SALT LAKE CITY — Tony Bradley is starting to emerge as the backup center that the Utah Jazz had hoped he would.
It hasn’t been an easy ride for the third-year center, who before this season had only played in 12 NBA games.
In his first appearances of the year Bradley struggled to find his way, as any inexperienced player would, making mistakes that are all too common for someone getting their first NBA reps.
The beginning of the 2019-20 campaign was filled with rough minutes where Bradley found himself fouling early and often, getting caught over helping and getting passed for easy buckets, having trouble rolling and finishing with any kind of consistency.
But, with more chances on the court and a more solid place in the Jazz rotation, Bradley is starting to find his way, much to the delight of his team, because as Bradley has started to emerge as a reliable backup to Rudy Gobert, the rest of the Jazz bench has begun to take shape as well.
Before the All-Star break Bradley was a net minus-0.7 in his time on the floor, even with an increase in productivity leading up to the break. Post All-Star break Bradley is a plus-5.2 in nine games, averaging more points, a higher field-goal percentage, higher free throw percentage, and less than two fouls per game.
“It’s great to have the bench give us a lift,” Gobert said after the bench was the bright spot in a loss to the Toronto Raptors on Monday night. “It’s a big plus for us. All the best teams in the world have a very good bench. Especially in the playoffs, you need the bench to give you a lift. If our bench keeps playing this way I think it’s going to be huge for us.”
Bradley is a player who wears his emotions plainly and when he makes mistakes in the game he is his harshest critic. Whether immediately following a mishap on the court, or when he is subbed out of the game, it’s clear from his body language that Bradley is fighting within himself to let go of the negative moments.
It’s what Donovan Mitchell says is the biggest thing holding Bradley back, and is also something that Bradley has doing better with as of late, which could be the reason for his increased progression.
“The biggest thing I tell him every time is that what happened in the past happened in the past, whether it’s good or bad, be able to move on to the next thing,” Mitchell said on Monday. “If you make a mistake don’t dwell on how you made the mistake, just go out there and find a way to do something.”
Mitchell went on to note the Jazz’s recent four-game road trip and how he’d noticed a difference in Bradley during a win against the Knicks.
“I think it was in New York, and Bobby Portis made two threes on him and he kind of got down,” he said. “But then he came back and had a block and ran the floor. Those are the plays. Look at tonight, the two blocks, being aggressive, those are the things that you love to see out of him and I think that a lot of it is him getting out of his own head.”
In addition to not standing his own way, Bradley is seeing the fruits of his labor pay off. During every Jazz practice, Bradley can be seen going through different post drills with the Jazz assistant and development coaches.
He practices his post footwork rolling after a screen and keeping the ball high away from arms of prying defenders. He works on playing through contact and he works on his defensive skills — all of which are areas that Bradley has noticeably become stronger in over the course of the season.
With that work, the teammates that he shares the floor with, notably Joe Ingles and Mike Conley, have seen the difference and been trusting Bradley more.
“Tony does a great job of screening and getting to the rim which opens things up for all of us,” Ingles said.
And, it’s not like Bradley is the kind of player that is looking to put up big numbers. Gaining the trust of his teammates, especially veterans like Ingles and Conley, and being able to make plays for them is just as satisfying for the young big man.
“I feel like MIke and Joe trust me in the pick-and-roll passing it to me to make the right play,” Bradley said. “It’s just reps all the way from OTAs at the beginning of the season. Just more reps and they trust me with the ball. I try to make the right decision whenever they throw it to me. Just reading it, I can either lay it up, float it, or pass to the corner for an open three.”
Bradley has also noticed a better feel for where Conley likes to move in the mid-range during middle pick-and-roll situations, and has been enjoying that continued chemistry building.
“When I get in the pick-and-roll with me and him he likes to pass and I try to get him open for a mid-range shot,” Bradley said. “I just feel like the chemistry between me and Mike is there. Plus he trusts me with the little pocket pass when I roll.”
As Bradley continues to round into form and become his own player the Jazz players couldn’t be more proud.
Every time Bradley makes and impressive defensive stop, whenever he blocks the ball, even when he gets the little pocket pass from Conley and finishes a short lay up, the rest of the Jazz players are on their feet on the sidelines cheering him on.
“This is the most aggressive, the most dominant that I’ve seen him, that we’ve all seen Tony,” Mitchell said. “He’s been doing really well. You see our reaction we’re all happy for him when he gets going.”