Provo • BYU guard Elijah Bryant seriously considered giving up basketball a few times last season.
A balky knee that was supposed to have been repaired in the offseason wasn’t responding well to treatment and the transfer from Elon University was having trouble regaining the form that earned him Rookie of the Year honors in the Colonial Athletic Conference.
“People don’t realize how difficult that year was on Eli,” coach Dave Rose said.
The season ended for Bryant when he re-injured the knee in the conference tournament loss to Saint Mary’s, and there was genuine fear that his career might be over.
“Yeah, it was bad,” Bryant said Wednesday. “I mean, there were times when I didn’t want to play basketball anymore. I was [mostly] struggling with the mental side of it.”
But look at him now.
Bryant is having a phenomenal junior season and is carrying the Cougars’ scoring load with sophomore Yoeli Childs, giving BYU one of the best 1-2 punches in the West Coast Conference. The Atlanta-area product has helped the Cougars post a 16-4 record, 5-2 in the WCC, heading into Saturday’s 7 p.m. showdown at the Marriott Center with surprising San Diego.
Bryant is in the top five in the league in both scoring (18.3 ppg.) and rebounding (6.4 rpg.) and is in the conversation for WCC Player of the Year honors, although Jock Landale of Saint Mary’s is the clear leader after the league-leading Gaels knocked off Gonzaga Thursday night.
Bryant is also getting close to a rare statistical feat for a basketball player at any level. Bryant is on the verge of joining the 50-40-90 club, which is also sometimes called the 180 Shooters Club.
ELIJAH BRYANT’S IMPROVEMENT
2016-17 • 24.7 minutes, 42.6 FG Pct., 27.8 3-point Pct., 79.6 FT Pct., 3.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 11.7 points
2017-18 • 33.5 minutes, 51.4 FG Pct., 45.7 3-point Pct., 89.8 FT% Pct., 6.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 18.3 points.
It includes players who have a shooting percent at or above 50 percent for field goals, 40 percent for 3-pointers, and 90 percent for free throws. The feat is so rare that only seven NBA players have finished a season in the 50-40-90 club since the league installed the 3-point shot in 1979: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Larry Bird. Nash did it four times and Bird did it twice.
Bryant is currently shooting 51.4 percent from the field, 45.7 percent from 3-point range and 89.8 percent from the free-throw line. He was 8 for 8 from the free-throw line in Thursday’s 82-67 win over Loyola Marymount to extend his streak to a career-high 23 straight and is now 88 of 98 from the stripe.
That means Bryant can get to 90 percent if he makes his first two on Saturday.
“It is not something I’m really thinking about,” said Bryant, who continually downplays his own accomplishments.
Rose said sheer hard work has propelled Bryant’s improvement. Often during the summer, Rose said, he would stop in at his office in the Marriott Center Annex, BYU’s new practice facility, only to find Bryant working on his game at all hours of the day.
“He works as hard as anybody we’ve had,” Rose said.
Bryant put up decent numbers his first year at BYU after transferring from Elon and sitting out a year — 11.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 24.7 minutes per game. But through 20 games this season he’s averaging 18.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists in 33.5 minutes per game.
Last year he shot 42.6 percent from the field, 27.8 percent from beyond the arc and 79.6 percent from the line.
“Well, [the knee soreness] is still messing with me,” he said. “You haven’t seen me take off with my left leg yet.”
Bryant said he drew inspiration from reading a book on toughness that detailed Grant Hill’s return from injuries and watching Isaiah Thomas’ video on theplayerstribune.com website.
“I think being able to relate to other guys helped me with that, and then being able to keep a positive mindset.”
Michael Smith, who played in 1983-84 and from 1986-89, is believed to be the only BYU player who has shot 50-40-90 in a season. Smith, who played three years in the NBA, shot 50.9 percent from the field, 48.6 percent from 3-point range (on 70 attempts) and 90.4 percent from the line in 1986-87, his sophomore season.
Bryant and Childs are both shooting 65 percent during BYU’s current three-game winning streak.
“I am just staying humble and my guys are able to find me,” Bryant said. “[Thursday] they wanted to double down on Yo [Childs] and I was open and able to take the shot. But everyone on our team can hit those shots. That’s what is nice about it.”
Rose said he more impressed with how Bryant has developed as a leader than anything he’s done on the court.
“I knew he was a great player. I knew he could take the ball to the basket and score. I knew he could get to the free-throw line and make free throws. I knew he could be a really good 3-point shooter,” Rose said. “But the leadership and the maturity and how he helps guide this team, besides being his own player, is remarkable. Eli and Luke [Worthington] have been as good of leaders to help this group as we’ve had, not only in their own approach to the game, but in how they have helped influence the other guys. That’s probably what I am most impressed with.”
SAN DIEGO AT BYU
Where • Marriott Center, Provo
Tipoff • 7 p.m.
TV • BYUtv
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, Sirius XM 143
Records • San Diego 13-6, 4-3 WCC; BYU 16-4, 5-2 WCC
Series history • BYU leads 12-4
Last meeting • BYU won 82-70 (Feb. 16, 2017)
About the Toreros •They suffered a 55-49 defeat at the hands of last-place Portland onThursday night at Jenny Craig Pavilion to fall out of a third-place tiein the league standings. … University of Utah transfer Isaiah Wright isaveraging 14.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. Another transfer,forward Isaiah Pineiro, leads them in scoring with a 15.7 average.
About the Cougars • They have held 13 of their last 15opponents under 70 points, including their last five. … They have shotbetter than 58 percent from the field in each of their last three games.… Elijah Bryant has hit a 3-pointer in every game this season and hasmade more than one 3-pointer in 15 of 20 games.