Elijah Bryant makes leap to NBA: Can he succeed? All you need to know about the Milwaukee Bucks new recruit

May 10, 2021 | Holyland Hoops

“I hope he will like Giannis Antetokounmpo more than Giannis Sfairopoulos”

That is how Maccabi Tel Aviv head coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos began his post game press conference after win over Elijah Bryant’s first professional team Hapoel Eilat.

With already a number of Euroleague players making the move to the NBA this season including Gabriel Deck, Facundo Campazzo, Mike James and Luca Vildoza, Elijah Bryant becomes the next in that line.

The swingman is heading to the Milwaukee Bucks on a two-year deal which came together very quickly over the past week. Bryant will leave Israel as a better and more mature player than the one that arrived a few years ago. He was able to develop his skills and become a true two-way player for the Yellow & Blue and while he still may be an unfinished product with a number of question marks, he has all of the qualities that will allow him to reach his full potential along with his new team.

“We will be missing one important player but we are very happy that one of our players who also played for Eilat and went undrafted, will play in the NBA,” Sfairopoulos continued. “We are happy that he played for Maccabi will now go to the NBA and it gives us a lot of pride. We are happy that we will give him the chance to fulfill the dream of his life and this is most important.”

“He was very professional and serious and worked very hard. He was always humble. He improved his defense and offensively he was able to help the team with his shooting, driving and scoring, he improved in all aspects since he was here with us.”

With a sweet shot that has the correct mechanics, the ability to drive to the basket and defend at a high level, Bryant should be able to make an impact in the NBA. However, this Euroleague season did not see his numbers drastically change which could be the result of all of the issues surrounding the pandemic. But the leap that he perhaps was expected to take didn’t occur.

Does that mean Bryant is what his numbers say he is? Not necessarily, but let’s take a deep dive into who Elijah Bryant is and what he accomplished over the past three years in Israel.

Elijah Bryant – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

The BYU product arrived in Israel three years ago and played his first professional season at Hapoel Eilat under Sharon Drucker where Bryant starred for the Red Sea squad helping the club to the Final Four of the domestic competition.

He then moved to the Yellow & Blue at the start of the 2019/20 campaign where he had the opportunity to play in both the Israeli League and also the Euroleague over the last two years. Although Maccabi won the league title, Bryant was injured during the “Corona League” end to the regular season and didn’t play during the postseason.

Bryant didn’t land in Israel back in August of 2018 with a lot of fanfare but quickly became a key element to veteran Israeli coach Sharon Drucker’s squad. Along with a number of veterans, Hapoel Eilat surprised many by maneuvering their way to a surprise Final Four appearance where they sent Maccabi Tel Aviv to the ropes in the semifinals until they finally succumbed to the eventual champions.

Playing in 36 games while averaging 17.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.4 steals in 32 minutes, Bryant was the star fo the show as he shot a superb 65% (184/283) from two and 35.9% (47/131) from beyond the arc. Bryant, together with Suleiman Braimoh, JP Tokoto and veteran Israeli point guard Avi Ben Shimol who won a Euroleague title with Maccabi Tel Aviv more than a decade earlier, played entertaining and high tempo hoops throughout the season.

Bryant picked up the slack when Lenzelle Smith Jr. was injured and eventually came to within just two points from a finals berth falling to Maccabi 85-83 while scoring 13 points, dishing out 5 assists and collecting 5 boards in 38 minutes in the game itself.

It looked like Bryant would be heading to the NBA for the 2019/20 season after playing with the Milwaukee Bucks Summer League team while scoring 31 points in one of the games, but ended up back in Israel signing with the team he had just lost to in the playoffs, none other than Maccabi Tel Aviv. Interestingly enough, one of his teammates on the squad was TJ Cline who played with him for part of this season with the Yellow & Blue.

Ioannis Sfairopoulos – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

The first season with Maccabi Tel Aviv saw Bryant work hard on the defensive end of the court with Greek coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos as he had to hone his skills in handling the tougher and quicker guards in the Euroleague the what he had been used to either with Eilat and in college.

While it him some time to get used to that side of the game, Bryant was able to become an above average defender and earned much praise from Sfairopoulos throughout the campaign as being a key piece to the club’s continental success which unfortunately was cut short due to the pandemic.

Sfairopoulos sung Bryant’s praises following a Maccabi Euroleague win over Fenerbahce back in October of 2019, “If you see the plus/minus ranking Elijah had a +18 which was the best on the team. I think he has a big future ahead. He is getting Euroleague experience now after we watched him last year. His defense is unbelievable. Last year he was mainly scoring and this year he adjusted to our style and philosophy which is to play good defense first and then score. I think every week and month that goes by he will get better and better.”

Bryant continued to show his wares during the campaign and after a win over Khimki Moscow in February of 2020 he earned the praise of many of his teammates including NBA veteran Quincy Acy who played on Maccabi last season. “I’m proud of Elijah, man. He came in and attacked, hard fought through the fouls and showed a lot of poise.”

That game itself which saw Bryant score 21 points to lead the Yellow & Blue to a 80-77 victory began a five game winning streak just before COVID-19 struck and wiped out the rest of the campaign.

After halting all competitions across the continent in March of 2020, the Israeli league decided to get back up and running in May as the season resumed in June and went until the end of July with Maccabi winning the championship for the third straight year.

There was some uncertainty among which Maccabi Tel Aviv players would return to finish off the campaign and at the time the Israeli league decided to continue it was not yet known if the Euroleague would as well. At the end of the day the Euroleague decided to cancel the balance of the season which left those players who came back to finish the domestic campaign a bit unhappy with having to return to the Holy Land

An Israeli journalist reported that Elijah Bryant would return to end the season and he did come back but broke a toe before the playoffs and had to miss the entire postseason.

