Bryant became the first former BYU player to be part of the NBA Finals since 1993, when Danny Ainge played for the Phoenix Suns
When the Milwaukee Bucks tipped off Game 1 of the NBA Finals Tuesday night against the Phoenix Suns, it marked the Bucks’ first Finals appearance since 1974 and the Suns’ first Finals appearance since 1993.
This year, Elijah Bryant has ended that Finals drought by representing BYU in the Finals as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks.
For former BYU assistant coach Tim LaComb, it’s gratifying to see Bryant on the big stage.
“I’m telling you, knowing Elijah for a long time, yes, he’s in the Finals, but this is a dude that absolutely willed himself there to the NBA,” he said. “Back from a difficult journey to get to the league, it was really impressive. No stone left unturned. He kept grinding it out and he never lost faith. It’s the coolest thing ever that he not only got to the league but he’s also in this situation.”
Bryant’s peripatetic path to the NBA includes starting his college career at Elon College in North Carolina before transferring to BYU to play for coach Dave Rose.
After averaging 18.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists as a junior in 2017-18 at BYU, Bryant forewent his final year of eligibility to turn pro.
Bryant went undrafted in the 2018 NBA Draft before playing for the Philadelphia 76ers’ Summer League team. In 2019, he averaged 14.3 points in four games with the Bucks’ Summer League squad.
The 6-foot-5, 210-pound native of Gwinnett, Georgia, played in 36 games with Hapoel Eilat in 2018-19 and then with Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel for two seasons, appearing in 100 games.
“I would compare playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv to playing for the Lakers in L.A,” Bryant told the Deseret News last year. “That’s kind of how the vibe is.”
At the time, Bryant harbored hopes of playing in the NBA someday.
“Yeah. It will come here soon, I believe,” he said a year ago. “I have to stay patient and have faith.”
This season, Bryant was averaging 10.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game with Maccabi Tel Aviv, while shooting 47.7% from the field.
Then, in mid-May, the Bucks signed the 26-year-old, and suddenly he was in the NBA.
“It’s a byproduct of relentless work and a belief that superseded everything else,” said LaComb. “You take every single guy that doesn’t make the league and he wants to get back there. Very few guys actually do. All the pieces have to fit. It’s such a cool story.”
LaComb is no longer in coaching after leaving BYU in 2019. He now works in the corporate world, is involved in broadcasting, and also “dabbles” in rock and roll. What does he think the Bucks saw in Bryant to sign him late in the season?
“What they saw in Eli was a guy that can get a bucket in isolation. That’s a big thing in the NBA right now. Teams are going smaller,” LaComb said. “They’re encouraging switching and you really want to have a couple of dudes that can get a shoulder past somebody and get to the rim. That’s one thing.
“I think his IQ and feel for the game, and what he did over there (in Israel), his numbers were phenomenal, and he got better yearly. He had more of a body that could take a hit. He’s big and strong. Not only take a hit but deliver one. All those things together.”
There’s another BYU-Milwaukee connection that may, or may not, have influenced the Bucks’ decision to sign Bryant, LaComb said.
Dr. Craig Manning is an adjunct professor of performance psychology at BYU and is also a mental strength coach for BYU’s athletic department. Manning’s clients include the Bucks, U.S. Ski and Snowboarding teams, Red Bull High Performance and a variety of corporate organizations around the world. Manning is also the bestselling author of “The Fearless Mind: Five Essential Steps to Higher Performance.”
“I wonder what role Craig Manning played in the deal,” LaComb said. “Who knows if someone in (the Bucks’) management was saying, ‘We need a mature, strong-willed guy’ or if it was complete coincidence or serendipity. I know that Craig worked really closely with Elijah at BYU. I have to credit Craig a lot for that belief factor that I talked about. Craig’s got a really special ability there.”
There’s another Beehive State connection with Milwaukee — and another member of the Bucks’ bench — former Utah State star Sam Merrill.
LaComb loves seeing that Utah storyline featuring Bryant and Merrill in the NBA Finals.
“It’s really cool. By association here locally and being out there sharing the culture they probably end up in the same meetings and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s pretty neat that they have that bond. Sam Merrill’s one of the biggest winners I’ve ever seen. I love that kid. We recruited him really hard from a young age but he was hell-bent on Utah State. It was kind of like his Duke. Nothing but great things to say about Sam.
“When you figure how many people that are trying to do what they’re doing, this year was so bizarre with Elijah getting picked up,” he continued. “You take the sheer population of people playing basketball competitively and the number of guys that are in the Finals, those guys are making memories and they’re going to be etched in history.
LaComb wasn’t sure if Bryant would end up in the NBA, but he certainly saw uncommon qualities in him at BYU. During his redshirt season with the Cougars in 2015-16, Bryant was the scout team point guard.
“Eli would just rip our guys up in practice every day,” LaComb recalled. “He’d have a Donovan Mitchell-type 30 in the scrimmage. I knew he had another gear but it wasn’t like he stood out from other guys from the standpoint of the NBA.
“I always believed that he was a forceful scorer. He could make his way to make a bucket. We didn’t have a ton of those guys during my time at BYU. It was more the system that got guys free. He wasn’t somebody that came in that was a ready-made NBA-type guy, but I definitely saw little glimpses of special stuff.”
After the 2016-17 season, BYU sophomore forward Eric Mika opted to forgo the remainder of his eligibility. A year later, Bryant followed that same path. That created some angst, disappointment and concern within the program and among the fan base.
Looking back at that time, LaComb said he wasn’t surprised when Bryant declared for the draft.
“One thing he had done throughout the year was, he was open about what he wanted to get done. The NBA was always something that he felt like was in the cards for him. It wasn’t an out-of-the-blue surprise,” LaComb said. “Elijah was a little bit older. His knee started to act up. There’s a lot that went into it. He felt like his situation was good for him. He was married.
“It was a hard day knowing what that meant down the road, but it was also an incredible day because those kids come to you to hopefully get in the situation they’re in today. You have to have a long memory and see into the future and understand that not every decision other people make are going to merge with yours but the most important thing is to maintain relationships.”
What stands out most to LaComb about Bryant’s story is his indomitable faith in his ability to play in the NBA.
“You can sum up his time at BYU by that belief idea. Kyle Collinsworth was like that — really driven and headstrong. His belief was second-to-none. His work ethic backed up his belief. He had a real belief in taking care of his body. When injuries started to happen, he changed his diet,” LaComb said.
“That’s a huge piece. More than anything, Eli was a guy that was always coachable. He was always really respectful. That’s the difference. If you can look a coach in the eye and forget the way they’re saying it and listen to what they’re saying, you may not agree with it but listen to it and go make your play. That’s all you can ask. Eli was terrific in that regard.”
Bryant has played sparingly during the NBA playoffs but he can be seen on the bench supporting teammates like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez, and preparing himself to get on the court if needed.
For the Cougar basketball program, it’s the first time in 28 years that a BYU player has been on an NBA Finals roster.
As LaComb can attest, Bryant’s journey to the NBA — let alone the NBA Finals — from Gwinnett, Georgia, to Elon to BYU to Israel and now with the Milwaukee Bucks, is the fulfillment of a dream and a remarkable achievement.