PROVO — With a name like Elijah Brigham Bryant, it would figure that he was destined to play basketball at Brigham Young University.
But his mom never thought of it that way.
“Not at all. Zero. I didn’t even know about BYU or think about BYU when he was born,” said Israel Bryant. “I wanted him to always be connected to the (LDS) Church. Looking back on it, it’s kind of cool. But I think God’s hand is in everything. It’s odd. Kind of eerie that it worked out that way.”
Well, it sure seems like Elijah Bryant was born to play at BYU. This season, the 6-foot-5, 210-pounder from Gwinnett, Georgia, is averaging 17.7 points per game and is shooting 49 percent from the floor, 42.4 percent from 3-point range and 87 percent from the free throw line.
But it took the junior team captain awhile to make the impact on Cougar basketball he has this season.
Bryant started his career at Elon University before transferring to BYU. In 2015-16, he sat out due to NCAA transfer rules and just before he became eligible last season, he sustained a knee injury that held him back.
Still, Bryant poured in a career-high 39 points, including seven 3-pointers a year ago in a win at Portland. He and the Cougars return to the Chiles Center to take on the Pilots Thursday (9 p.m., MST, ESPNU).
“I like that arena,” he said. “I played really well there last year so it will be fun to go back.”
After battling through that taxing season, Bryant suffered a setback with his knee last summer. While it was discouraging, that adversity only strengthened his resolve to achieve his ultimate goal of playing in the National Basketball Association.
“Going through that made me think about how much I want to play in the NBA and play professionally,” he said.
Thanks to his work ethic, tenaciousness and the encouragement and support of his mom — as well as many others — Bryant has emerged as a star. He’s put together an impressive season that’s featured 24 games in which he’s scored double figures and he’s had 21 games with at least two 3-pointers. He also averages 6.6 rebounds an 2.4 assists per game.
As impressive as those numbers are, here's the surprising thing — he doesn't feel fully healthy.
“I’m still not playing at 100 percent. I feel like I have more stuff to do with my leg,” Bryant explained. "Behind the scenes, I’m still doing things to strengthen it and I’m still doing rehab as often as possible to get back to where I was.”
Israel is gratified to see her son excel this season, but she also keeps a mother’s perspective.
“If he doesn’t do anything else, and doesn’t go further, I’m just glad he’s healthy,” she said. “You take that for granted. If the success comes because he’s worked hard, that’s like a cherry on top.”
During the summer of 2016, Bryant knew his knee wasn’t right, but after sitting out for a full year due to transfer rules, he wanted to show he could contribute. He averaged 24.7 minutes and 11.7 points per game and shot 42 percent from the field and 28 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore.
“I was scoring but I knew what I was fully capable of,” he said. “I knew I needed to get back to where I needed to be before.”
Bryant played through the pain but missed BYU’s season-ending loss in the NIT to UT Arlington because he had re-injured his knee in a West Coast Conference Tournament semifinal loss to Saint Mary’s.
After the season, Elijah returned home to the Atlanta area and rehabbed “like crazy,” he said, three days a week. He did Pilates five times a week. But his knee wasn’t making the progress he wanted to see. His mom urged him to keep working.
“I’d be on the treadmill and I’d want to quit,” Bryant said. “She’s continued to push me through. I hated it then but I’m thankful for it now.”
Because Bryant’s dad, Reggie, is a physician and Israel is the chief operating officer of 10 medical offices, they know all about the effort it requires to become healthy again.
“You have to take things into your own hands and get the best care,” Israel said.
When Bryant returned to Provo, his knee “still wasn’t feeling right,” he said, and the frustration deepened. He underwent another knee scope.
“They said it takes a full year to get back to 100 percent,” he said.
At the time, Bryant’s future seemed uncertain. Israel calls it “a crossroads” in her son's life.
“It wasn’t the physical thing that got him. It was more of him feeling like his body was failing him,” she said. “It was having that first scope and thinking he’d be back in a few weeks and it not working and not being able to get on the court and do what he used to do. I told him he needed to learn to play a different way. I said to him, ‘You’re not that person anymore. You’ve got to get better at the things you can do and focus on those. Hopefully, those other things come back but if they don’t, they don’t. But you’re going to be good at all the things you can do. But if they do come back, you have a whole new set of assets and tricks.’ He said, ‘You’re right, mom.”
Bryant rehabbed with physical therapist Seth Kelson, strength and conditioning coach Erick Schork and athletic trainer Rob Ramos. He also met regularly with mental strength coach Craig Manning. The BYU coaching staff did what it could to help him in his efforts to get healthy.
Meanwhile, Bryant honed his game.
“I focused on what I could control — my free throws, 3-pointers, floaters,” he said. “When I got back to that, it put everything in perspective and allowed me to be in a more positive mindset.”
Bryant read ESPN commentator Jay Bilas’ book, “Toughness,” which features a chapter about Grant Hill dealing with injuries and Bryant studied how other athletes dealt with injuries from a mental standpoint.
“Being able to relate to other guys helped me with that and also being able to keep a positive mindset,” Bryant said. “In life, you go through adversity. I had never been through a crazy injury. It had always been smooth sailing. In adversity, you grow. It was either to stop at this wall or keep pushing through it. It was a tough time, for sure.”
