Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — You’d think it might be a little intimidating for a 27-year-old to be telling NBA veterans several years older what they can do to improve their skills, but that’s Johnnie Bryant’s job as Utah Jazz player development assistant.
The former University of Utah star began his job in September and he works daily with Jazz players on specific skills before and after practice and before games. It’s a dream job for the young Bryant and the Jazz are happy with the benefits of the individual work for their players.
“The players have welcomed me with open arms and been receptive to my teaching and helping them to get better,’’ Bryant said. “Coach Ty (Corbin) has given me the freedom to coach those guys and help them with their skill set so I definitely appreciate the opportunity.’’
While half the players for the Jazz are younger than Bryant, six players are older, including three guards in their 30s — Mo Williams, Jamaal Tinsley and Earl Watson. Bryant said he discovered early on that he had the players’ respect despite his age.
“The crazy thing is, they’re very respectful of my teaching,’’ he said.
One example came during a preseason game against Golden State when Tinsley was trying to get his attention.
“Jamaal was saying, ‘Coach J, Coach J, Coach J,’ and I’m looking around, thinking who is he talking to?’’ After Bryant realized it was him, he took Tinsley aside and said, “Come on man, I grew up watching you play, you don’t have to call me coach.’ But he said ‘It’s a sign of respect and I’m happy you’re in this position.’’’
Bryant starred at the U. from 2005-08 and in just three years he became the 20th leading scorer in the Utah record books as well as the No. 1 3-point shooter in school history at 44 percent. He played a year professionally in Germany, before returning to Utah with his wife, Vanessa, a native of the state.
He began the Bryant Sports Academy for youth in the Salt Lake Valley and started working with professional athletes in 2010. His first “client” was Jazz player Ronnie Price and Paul Millsap was so impressed, he asked Bryant to “work him out.’’ Bryant worked for two offseasons with Millsap as well as his three basketball-playing brothers.
Last fall, he was working with Millsap and new Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey was watching. Bryant went up and introduced himself and talked about their mutual friend Jim Boylen, who worked with Lindsey in Houston and coached Bryant at Utah. Bryant said he’d love to learn more about the NBA and gave Lindsey his number. Bryant didn’t hear back for a few days but at the end of the week, he got a call from Lindsey offering him a newly created position, which he gladly accepted.
Four months later, the Jazz are glad to have Bryant.
“He’s a tremendous worker with a lot of energy,’’ Corbin says. “He’s the youngest guy on the staff and his energy is a little different from all of us old guys. He brings that youthfulness to the coaching staff that the (players) have. He’s always around the gym watching and seeing things with younger ideas and he’s been a tremendous asset for us.’’
Bryant works with individual Jazz players on their shooting, defense, and footwork among another things.
Alec Burks recently singled out Bryant for helping him improve his free throw shooting, which was hovering around 50 percent until late December. Since then Burks has gone 24 for 30 (80 percent), thanks to an adjustment Bryant suggested.
Bryant showed Tinsley a post move that he used successfully to make a basket in the next game the Jazz played. He also helped Jefferson with his footwork in the post to get back to his right hand hook, which he said Big Al was excited about.
“He’s a great student of the game and understands how to look at guys and not do it in a confrontational manner, but see what they have to do to improve,’’ Corbin said.
Bryant still has enough skills that he can hold his own in one-on-one drills with various players on the team. He can still fill it up from outside and was proud of the fact that he beat “The Legend” — Jeff Hornacek — in a shooting contest earlier in the week. But he has no illusions that he could be playing in the NBA.
“I’m competitive and pride myself on being in shape, but I’m past that, the NBA phase,’’ he said.
So does Bryant envision himself coaching in the NBA someday?
“Who knows — I don’t know,’’ he said. “I’m just taking it one day at a time and learning and doing as much as I can for the Jazz organization. The most important job is the one I have now and I try to learn as much as I can each day.’’
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