Johnnie Bryant works behind the scenes, but his impact on the Jazz is unmistakable
Utah assistant coach has been integral to the development of Damian Lillard and Jazz stars Paul Millsap, Gordon Hayward, Donovan Mitchell.
BY KYLE GOON, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
He hacks. He shoves. His critiques are quiet, yet they cut.
Johnnie Bryant finds a player’s limit in a workout then he pushes him past it.
He still playfully argues with former Jazzman Ronnie Price about an offseason workout they had a few years back. After a particularly frustrating session of trash talk while being guarded by Bryant, Price tried to smash his nose with a high sweep of his elbow.
It’s a sign of Bryant’s personality — and his results — that he found Price’s aggression encouraging.
“For me, when guys get to that point in the workout, that’s when they really have dug a little deeper and pushed through the physicality, pushed through the fatigue,” Bryant says. “And that’s when you’re hit with that adversity and when you kind of have to get a little bit more.”
Bryant, 32, is an expert at drawing out the best in NBA players. The Jazz assistant’s resume includes three players he worked with, either privately or with the Jazz, who went on to become All-Stars: Damian Lillard, Paul Millsap and Gordon Hayward. His latest big project is Donovan Mitchell, a Rookie of the Year candidate who was considered an offensively raw draft prospect.
The Jazz trust Bryant to develop their potential stars because he pushes them farther than they know they can go.
“He’s really intense, but he’s laid back at the same time — he’s always got something to say,” Mitchell says. “I work as hard as I possibly can to shut him up.”
Narrowing the distance between a player’s comfort zone and where he needs to be pushed is what’s gotten Bryant this far so quickly in his coaching career. And it’s a journey in which he has personal experience.
Bryant’s phone has a black-and-white picture as its background: an old wooden backboard, chipped and splintered around the edges, a box of black tape in the center.
That goal stood in the gym at California Berkeley Adult School, known as West Campus, a dusty palace of broken windows and old floorboards.
There was no air conditioning, so the players always either were dripping with sweat in the summer or shivering in the chill of early morning. There were long, punishing practices — defensive slides with bricks in his hands or shouldering sandbags while jogging around the court.
Bryant’s coach, Raymond Young, called it Run-Em-Off University.
“We had kids who would come through to work out once then not come back,” Bryant says. “For me, that’s home.”
Some of his best memories are playing pickup games at his high school, Bishop O’Dowd, or nearby Mosswood Park. Or yes, even at West Campus, where Young, known as “Pops”, would sweat out the best in his guys or run them off trying.
“It was more mental,” Bryant says. “You had to tap into a darker place to get through it.”
Bryant’s old coaches remember meeting him as a chubby teenager, one who had talent but little work ethic. If he was going to play at West Campus or O’Dowd, he was going to have to earn it.
Young coached Bryant with the AAU Rebels (now known as Team Lillard for a slightly more famous alum). He put his players through drills including burpees, lifting medballs and jumping rope. Bryant came to love it all.
Lou Richie, who coached Bryant at O’Dowd, also helped him develop as a player, but he might’ve done his best coaching in schoolwork. Bryant didn’t play his junior year because of poor grades, so Richie sat him in a small room next to the gym and challenged him: Let’s study for five minutes.
Five minutes became 20. Then 30. Then 40.
Bryant led his team to an NCS championship in 2003 and made third team all-state. He went on to carve out a college career, spending a year at San Francisco City College before joining the Utes, where he still holds the career record for 3-point percentage (44 percent). Richie is most proud that Bryant, the reluctant student, found time to earn two degrees at Utah.
Bryant’s coaches were tough, but they also were supportive. They gave him rides home, or in some cases let him stay at their homes to avoid a 90-minute commute to O’Dowd after his family moved further away from the school. They bought him meals after practice. They listened to him talk about his day.
They understood something that Bryant came to embrace later in his career: You can’t ask a player to give you everything they have without giving something back.
“You can’t get after somebody and yell at them unless you teach them something,” Young says. “You can’t beat them to the ground if they don’t know you care.”
An American playing basketball overseas has a lot of time to reflect. Bryant was in Germany in 2009, playing the first year of what seemed to be a promising career.
But there were a few things making him rethink his path. He realized that as a 6-foot guard, he’d have to fight new 6-foot guards every year for his job. His mother was sick, and he wanted to be closer to her. He had a fiancee in Utah with whom he wanted to start a family.
“When you’re out of the country and isolated, you have a lot of time to think because you’re kind of out of your comfort zone,” Bryant says. “I knew eventually playing would run its course.”
So he relocated back to Salt Lake City, where he knew he could get access to a gym at the University of Utah. The proud point guard took a job at Enterprise Rent-A-Car then soon started Bryant Sports Academy with four pupils.
Price was the first NBA player Bryant ever worked out, a defense-first guy who lacked shooting touch. He was looking for an edge to make sure he could stay in the league and thought Bryant might help him find one. The two had met at the Taylorsville Rec Center, where Jazz players mixed into pickup games at the time, and Bryant’s refusal to be intimidated impressed Price.
But when it came to setting up a workout, Bryant was nervous. While he had no problem pushing middle-schoolers who hadn’t yet developed a feel for the game, he wasn’t sure how much of his style would work on an NBA vet.
Somewhere in the middle of the workout, another thought occurred to him: What if Price was testing him? What if he wanted to see if he had the guts to push him further?
That’s when Bryant started coaching his way.
Afterward, Price was unreadable. Bryant didn’t know what to think. Later that day, Price invited the Bryants over to his house. It was Price’s wife who finally told him the verdict.
“She said, ‘Ronnie loved the workout today,’ and it was like, ‘Oh my goodness, wow,’” Bryant recalls.
It felt like sandbags sliding off his shoulders.
