Tony Bradley is here, in the starting lineup in an NBA arena. But not in an NBA uniform.
It’s February, and the former North Carolina Tar Heel is suited up for the Salt Lake City Stars. He’s facing Lakers draft pick Ivica Zubac, a 7-foot-1 giant from Croatia, and it doesn’t go well.
Zubac scores 25 points and grabs eight rebounds in a 118-114 South Bay Lakers win at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Bradley doesn’t have his A-game this evening: He scores seven points and has two rebounds. Later, he quietly slips out of the arena with his girlfriend, his hood snugly wrapped around his face as to blend into the background as much as a 6-foot-11 NBA center can.
That same night, the Jazz roll to an easy victory against the Phoenix Suns in Arizona. Donovan Mitchell, selected 15 picks before Bradley, dazzles with 40 points, which isn’t even his highest scoring game of the season.
Of Utah’s two-first round picks, there’s Mitchell, who is in the Rookie of the Year conversation. Then there’s Bradley, who is toiling away in the G League. But to compare them, Jazz officials say, is to miss that both players are where the organization wants them to be.
Bradley’s road is a less direct route, one that has bounced him between two teams in two leagues in the past five months 17 times. It’s not the most glamorous road, especially for a 20-year-old living on his own.
But he’s trying to make the best of it.
• • •
Like Tibor Pleiss and Joel Bolomboy before him, this season has seen Bradley, when not stuck on the end of the bench with the Jazz, with Utah’s affiliate in the G League.
At times, he’s had to fly across the country on a moment’s notice: He took off for Cleveland in December when Rudy Gobert got hurt, then Washington in January when Derrick Favors was a scratch against the Wizards. He hasn’t gotten much time, but he’s there just in case.
The Jazz pride themselves in streamlining the experience for their two-way players: The plays the Stars and Jazz run are the same, and the coaching staffs are in sync. The concepts Bradley works on with Jazz assistant Tony Lang are the ones he works on with Stars coach Martin Schiller.
“I do have to remember to give him rest,” Schiller said. “Sometimes people think he’s not here or not there, but really he’s everywhere.”
The term “anticipatory draft pick” may seem redundant, but here’s the distinction general manager Dennis Lindsey draws: There are draft picks to help your team now, and there are draft picks to help your team later. Mitchell is of the former, Bradley the latter.
The Jazz worked out Bradley last spring, and Lindsey and his staff liked his ability to rebound, his soft hands near the rim, his size and reach. But they knew Bradley wouldn’t help the Jazz right away, which they did not hide from Bradley, his agent of his family.
And yet, that doesn’t mean that Bradley doesn’t burn with ambition to be a rotational player this season.
“I feel like I never really got a shot to prove that I could be on the floor,” Bradley says. “They already had a plan for what they wanted to do. I’m not complaining: I’m just trying learn and show that I belong. I’m just trying to work.”
That work is done quietly. In Stars practice, Bradley barely speaks, although teammates say he talks more now than he did at the beginning of the season. But it’s clear that Bradley has a youthful passion for the game; the first thing he does following practice is shoot 3s. There’s rarely a moment when the Stars staff questions if Bradley is sulking because he’s in the G League.
“With him always, I think he wanted to be here because he wants to play,” Schiller said. “He’s good that way.”
• • •
The hardest thing is flying. Gobert hated it when he played in the G League. Bradley hates it now.
The Stars fly commercial, and sometimes that means Bradley, the ninth-tallest player at last year’s NBA Draft Combine, has to squeeze into a coach seat that normal-sized humans find uncomfortable.
“I literally have to fold up, slide in and sit down,” Bradley says. “My knees are killing me after every flight.”
It’s those flights when Bradley pines for the NBA lifestyle. He thinks about chartered planes, four- and five-star hotels and room service. Playing in the NBA is his ultimate quest, and experiencing the fringe benefits is enough to send him daydreaming.
When he’s home in Salt Lake City, Bradley spends most of his time on his own in his apartment. His family is in his hometown of Bartow, Fla. — they don’t visit too often because it’s hard to predict which team he’ll be with and which city he’ll be playing in. His girlfriend, Shayla Barrow, is able to visit in her breaks between nursing school classes, and when she watches Stars games, she often waves a gigantic posterboard sign of Bradley’s face.
But it’s lonely at times, especially when Barrow is away. One of Bradley’s closest friends at the beginning of the season was Mitchell, who famously made Bradley his chauffeur while he worked on earning his driver’s license. But since they’re rarely on the same schedule anymore, they don’t get together as often.
One of the things that might be most surprising about a one-and-done like Bradley: He misses school. He misses the structure of going to classes — it gave him more to do throughout the day. He misses living with his friends in the dorms.
But don’t mistake that for regretting his decision to go pro.
“I love Carolina, but the G League is better competition,” he said. “It’s stronger, faster, it’s been good. I miss [Carolina], but I feel like this is better for me.”
• • •
Bradley is starting again for the Stars in early March, this time at Bruin Arena at Salt Lake Community College. This is the Stars’ home court, and after a slightly off-tempo, out-of-tune anthem from a grade-school band, they tip off against the Agua Caliente Clippers under the national championship banners of a junior college.
