The Elon University men’s basketball team had been trailing the College of William & Mary for much of its Jan. 9 matchup against the Tribe.
Out of a timeout with 1:06 to play and the score tied 75-75, Elon head coach Matt Matheny called for freshman guard Elijah Bryant to pass to junior guard Tanner Samson off a screen, ideally setting up a 3-point shot.
But Bryant had something else in mind.
Instead of following through with the pass, Bryant pulled Samson aside and decided to change it to a hand-off. Bryant noticed something in the William & Mary defense that led him to believe they would play a man-to-man defense that could make the pass go awry.
“I told Tanner to do a hand-off because I knew the guy was going to bump into me,” Bryant said.
As the whistle blew to resume play, Bryant got the ball and found Samson with the hand-off.
The result was an open 3-pointer by the junior to give the Phoenix the lead, which it would not relinquish in a 85-79 victory.
Plays like this by the freshman sensation have warranted Bryant four Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Week honors.
“The more comfortable he has gotten [with the offense], he has gotten more comfortable to direct,” Matheny said. “It has been a fun part of his progression.”
As the Phoenix has fully embraced conference play, Bryant currently leads the team in almost every offensive statistical category. He holds the team lead in field goals (86), free throws (71), assists (49), blocks (8) and steals (23) and his 24 3-pointers put him at second on the team. His 267 total points and his average of 14.3 points per game are high marks for a freshman. While he is still inexperienced, his leadership skills are uncanny. According to Samson, it’s just what the team expects.
“He has done a great job at being a leader for us at the point guard position,” Samson said. “He’s done really well adjusting to the offense, which is a big key to performing.”
Coming into the season, the Phoenix was projected to finish in last place with its first season in the CAA ahead and a young roster present. With the help of Bryant and his teammates, Elon now sits in the middle of the CAA.
Bryant, along with Samson, has been the focus of an offense that has been averaging 72 points per game. Freshman guard Dmitri Thompson has provided much-needed aggressiveness under the rim with his size that has taken some pressure of off senior guards Austin Hamilton and Kevin Blake. The blend of youth and experience has proved a winning formula for the Phoenix.
After the game, Matheny described his team as being as deep as he has ever coached at Elon.
“I love our depth,” he said. “This [William & Mary] is the third game in a week that we’re playing 10 guys. I think that matters in the grind of conference play and I hope that it’s a factor in the conference tournament.”
Although Bryant now leads the team in offense, the Phoenix looked a lot different a few weeks ago.
Early in the season, Bryant and sophomore guard Luke Eddy were riding high with a steady stream of offensive output. Eddy led the team in scoring early on until he tore his ACL Dec. 20 against the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Since then, Bryant has taken the reins of the team.
“[Eddy’s injury] would be a major blow for any team,” Matheny said. “To play in those minutes like he has, and to play effectively has really provided a boost for this team.”
A highlight of Bryant’s play this season has been his quick shot selection that has occurred from as far away as the 3-point line, often with more than 20 seconds left on the shot clock. It is a highlight that has acted as a symbol of the trust Matheny has in Bryant and with his older teammates for him to make the shots.
“We have complete confidence in his ability,” Matheny said. “We’re going to give him a lot of freedom with shot selection and decision-making. He’s reaping the benefits of playing in the system.”
With such trust begs the question of a freshman holding a leadership standing amongst the team. When asked about his status on the team, Bryant responded that he still has much to learn in Matheny’s system, but he is an integral part of a still-growing roster.
“The main thing I need to focus on is to be more vocal on the court,” he said. “Do the little things right. I consider myself a leader.”
On a team lacking upperclassmen, Bryant’s leadership has slowly begun to blossom under a trial by fire.
Though Bryant is still in the beginning of his career with three more years left to play, the ceiling for his game is sky-high. His work ethic and devotion to constant improvement on the court is what separates him from the average freshman college basketball player and is something he hopes to build upon in the future.
“I’m always trying to find a way to improve my game and try to work hard every chance I get,” Bryant said. “Someone is always getting better than you every day that you’re not out there working, and any chance I have at working on my game, I take advantage of.”