Utah Jazz: Bryant loving his opportunity to learn, grow as Utah Summer League head coach
BY RANDY HOLLIS, DESERET NEWS
SALT LAKE CITY — Eight years ago, when Johnnie Bryant had finished up his collegiate basketball career at the University of Utah and was pondering his future, he never imagined he'd be doing this.
But "this" has certainly turned out to be a pretty great gig, serving as head coach of the Utah Jazz Summer League squad that will play Thursday night at the Huntsman Center — the same arena where Bryant starred for the Utes from 2005-08.
"It's gonna be fun," Bryant said of Thursday's 7 p.m. matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers' squad in this year's Utah summer league finale. "When I saw that we were playing up there, I thought it would be exciting. It'll definitely be fun to go up there and coach a game.
"It's still doing pretty much the same thing (as a coach), it's just a different building. But it's gonna be different walking to the scorer's table and not going in (to play in the game). You know what I mean?"
Indeed, won't one of the Utes' greatest 3-point shooters of all time be tempted to get out on that Huntsman Center court and hoist up a shot or two from beyond the arc?
"I don't know about that," Bryant said Tuesday night after Utah's 89-82 summer league loss to Boston at Vivint Arena. "They may call a technical foul and then I may not coach again."
That would be a shame, because this guy absolutely loves the game of basketball and has begun carving out a nice career for himself as a coach since his playing days ended following one season of pro ball in Germany, where he averaged 21 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game.
So, did he ever envision himself coaching a professional team some day?
"No, not at all," he admitted. "Obviously I wanted to play as long as I could. I had a couple mentors of mine telling me that I was gonna be a coach someday. And, you know, I just love the game.
"When I was playing professionally in Germany, I was just kinda thinking one day, 'Hey, if I'm gonna continue to play, how long do I want to play? And then what am I gonna do after I get done playing?' The reality of a 5-10, 5-11 guard, the longevity in that career is not long unless you're unique (a la Steph Curry).
"So I got into player development and continued to learn, continued to gain as much knowledge as I possibly could," Bryant said. "But at the end of the day, I'm blessed to be in this opportunity. God has blessed me with an opportunity that I never (thought he'd have). When I was a kid, I wanted to play in the NBA. I wanted to make it to the NBA, but I never thought I would be making it to the NBA this way, so it's really been great."
"I've also been blessed with mentors that helped me see the bigger picture. And basically basketball, or any sport you're in, is not gonna last long, so prepare for that transition. I prayed about it, and here I am today."
Bryant, who'll turn 31 in August, began his transition toward coaching in 2009, when he founded the Bryant Sports Academy, a skill development program through which he worked with more than 125 athletes of various ages — including several NBA players like former Jazz standout and current Atlanta Hawks All-Star Paul Millsap and numerous European pro players — to help advance each player’s skill set through personalized workout sessions.
By 2012, he had impressed the Jazz staff so much with his offseason training program that he was hired by the team as a player development assistant, helping create and implement individual plans for each Jazz player which would enhance their skill development.
And two years later, when Quin Snyder came on board as Utah's new head coach, Bryant was promoted to a position as an assistant coach on Snyder's staff.
Still, being put in the position of running the show — even if it's only for Utah's three-game summer league series of games in Salt Lake City — was definitely something very new for Bryant.
"It's been a great experience, you know," he said. "I can't thank Coach Snyder and (Jazz general manager) Dennis Lindsey enough for having the confidence to put me in this position. We have a huge coaching staff and they can select who they want, but it's been a great experience for me. It's been a great experience for our staff as our roles kind of expand.
"And hopefully, at the end of the day, this experience will eventually help us where we'll be in a position where we can help Coach (Snyder) during the regular season. So to have these games and have these practices and be in these situations, I think it will be a great opportunity for us to grow as a staff."
Bryant is learning that being in charge of the team, even if it's only this week, carries a ton of new responsibilities with it.
"Everything," he said. "The small, minor details, in the sense of 'Hey, what time is shootaround? What time do we want the players to be picked up? What shirts are the coaches gonna wear? What time are we gonna meet with the team before the game?'
"Then there's just all the game situations — 'What play do you wanna run, who do you wanna run it for? How many timeouts do you have.' All those things just go through your mind, and it's a situation where every day it's something new. So it's like hey, I didn't think about this, so now I need to re-evaluate this game and see how I can be better the next game.
"There's so many things as a head coach that you really don't think about as an assistant coach for your head coach, so all those little things are just basically coming at you — they ask you, 'What time do you want to practice?' — just all those things," Bryant said. "… It's been fun, though. I've been enjoying it and it's been great."
While the summer league is looked at as an opportunity for players to develop, Bryant sees it as a opportunity for coaches like himself to do the same thing.
"Absolutely," he said. "This is an experience that you can't really get during the season. You can go work camps … but to have NBA referees and to have NBA fans in the building, and NBA players out there on the floor, there's no better experience than coaching in the summer league."
Bryant grew up in Oakland, California, where he benefited from having a couple of key mentors in his life in AAU coach Raymond Young, who also helped mentor and coach former Weber State great and current Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, and Lou Richie, "my high school coach, who's like a big brother to me," Bryant said.
"Those two guys, they've been very instrumental in my life, and also my mom, who's been very instrumental in the sense of allowing those two to help mentor me. You know, growing up in a single-parent home, it's one of those things where you kind of need help, and she allowed them to do that."
Thanks to the coaching and guidance he received from Young and Richie, Bryant played one year at San Francisco City College and then went on to have a stellar career at the University of Utah, where he played three seasons and became the school's all-time leader in career 3-point shooting percentage (45.5) and left ranked No. 20 on the Utes' all-time scoring list.
Bryant averaged 13.1 points as a sophomore and 15.1 as a junior, earning All-Mountain West Conference honorable mention both years. He then averaged 14.2 ppg during his senior season, when he was named team MVP, was a second team All-MWC selection and was also named to the Academic All-MWC Team before graduating in 2008 with bachelor's degrees in both human development and family studies, as well as sports management.
All of that helped prepare him for what he's doing now, but being a first-time head coach this week has definitely offered him another invaluable learning experience.
"It's one of those things where you've got to continue to learn, continue to get better, and be an open book," Bryant said. "And it's one of those situations where I can't ask for a better mentor than Quin Snyder to be learning from every day.
"You can't really control everything. It's just one of those things where once the game starts, it's out of your hands and it's up to the players. These guys have been great, so I've been fortunate enough to have a great group of guys to work with.
"I'm just enjoying the moment, just enjoying the opportunity," he said. "You know, running a training camp, coaching the guys, being in the huddle, drawing up plays, that has been something that no matter how long I coach, I'll always remember my first summer league game as a coach."
And tonight at the Huntsman Center, where he played his college ball and etched his name in the Utes' record books, he'll be hoping to get his first win as a pro head coach — even if it's only a week-long gig.