Former BYU star Elijah Bryant living his pro dream in Israel but he still harbors hopes of playing in the NBA
Bryant is in Israel, waiting for the season with Maccabi Tel Aviv while his wife, who is expecting a son in August, is home in Utah.
SALT LAKE CITY — Since late May, former BYU guard Elijah Bryant has been stuck in a hotel room, and an apartment, in Tel Aviv, Israel.
He keeps himself occupied by reading, playing Xbox, stretching, eating and sleeping.
“Then repeat,” he said.
Bryant’s wife, Jenelle, is in Utah, pregnant with the couple’s first child, a son, who is expected to arrive in early August.
Bryant is waiting to play again for Maccabi Tel Aviv, the top team in Israel. Maccabi Tel Aviv is also part of the Euroleague, a top-tier professional basketball league, which also includes former BYU star Jimmer Fredette’s Panathinaikos team.
The season hasn’t restarted after being interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s supposed to end in late July, just before his son’s due date.
Bryant returned to Israel May 26 — his wife stayed behind in Utah — when it was decided that the season would continue. He went straight from the airport to a hotel.
“You go 14 days quarantine and then you go to practice,” he explained to the Deseret News in a recent phone interview.
Someone picks him up and takes him to the gym, where he works out with the coach, then he returns to the hotel.
“It’s been like that for a while. The games are supposed to start June 21 and go to July 31. It’s a tough situation,” Bryant said. “The players can’t do anything except go to the gym and back until July 31. A lot of players are in an uproar about that. It’s a little out of control.”
Meanwhile, his wife is doing well.
“My wife is healthy, the baby’s healthy, so that’s a blessing,” he said. “Obviously, she’d like to have me home but due to these unforeseen circumstances, we are where we are.”
Aside from this situation caused by COVID-19, Bryant has thrived in his professional basketball career.
“I would compare playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv to playing for the Lakers in L.A,” Bryant said. “That’s kind of how the vibe is.”
After being named first-team All-West Coast Conference at BYU in 2018, Bryant decided to forgo his final season of eligibility to turn pro. He went undrafted but he was a member of the Philadelphia 76ers for the 2018 NBA Summer League.
Bryant joined Hapoel Eilat of the Israeli Premier League, signing a one-year contract. Among the highlights from his rookie season was a 31-point performance in a victory over Bnei Herzliya. He was named Israeli League Player of the Month in December 2018 after averaging 20.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and two steals. He finished as the league’s fourth-leading scorer, averaging 17.5 points per game, and he earned All-Israeli League First Team honors.
“The first year was really good, and my team was really good. We played in the southernmost part of Israel. It’s similar to a small Miami,” Bryant said. “It’s where all the people in other parts of Israel go on vacation. We loved it. We were five minutes from the beach, five minutes from the gym. We were five minutes from everything. We only played once a week. It was a great experience. We made it to the Final Four, and we ended up losing to the team I’m on now. It couldn’t have been a better first year.”
Playing in Israel has been an adjustment but he’s enjoyed the experience.
“The team I played for last year was one of the smaller teams in Israel but it was still a great experience, still really good basketball,” he said. “The domestic league in Israel is very physical because they don’t call as many fouls. They let you play. In EuroLeague, it’s a bunch of high-level, smart, athletic players.
“As you know, the NBA is full of athletes. Everyone is an athlete. But Euroleague has athletes but a lot of smart players, too. You can sit in the paint and not get 3-seconds. It makes for a different type of game. Playing all around the world has been a great experience and I’m super grateful for that.”
Last July, Bryant joined the Milwaukee Bucks for the 2019 Summer League. He acquitted himself well, averaging 14.2 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game.
Later that summer, Bryant signed a two-year contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“It went really well with the Bucks. I had opportunities for non-guaranteed stuff in the NBA. But I wanted to play in the Euroleague and play at the highest Euro level of basketball. I think my time will come. I just need to be ready and prepared for it because you don’t get many shots at the NBA, you know?” Bryant said. “It so happened that this was the best situation for me and my career and my family. After praying, we decided this was the best decision for us. It just so happened to be in Israel and it was an easier adjustment for us. It wasn’t necessarily an idea of staying in Israel, it was the best option for us.”
In early February, he scored a Euroleague career-high 21 points and collected six rebounds and four assists.