There were more workouts with Price, and word started getting around. Bryant started training Paul and Elijah Millsap, then he trained then-coach Ty Corbin’s son Tyrell. He had become a go-to private trainer in Salt Lake City for players at every level within a few short years.
It was during a 2012 workout with the Millsaps when Bryant spotted a new observer in the gym. New Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey was riding on a stationary cycle alongside then-Jazzman Marvin Williams, watching Bryant work. Lindsey had heard good things from Corbin, Millsap and former Utah coach Jim Boylen, and he wanted to see Bryant for himself.
After loading his basketballs into his car, Bryant walked back in the gym and introduced himself, saying he would love to visit Jazz practice sometime.
Corbin called him four days later, offering him a player development job. And Williams says even early on into that role that it was clear Bryant could be an NBA lifer.
“I just felt he had a natural knack for it and he really enjoys it,” he says.
There have been big games from Mitchell this season — two games where he scored more than 40 points, games where he’s hit dagger shots, games where he’s gone off in the fourth quarter. Mitchell can count on Bryant reviewing what he did well in his next film session.
But he also can count on film splices from his worst games, too.
“Every now and then, more so just kind of to mess with him,” Bryant says. “It’s not in a malicious way, just to remind him don’t forget about those nights, either.”
Players who work out with Bryant can expect a routine that’s highly personalized. His routine for Mitchell is nothing like Jae Crowder’s. Bryant exhaustively studies film for notes on handles, shooting form, getting to spots and making reads then tailors the workout to his man.
It’s not unusual for Mitchell to receive a handful of daily texts from Bryant of film clips with accompanying notes.
“I watch film a lot, but I’ve never met someone who watches it more than me,” Mitchell said. “He’s always trying to find ways to get guys better and find little tweaks to improve your game.”
Price thinks that Bryant pairs well with players who have a chip on their shoulder, and that might be the one common thread among the very different players he’s worked with. As for his own career, Price credits Bryant with helping him reach a personal goal of 12 years in the NBA.
But there’s something beyond the results that lingers, too. Bryant is personable, relatable. He’ll push players in workouts then become their confidante in the locker room.
“If you don’t have someone on staff that you can talk to, it’s hard to survive in this league — it really is,” Price says. “You need someone you can trust with those emotions, that is gonna give you good feedback and build you up when you’re going through the lows.”
That closeness that develops between coach and player may be the key to Bryant’s success in the NBA, but the nature of the business means those relationships end.
While Jazz fans as a whole felt dumped last July when Hayward chose Boston over Utah, no one was closer to him than Bryant, whom Hayward widely credited for pushing him to All-Star status.
But Bryant holds no ill will. He still talks to Hayward. He still talks to all his former players, and he still celebrates them. He was proud when Millsap became an All-Star in Atlanta and Ian Clark won a championship with Golden State. He’ll still give occasional feedback to former players, even ones who have moved on to different teams.
Williams hit a floater against the Utah defense two years ago when the Jazz were playing the Charlotte Hornets. As he ran back, he shouted at the Utah bench, “Thank you, Johnnie,” because Bryant was the coach who helped him develop the shot. And Bryant, despite Williams now playing for the other team, couldn’t help but be happy.
“I understand I have a moment in time with these players, so hopefully when they leave, they’re better off when they started,” he says. “That’s the reason I do it.”
Bryant’s standing over time has improved on the Jazz staff.
He’s gained Quin Snyder’s trust. He’s evolved from a coach that specialized in player development to one that has the larger tactical picture in mind.
His attention to detail has been honed even further by Snyder’s fastidious nature. He knows more about footwork now, about players using their bodies to shed defenders, about how defenses react to certain sets, how to use ball fakes in schemes.
“Learning from him every day, I’ve been very fortunate to be in that situation,” Bryant says. “And on the flip side of it, he also gives me the time to do my thing, too.”
If that sounds like the makings of a future head coach, that may not be far off. While Bryant is young in his career, he’s risen fast. And players he’s worked with believe he’s destined to lead a bench one day.
“I told Johnnie years ago that this day would come, that people would start to recognize how great a basketball mind he really is,” Price says. “There’s so much more to him that people have yet to see.”
If his work with others is any indication, there’s always more to expect from Bryant.
• Played for Bishop O’Dowd in high school; played AAU for the Oakland Soldiers.
• Played college basketball at San Francisco City College and University of Utah.
• The career record holder for the Utes in 3-point percentage (44 percent).
• Founded Bryant Sports Academy in 2009.
• Joined the Utah Jazz in 2012 in player development.
• Has coached Damian Lillard, Ronnie Price, Paul Millsap, Marvin Williams, Gordon Hayward, Donovan Mitchell and Jae Crowder privately or for the Jazz.
UTAH JAZZ AT LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Where • Staples Center, Los Angeles
Tipoff • 4 p.m. MST Sunday
TV • AT&T Sportsnet
Radio • 97.5 FM/1280 AM
Records • Utah 46-33; Los Angeles 34-45
Last meeting • Utah won 117-110 (April 3)
About the Jazz • Jae Crowder (corneal abrasion) and Raul Neto (wrist fracture) were cleared Saturday afternoon to play, while Ricky Rubio (hamstring soreness) was listed as questionable. … Utah is looking for a season sweep of the Lakers. … The Jazz control their own destiny for home-court advantage in the playoffs. They can clinch no worse than fourth place in the West by winning their final three regular-season games.
About the Lakers • Former Ute Kyle Kuzma left the last Lakers game with a sprained ankle. Kuzma had 26 points against the Jazz in the last game Tuesday. … The Lakers are ranked as the third-fastest team in pace this season. … Julius Randle was just one assist away from recording a triple-double (12 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists) in Tuesday’s game.