All in all, Bryant’s production decreased from his time with Eilat as he averaged 9.5 points (61/122 from 2 for 50%, 17/65 from 3 for 26.2%), 4.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 23/5 minutes per game in 22 Israeli league contests. In continental action, Bryant scored 8.4 points (56/101 form 2 for 55.4%, 35/84 from 3 for 41.7%) waling with 2.9 rebounds and 2 assists a game in 27 clashes.

The beginning of the 2020/21 campaign began in September with training camp after just a month off as teams started to ready for the both the continental campaign which was slated to begin the first week of October and the domestic league. While the Israeli league was going to get rolling in October, a lockdown pushed off the start of the WINNER League season until November.

There were high hopes heading into the the new season after last year’s success and with a number of what were thought to be solid additions in Ante Zizic, Dragan Bender and Chris Jones, however, things didn’t go as planned due and the loss of veterans Quincy Acy, Jake Cohen, Nate Wolters, Tarik Black, Jalen Reynolds, Aaron Jackson and Amare Stoudemire proved to be significant.

Elijah Bryant was looked at as someone who would take the next step heading into the new campaign after having there were rumors that CSKA Moscow had been interested in the guard over the summer. However, Bryant, who just had become a father returned to Maccabi and had a rough month of October along with the entire team averaging just a shade over 8 points in the first six games as Scottie Wilbekin carried the majority of the offense as the Yellow & Blue got off to a 2-4 start.

Elijah Bryant – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Bryant finally became a scoring factor with 22 points in a close 89-87 loss at Anadolu EFES, one of this year’s Euroleague Final Four teams. At the same time, Bryant began the Israeli season hot as hotter can be averaging 19.5 points while shooting incredible percentages going 19/22 86% from 2 and 11/19 58% from 3.

As the month of November ended, there was talk that the Milwaukee Bucks were trying to pry Bryant free with a two-way contract but it was reported that he turned the offer down.

While Maccabi was struggling through a rough first couple of months in the Euroleague with a 3-8 record it was clear that Bryant needed to be more involved especially with the end of game situations as the Yellow & Blue had lost six of the 8 games by four points or less.

Scottie Wilbekin, the clear leaders of the team always took the rock near the end of the game and coach Sfairopoulos was going to live and die by the guard. But finally, on December 3rd, Bryant was the man, scoring 14 of the club’s final 17 points to take an 81-76 win over Red Star Belgrade.

Elijah Bryant – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Right before the Euroleague game against Red Star, Bryant spoke to the media following an Israeli league win over Nahariya up north and he said, “אני לוחם. I’m a fighter. I will go out every single night to fight. I take what the defense gives me I know I had some turnovers I could have cleaned up but I’m going to take the best shots for me and my teammates as well.”

And a fighter he was that night.

Captain John DiBartolomeo commented on Bryant’s performance, “Elijah was amazing and he has improved his game and is a two way player. We always knew he was a great offensive player, but I’ve been impressed with his defense. He’s definitely a guy that we look for and he creates mismatches. We will look for him down the stretch as we will always look for the best option.”

Over the next 11 Euroleague games, Bryant was a key component in getting Maccabi back into playoff contention as they raised their record to 10-12 while the guard averaged 11.4 points per game.

However, the month of February brought along a number of issues with holding Euroleague games due to Israel’s airports being closed and games needed to be rescheduled as the season entered money time. It was now do or die.

Elijah Bryant – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

The results over they next 6 games weren’t pretty as the team went 1-5 as their record fell to 11-17, meaning Maccabi couldn’t finish better than .500 and the chances of making the playoffs nonexistent. The final playoff team in fact had a 20-14 record the exact opposite of Maccabi’s 14-20 good enough for just 13th place in the 18 team league.

During those six games, Bryant averaged 6.3 points in 17 minutes per game and didn’t hit double digits once when it counted most. Over the course of the final six games with no pressure on Maccabi, Bryant’s numbers bounced back up to 9.5 points in 22.7 minutes per game. Over in the Israeli league since March Bryant is averaging 12.7 points in almost 22 minutes apr game.

All in all his final 2020/21 numbers in the Euroleague were 9.8 points (84/174 from 2, 48.3%, 38/103 from 3, 36.9%) along with 3 rebounds and 2 assists in 23.3 minutes over the course of 34 games. In Israel, Bryant averaged 13.6 points (64/99 form 2 64.6%, 29/69 42% from 3) with 3.8 boards and 2.8 assists in 23.2 minutes in 18 contests.

While Bryant’s numbers had a slight uptick between his first and second seasons in the Euroleague, the swingman’s percentages dropped and he didn’t perhaps make the leap that as expected.

There is no question that the players were tired after a long 19/20 season and a very short break to the 20/21 campaign with a pandemic hanging over everyone like a dark cloud. That was the message that coach Sfairopoulos continued to convey throughout the season.

Bryant was quoted after one of the Euroleague games late in the season, “The world situation has changed since last year, there’s a lot going on and we have good days and bad days. We have to find the rhythm and players and teams have ups and downs and we have to find our rhythm together as a team.”

Elijah Bryant – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

Maccabi is still looking for that rhythm and Bryant won’t be a part of it as they make their way into the postseason. Bryant will now be teammates with the 2x MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo as he will look to find that rhythm in the world’s greatest league.

Will he succeed and can he succeed? The jury’s out on if he will succeed but there is no question that after three years in the Holy Land honing his skills, Bryant has all the tools to succeed.

Good Luck Elijah!

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