January 7, 2006

A Work In Progress

Jan. 7, 2006

By Laurence Miedema
San Jose Mercury News

At nearly 7 feet tall, weighing 320-something pounds and wearing a size 18 extra-wide sneaker, Santa Clara freshman center John Bryant isn't just another West Coast Conference basketball big man. He's the biggest big man in the WCC.

He's also a big reason the Broncos (7-5) have big expectations entering conference play, which starts tonight against Portland at the Leavey Center.

Despite not breaking into the starting lineup until three weeks ago, Bryant is third in the conference in rebounding (7.9 per game), and his 25 blocked shots are tied for 10th-most in single-season school history.

``A human wall of flesh,'' is how SCU senior forward Travis Niesen describes Bryant. ``He's enormously huge and strong, too. He is a very, very powerful guy around the basket.''

Bryant, 18, is a work in progress. Conditioning is an issue, and his footwork and agility can improve immensely.

Still, he has had three double-doubles (two in the past four games), is averaging 7.1 points and is the only SCU player shooting better than 50 percent from the field. That's a nice complement to Niesen, who is second to Gonzaga's Adam Morrison in the WCC scoring race, and the balanced offense that is being provided by sophomores Brody Angley and Mitch Henke and freshman Calvin Johnson.

``I definitely think I'm a project,'' Bryant said. ``I thought I could do it, but I have to work at it.''

Bryant hasn't wavered in big situations. He grabbed 10 rebounds at Oregon and scored 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting at North Carolina. Last week in the Cable Car Classic, he set career highs with 16 points and 17 rebounds to help the Broncos beat UC-Riverside.

Bryant also sets a mean pick and alters opponents' shots just by extending his massive arms.

``He's like a statue; you bump him and you move,'' said Johnson. ``He's a big boy. Just his presence in the lane makes people think twice about shooting layups.''

SCU Coach Dick Davey likens Bryant to Ron Reis, a 7-foot-1 center who starred for the Broncos in the early 1990s and finished as the fourth-leading rebounder in school history. But Reis never was listed at more than 285 pounds during his Broncos career.

Bryant says his current weight is 324 pounds. Nobody else in the conference is listed heavier than 280.

The Broncos would like to see a little less of Bryant. He arrived on campus weighing 334 pounds. That's down quite a bit from a period at Pinole Valley High when he approached 380, but Davey would like to see Bryant at about 300 to improve his quickness and stamina.

``He'll still be plenty strong,'' Davey said. ``We're counting on him to play as many minutes as he can play without being physically exhausted. He's carrying a little extra weight that he's starting to lose, so he's getting better in that area.''

Bryant's improved conditioning is paying off. He played in short spurts off the bench to open the season, averaging about 14 minutes per game. Then in early December, starting center Sean Denison went down with a stress reaction in his right foot and Bryant assumed a larger role.

He's averaging 9.4 points and 8.6 rebounds in seven starts and hasn't played fewer than 19 minutes during this stretch.

``The most dramatic change I've seen so far is running the floor, which is so important,'' Niesen said. ``When he first got here it was 5-on-4, 4-on-5 all the time. Now he's running a little bit faster and getting up and down. That's a huge, huge asset to our team because he's so good at being a presence around the basket.''

The Broncos have been the WCC's stingiest defense in large part because of their strong play inside. SCU has allowed 60 or fewer points seven times, is the conference's top rebounding team and opponents are making barely 37 percent of their field-goal attempts.

``There's not a doubt in my mind that we have the tools to get good enough to win the league or the conference tournament,'' Niesen said. ``Obviously, I don't think we're at that point now. But we do have the tools.''