Bradley’s grabs rebounds and finishes looks near the rim in an understated style. It’s not readily apparent if the Stars are trying to run offense for him. He blocks shots, but without the flair of Gobert. But the stat sheet tells an interesting story: by the end of the game, he’s finishing off an impressive stat line of 14 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 30 minutes.
“He’s the kind of player who can get 14, 16 points without running a lot of stuff for him,” says Lindsey.
The Jazz are always watching. In addition to reviewing his game footage, Utah’s front office reviews daily reports from the Stars coaching staff about Bradley about his intangibles — his communication, his body language, his effort. Lindsey has seen plenty of Stars games himself since the franchise moved from Boise to Salt Lake City.
“Now that we’ve had the system in place, I wish we had it earlier,” says Lindsey. “When Rudy was playing.”
Bradley is fortunate to never be far from the Jazz staff, although he can surprise. Lindsey eyeballed Bradley when he was standing next to Jazz assistant Desagana Diop, whose playing height was 7 feet. Bradley appeared to be as tall as him, and after a quick measurement, the Jazz realized Bradley had grown an inch since he was drafted — a reminder of how young Bradley is.
Given that, the Jazz are pleased with what he’s done so far. His shooting is more consistent. His post moves are better. He’s stronger, and better able to wrestle on the glass. Lindsey proudly points to Bradley’s 22.3 player efficiency rating in the G League as a sign of the player he could be in the NBA.
Quin Snyder, who came from the G League coaching ranks, said the biggest change he’s seen from Bradley is his competitiveness.
“I think sometimes that’s the advantage of playing in games: You learn to compete every possession,” Snyder said. “Run back on defense every time. Go to the boards every time.”
The Jazz know Bradley has desires to play in the NBA this season. They also know that getting on the floor now might be a disadvantage for him. This is, after all, a player who only played 553 minutes last season for the Tar Heels, not starting one of his 38 games in college.
“There’s no question: Even though Tony’s making an NBA salary, no one wants to be a career G League player, that’s not necessarily the mission,” Lindsey said. “But he’s playing 30 minutes a game, he’s got more minutes this year, he’s healthy, he’s grown. In my mind, while it was a little bit of a tough start for him with all the flying to different assignments, it’s been an exceedingly successful season for him developmentally.”
• • •
A few days after the Stars’ win over Agua Caliente, Bradley is in Indianapolis on the Jazz bench. As Utah’s lead grows beyond 20 points, he starts getting excited. He can’t help it; even garbage minutes in the NBA are still minutes in the NBA. He gets 1:24 and acquires no stats, but it’s still exhilarating.
“I got a chance to get in the game and experience that,” he says later. “I just get an opportunity to play.”
On this road trip, he pals around with Georges Niang and Erik McCree, two-way players who he’s gotten close to on the Stars. While he doesn’t get to hang out with Mitchell as much now, Mitchell has gone to a lot of Stars games, often joined by Royce O’Neale. Mitchell’s not there to be seen — he’s there to support Bradley.
“I would want the same thing if the roles were reversed, just being a friend first and a teammate second,” Mitchell says. “We came in together. He’s obviously a few years younger than I am, but it’s all a growing process.”
For Bradley, growth will be key this summer. He’s already planning an offseason where he’ll work on changing his physique and improving his athleticism. He has goals to dominate Summer League and earn the opportunity in the NBA he wants.
“I’m just going to be ready whenever for whatever,” he says. “Whatever they want me to do, I’ll do it. I just see it all as motivation for improvement to get on the floor with the Jazz — if not this year, hopefully next year.”
UP AND DOWN
Tony Bradley has made the best of his rookie season shuttling between the Utah Jazz and Salt Lake City Stars. Some of the numbers that have defined his season:
• Bradley has done 17 assignments with the Stars, including being assigned and recalled in the same day (Nov. 7).
• Bradley has appeared in nine NBA games, scoring 8 points and adding 11 rebounds.
• Bradley is averaging 15.4 ppg, 10.0 rpg and 1.3 bpg while shooting 58.9 percent in 23 Stars games
• Bradley is among the G League’s top 10 rebounders and has a 22.3 player efficiency rating
UTAH JAZZ AT MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Where • Smoothie King Center, New Orleans
Tipoff • 3 p.m. MST Sunday
TV • AT&T Sportsnet
Radio • 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone
Records • Utah 36-30; New Orleans 38-37
Last meeting • Utah won 133-109 (Feb. 5, 2018)
About the Jazz • Utah is aiming to win a tiebreaker with New Orleans, with the season series at 2-1 entering Sunday’s game. ... With 15 points and 10 rebounds in his last game, Ricky Rubio now has eight double-doubles this season four with points and assists and four with points and rebounds. ... The Jazz are on their second-longest road winning streak in team history at 10 games. Utah won 15 straight on the road during the 1995-96 season.
About the Pelicans • New Orleans still is waiting to learn if it will be able to play with Anthony Davis (ankle sprain), who is averaging 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. ... The Pelicans are ranked No. 2 in field goal percentage, shooting 48.3 percent from the floor. ... New Orleans is just 17-13 at home this season and is the only top-10 team in the Western Conference to not have at least 19 home wins.