Then came the pandemic.
“My brother and my mom flew in a few days before the NBA season got shut down. We were supposed to play a team from Spain,” Bryant said. “They were here ready to play. We were ready to play with no fans in the stands.”
The news about Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert broke and the Euroleague schedule, like the NBA’s, was suspended. Bryant’s family returned to the United States and then he boarded a flight to Atlanta, near his hometown of Gwinnett, Georgia.
“I was thinking the season wouldn’t come back,” he said.
After spending two months in the Atlanta area, he went to Utah for a couple of weeks before he was summoned back to Israel.
“It was, ‘We’re starting the season back up, we’ll play it by ear.’ It’s hard though because our team plays in the Euroleague and in the domestic league,” Bryant said. “The EuroLeague had already decided that if the season doesn’t continue, players get 80% of their remaining salary. But the domestic league didn’t decide on anything.
“So when they started back, the locals agreed to accepting 75% of their main salary. We’re the only team that got tested. The other teams aren’t testing. So we don’t know who has (the coronavirus) or who doesn’t. The protocols don’t really make sense. You have to be quarantined, you can’t be close to any players before the game and then you can go play the game. It makes you shake your head a little bit, like, ‘What’s going on here?’”
The fans in Israel, and throughout Europe, can be rabid, Bryant said.
“Our fans are some of the best fans in Euroleague. It’s crazy. It’s loud. Sometimes you can’t hear yourself talk. They want to fight the other team,” he said. “I went to a Barcelona soccer game one time and that’s what it reminds me of. They’ll die for the team, honestly. There’s a rival team in Tel Aviv. Even when we travel we have security detail with us.
“You have fans throwing lighters. A player got spit on. It’s a big rivalry. We went to Turkey and the fact that the government and religious conflict that they have, we had extra security. We had cameras outside our hotel. We had security detail on our floor the whole night, the whole time we were there. We had decoy buses. That kind of took me back. Are we playing basketball? This is ridiculous. That’s the only time I’ve been like, ‘Whoa, this is crazy.’ The fans always mean well but they are crazy.”
Off the court, Bryant has enjoyed opportunities to visit sites in the Holy Land.
“I’ve been to places like the Garden of Gethsemane and I’ve been to every site besides Bethlehem because Bethlehem is actually in Palestinian territory,” he said. “I would have to take a taxi because I couldn’t drive my Israeli car there. It’s been a great experience to see all these things and go to church at the BYU Jerusalem Center. It’s been definitely eye-opening, and I’m grateful for that.”
Bryant said his game has changed, and improved, since he left BYU.
“I’ve learned a lot about the game, and I’m trying to be consistent in being better at what I do. You see it a lot in the NBA — ‘He’s a rim-protector, he’s a scoring point guard’ — it’s trying to figure out what I do best and really master that, whether that’s shooting 3s or pick-and-roll. For me, consistency is something I’ve improved on. Consistency is so important. In college, I didn’t really understand that. I did whatever the team needed me to do, I’ll do. I still do that but it’s about being consistent at a few things.”
With the Cougars, Bryant averaged 18.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists as a senior. Then he decided to take his shot at a pro career. Bryant has no regrets about leaving BYU early.
“I think it was the best decision for me. Going to the NCAA Tournament would have been so fun,” he said. “But in life you make decisions and you deal with the consequences, whether good or bad. It turned out well for me. I’m glad I made that decision. It was perfect timing for me to embark on this journey to the NBA and starting my family. I’m excited to be a dad. I know there will be a lot of sleepless nights but I’m excited.”
Playing professional basketball has been an adventure but he’s enjoyed it — even if for now he’s away from his wife and spending most of his time reading, playing Xbox, stretching, eating, sleeping. Then repeating.
“It’s different because now you do it for a living. You’ve done it for so long for fun. For me, it makes me even more motivated,” he said. “When I go to the gym, it translates to a monetary value to have resources for my family. In college, you try to see the light at the end of the tunnel but you don’t actually feel that monetary value. To understand that you’re actually providing by doing something you love has been a great experience for me. It’s been a better experience than I thought it would be.”
No doubt, Bryant still harbors hopes of playing in the NBA eventually.
“Yeah. It will come here soon, I believe,” he said. “I have to stay patient and have faith.”