah Jazz v Boston Celtics
BOSTON, MA - MARCH 6: Tony Bradley #13 of the Utah Jazz grabs the rebound against the Boston Celtics on March 6, 2020 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Tony Bradley's patience and hard work has the Utah Jazz center playing the best basketball of his young career

by Aaron Falk

When Tony Bradley was in the eighth grade, his father took him to a basketball game a few hours away from their home in central Florida. The teenaged hoops junkie marveled as he watched Derrick Favors, DeMarcus Cousins and some of the other top high school prospects in the country play, and he made a goal for himself. Bradley was going to be a McDonald’s All-American, too. So his father put a hoop in their backyard, where Bradley would mimic the moves of players he watched on YouTube and dominate his friends in pickup games. He did this for hours and hours until he himself was suiting up as a McDonald’s All-American.

Bradley has a list of other goals, too. It is not a list written on paper or in the notes app on his cellphone. The list is in his mind, where he can read and re-read it multiple times each day, guiding his path.

Go to North Carolina. Check.

Win a national championship. Check.

Get drafted. Check.

After spending two years developing his game with the Salt Lake City Stars, Bradley’s goal for this season was simply to earn a spot in the Utah Jazz’s rotation, to show everyone he belonged. The 7-footer has done that and more. As the Jazz march toward the playoffs, Bradley is playing the best basketball of his life and has turned into a capable backup for All-Star Rudy Gobert.

“This is the most aggressive, the most dominant that we’ve seen Tony,” Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell said.

Bradley’s numbers on the season are modest. In 50 appearances, the center is averaging 4.7 points and 4.3 rebounds.

“Tony’s working at it,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “The situations we put him in are not always easy, but he’s really embraced the game plan.”

And the 22-year-old (still the youngest player on the Jazz roster) has shown steady growth this season, since taking over the backup center spot full time. Just check the stat lines from his last six games:

• Feb. 28 vs. Washington — 9 points, 7 rebounds, 1 assist in 13 minutes

• March 2 at Cleveland — 6 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists in 14 minutes

• March 4 at New York — 8 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks in 14 minutes

• March 6 at Boston — 6 points, four rebounds, three blocks in 15 minutes

• March 7 at Detroit — 8 points, 8 rebounds in 13 minutes

• March 9 vs. Toronto — 5 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals in 16 minutes

During that stretch, Bradley has brought a steady presence to a second unit that has helped the Jazz win five of their last six games. The third-year center has a plus-5.1 plus/minus since the All-Star break.

“I feel like the second group, when we get in there, we try to keep the progress going,” he said. “Not slack on defense. Just try to get stops and score. I feel like we’ve been doing a good job in recent games.”

Veteran point guard Mike Conley, meanwhile, has grown comfortable with Bradley as a pick-and-roll partner during their time in the court together.

“Tony’s a smart basketball player,” Conley said. “He’s a great finisher, has great hands, unselfish. He’s trying to get us free off the ball screen and allow us to make plays for him and the team. I think our chemistry’s getting better.”

Bradley, as mild-mannered as they come off the court, isn’t one to tout his successes.

“I feel like I’m making progress,” Bradley said succinctly this week.

Bradley’s teammates and coaches know the hours he’s logged to get to this point: the two seasons of grinding in the G League, tireless work to reshape his body during the offseason, the countless reps in practice.

“I’m just so happy for him because I know the countless hours and the patience he’s had to have,” Jazz forward Georges Niang said earlier this season. “The countless hours that we put in here, going through drills, simulations of things that are going to be in games—Tony just picks up every bit of that, doesn’t complain one bit. And when his opportunity came, he’s been knocking it out of the park.”

“You all see our reactions on the bench,” Mitchell said. “We’re all so happy for him.”

 

 

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