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Tony Bradley’s gradual, steady rise with the Utah Jazz is paying off this season

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Tony Bradley (13) scores ahead of Houston Rockets center Isaiah Hartenstein (55) as the Utah Jazz host the Houston Rockets, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.

He didn’t have any of the Jazz’s 20 made 3-pointers in Cleveland. Nor did he have any of the team’s 26 assists in New York. He didn’t batter the Celtics with scoring from all over the court like Mike Conley did. And he didn’t have a starring role in the momentum-swinging 18-2 fourth-quarter run in Detroit.

And yet, in spite of all those things he didn’t do, reserve center Tony Bradley’s fingerprints were all over the Jazz’s just completed 4-0 road trip.

Normally quite reserved and sometimes painfully quiet, the 22-year-old Florida native has suddenly gained sufficient confidence in his burgeoning play to even crack wise about his apparent dominance.

“Tell them what you told me,” guard Emmanuel Mudiay coaxed him postgame in the TD Garden locker room, as Bradley recalled his alley-oop dunk before a few assembled media members.

“I told him I’m a monster,” Bradley said, a wide grin creeping over his face. “I’m just joking around.”

His follow-up comments were 100% serious, however: “It was fun. Tonight was fun.”

Yeah, seeing all your hard work translate into an opportunity, and then seeing that opportunity yield trust from teammates and coaches alike will have that effect.

TONY BRADLEY’S ROAD TRIP

Opponent • Min, FGs, Pts, Reb, Blk

Cavaliers • 14:18, 3-3, 6, 6, 0

Knicks • 13:36, 4-4, 8, 5, 2

Celtics • 15:17, 3-5, 6, 4, 3

Pistons • 12:53, 4-5, 8, 8, 0

Bradley entered this season with aspirations, if not expectations. While he had worked incredibly hard in the offseason to re-sculpt his body and improve his strength and conditioning, then showed enough in Summer League play to convince the franchise not to retain veteran defender Ekpe Udoh, Bradley still came in as the third-string center behind franchise cornerstone Rudy Gobert and key free-agent acquisition Ed Davis.

When Davis broke his leg early in the season, that gave the North Carolina product some chances to play, though in truth, coach Quin Snyder was as likely to give the minutes Gobert spent on the bench to Jeff Green in a small-ball five role.

Rather than pout, Bradley kept working. And soon enough, with a healthy Davis proving an awkward fit with Utah’s pick-and-roll-heavy second unit due to his offensive limitations, and Green jettisoned on account of not having the expected impact, Bradley had shown himself to be the most-deserving of the role.

Davis, who’s come to serve as a mentor of sorts for his young teammate, said that Bradley’s expanded role is not about an expanded skillset, but in showing he is ready to produce night after night.

“It’s just more consistent for him right now. Earlier in the year, he was playing some games, not playing [others]; when I went down earlier, there were some games he was playing the minutes he’s playing now, and then some games coach was playing was playing Jeff at the five,” Davis explained. “So I think now he knows when he’s coming in, when he’s going out, so that’s helping him. But I don’t see a big difference [skill-wise] from earlier to now — he’s playing well, and it’s just more of an opportunity thing for him.”

While Bradley’s overall numbers remain modest (4.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 0.5 blocks in 10.6 minutes), they’re actually quite impressive when extrapolated out on a per-36 basis: 15.8 points, 14.7 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, and only 1.6 TOs.

The problem remains his often just-too-late recognition to rotate on the defensive end, which has led to 6.7 fouls committed per 36 as well.

He knows there is work yet to be done.

“I feel like I’m making progress but I’ve still got a long ways to go,” Bradley said. “Just game by game, film session by film session, workout by workout, just trying to improve different areas, especially defensively.

“I think today was a good progression,” he added, in the aftermath of the Celtics game.

It certainly was. With Snyder reconfiguring some defensive assignments to try to contain All-Star guard Kemba Walker, Gobert and Bradley were charged with setting up higher on the floor, engaging the pick-and-roll out at the 3-point line as opposed to sinking back and dropping into the lane.

On one memorable play, Bradley was switched onto the high-scoring Celtic, who accelerated past, believing a layup to be imminent, only to have the center recover, catch up, and swat his shot off the backboard — one of three blocks Bradley registered.

“He was where he needed to be in the pick-and-roll and moved his feet, challenged shots, and even if you don’t block it, at times you can impact it,” Snyder said. “Tony’s working it. The situations we put him in are not always easy, but he really embraced the game plan and it’s as simple as execution.”

The same has been true on the other end of the court. Part of Snyder’s frequent lineup tinkering has resulted in some extended stretches of late where the second unit consists of Conley playing alongside reserves Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson, Georges Niang and Bradley.

The big man has proved a solid fit in that group, given his ability to cut to the hoop and catch whatever is thrown his way. The unit’s point guard has been pleased by his growing synergy with Bradley.

“Tony’s a smart basketball player,” Conley said. “He’s a great finisher, has great hands, unselfish. He’s trying to get us free off the ball screen and allow us to make plays for him and the team. I think our chemistry’s getting better.”

Actually, most of what Bradley is doing is getting better. That much has been apparent over the past four games.

Asked if he felt Bradley’s confidence in his competence growing, Gobert began nodding before the question was even over.

“Especially this road trip. He took a step, especially defensively,” said the two-time Defensive Player of the Year. “His aggressiveness, his commitment on the blocks. He gave us a big lift on the second unit. It’s huge.”

JAZZ VS. RAPTORS

At Vivint Smart Home Arena

Tipoff • Monday, 7 p.m.

TV • AT&T SportsNet

Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM

Records • Jazz 41-22; Raptors 44-18

Last meeting • Raptors, 130-110 (Dec. 1)

About the Jazz • Utah has followed up its post-All-Star break four-game losing streak with five wins in a row now, including a sweep of its recent trip East. … Rudy Gobert’s 10-point, 12-rebound effort vs. Detroit was his 45th double-double of the season. … Gobert is second in the league in FG% (70.1) and third in rebounds per game (13.9).

About the Raptors • Toronto leads the NBA in fast-break points per game (19.4), is second in defensive rating (105.0), and fourth in 3-point percentage (37.1%). … With a 21-9 mark away from home, the Raptors have the league’s third-fewest road losses this season. … All-Star forward Pascal Siakam is averaging 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists.

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