Along the way, he was also buoyed up by his wife, Jenelle. The couple married last August.
“She and her family were very supportive,” Bryant said of his wife. “She was there through everything — all my rehab, sitting there for two hours. It was really good. I told her that I love basketball and it’s something I want to do for a long time. She knows that. She supported me.”
Throughout the offseason, whenever coach Dave Rose would go to the BYU Basketball Annex, Bryant was there. He looked more like the player that he had recruited when Bryant left Elon.
“He’s spent the time, he’s worked at it,” Rose said. “He had some real frustrations with injuries. Every day, every night, it didn’t matter when I came into my office, you look out there and there’s Eli on the floor, working on his game.”
Bryant loved basketball at a young age, from the time he was a precocious toddler dribbling a ball wherever his mom would take him.
“People would come up to me at the store all of the time and say, ‘How old is he?’” Israel remembers. “I’d tell them he was two or three. And they’d say, ‘I can’t believe he’s dribbling a ball like that.’”
When Bryant started playing organized basketball, he always played with older kids. In the third grade, he played with the fifth and sixth graders. Later, he joined an AAU team from Atlanta and Israel would drive him two hours to practice and then two hours back home.
“I’d pick him up from school, take him to his practice, he’d do his homework in the car, he’d come back and we’d get home at 10 or 11 o’clock that night,” Israel said.
“That shows her dedication. From age 8-14, my homework was always sloppy on the paper and the teachers would ask, Why?” Bryant said. “I was always doing homework in the car. My mom’s always put me in situations that were always uncomfortable. That’s the biggest thing that made me develop who I am. I’ve played my whole life with inner-city kids with different mentalities. They’ve been through struggles. They’re not playing just for a scholarship. They’re playing it for their family’s lives. Seeing that side makes you value what you have and gives you a different attitude on the floor when you play.”
In Georgia, Bryant didn’t attract much attention from college recruiters so he ended up enrolling at the New Hampton School in New Hampshire.
“The issue with Elijah is that he didn’t grow until the end of his 11th-grade year,” Israel said. “The nice thing was he was trained as a guard. He’s been everything from a spot-up shooter to a point guard to a three. They used him a lot. But he didn’t really get (his size) until the end, late, really late. That affected his recruiting. I Googled good basketball schools. I started calling people. We traveled and visited these (prep schools). There was something about New Hampshire that I just knew that he belonged there.”
When he was in ninth grade, Bryant was only 5-foot-7. Then, in high school, he grew almost one foot in one year.
“I was kind of a late bloomer,” he said.
In New Hampshire, Bryant played against Jazz rookie phenom Donovan Mitchell, who Mitchell attended Brewster Academy.
After Bryant helped lead New Hampton School to the state championship game, BYU started recruiting him, along with Elon University (North Carolina) and Loyola (Maryland). At the time, the Cougars already had commitments from guards like Frank Jackson, TJ Haws and Nick Emery.
Bryant signed with Elon and as a freshman, he averaged 14.2 points for the Phoenix before deciding to transfer.
“It was a really fun experience,” Bryant said of his time at Elon. “I loved the coaches and players. I just felt like I needed to be on a bigger stage to show my skill set.”
In this recruiting process, Bryant was pursued by BYU, Miami (Florida) and Butler.
After he completed all of his recruiting visits, Bryant asked his mom, “How long do I need to think about this decision?”
“You don’t need to think about it. You need to go on your feeling,” Israel told Elijah. “He said, ‘If it’s on feeling, then it’s BYU.’ I said, ‘Okay, call coach Rose right now.’ He called him literally right then.”
Certainly, things have worked out for both Bryant and BYU.
“I’m glad he’s here and I’m glad he’s healthy,” Rose said. “There are so many intangibles he brings to our team as a captain and a leader.”
Off the court, speaking of bigger stages, Bryant and his wife have found an enjoyable social media pastime. The Bryants have a YouTube video log — a vlog — called EB&J that chronicles their experiences together and offers glimpses into their lives. It has more than 32,000 subscribers.
“It’s been fun. I like to share my life and my experiences,” he said. “I like watching professional athletes behind the scenes and what they do. I’ve always loved documentaries. Not that my life is a documentary or anything special, but being able to inspire little kids to live the dream that I’m living right now is something that I’ve been blessed to have. It’s been a great experience. I’m hoping in the future to have my kids look at it and see what it was like to play basketball at BYU. That’s the plan.”
What's in a name?
On his recruiting visit to Provo, Bryant saw a jersey with his last name on the back and Brigham Young on the front.
“I was like, ‘Your name is everywhere, on the front and the back,” Israel said. “Your whole name is on the jersey.’”
There’s an adage that an athlete should play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the back. But for Elijah Brigham Bryant, his name is on both sides.
Israel acknowledged that Elijah was named for two prophets — Elijah from the Old Testament and LDS Church President Brigham Young.
“I felt like they were powerful,” she explained. “Other than that, I liked the way (the names) sounded. The whole pregnancy it was going to be Brigham Elijah. My mom was the one that said, ‘Elijah Brigham would be good.’ The whole half side of the family called him Brigham. Some people still call him ‘Brig.’ In school, he was always called Elijah or Eli. At home, he was called Brig.”
Whatever he's called, it’s safe to say Bryant has made a name for himself at BYU.