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Late bloomer Bryant grows into leadership role at Mill Creek

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Elijah Bryant has truly grown up with Mill Creek basketball in every sense of the word. The Hawks' guard literally sprung up from 5-foot-8 as a sophomore to 6-5 this season as a senior, and has seen his production skyrocket to career highs of 11.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Elijah Bryant has truly grown up with Mill Creek basketball in every sense of the word. The Hawks' guard literally sprung up from 5-foot-8 as a sophomore to 6-5 this season as a senior, and has seen his production skyrocket to career highs of 11.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game.

Some teenagers can go through an awkward phase when they experience a sudden and rapid growth spurt.

While Elijah Bryant is very much a late bloomer, there is nothing awkward about the development of his body, mind and basketball skills this season.

The Mill Creek guard has grown up in every sense of the word in his three seasons with the Hawks' varsity program to become one of Gwinnett County's best, and most versatile, players.

"It's been a process," Mill Creek head coach Chad Rogers said of Bryant. "And he's really taken it in stride."

Yes, Bryant's growth and maturation has been a process, though it's been a very quick one.

As a sophomore, he played a fairly significant role as a 5-foot-8 long-range shooter, averaging 4.5 points, a rebound and an assist off the bench as the Hawks advanced all the way to the Class AAAAA state quarterfinals.

He put up similar numbers in an identical role as a 5-11 junior a year ago.

But this past summer, he sprouted out six inches to now stand 6-foot-5, and packed on enough muscle to push his weight to a frame-appropriate 195 pounds.

"I knew I was going to grow because my father is pretty tall, and he didn't really start growing until after his junior year," Bryant said.

Indeed, as much as Bryant has changed physically, his game has been developed and refined even more dramatically.

He has found more ways to score than just jumpers from the perimeter, driving the lane and posting up smaller defenders, which has allowed his scoring average to skyrocket to 11.2 points per game.

And his added size has most noticeably helped him on the boards, where he has been able to battle opposing frontcourt players to pull down a team-best average of 6.4 rebounds per game.

"The way he plays has totally changed," Rogers said. "He's now a true combo guard. He's always been able to shoot, but now he's learned how to use his body to contribute in a lot of different ways."

Even his shot, which was the trademark of the smaller Bryant's game, has undergone a transformation.

"I had change my shot last year," Bryant said. "It was just time to change my shot. A two-hand flip (set shot) isn't going to get me anywhere (in high-level ball). I had to use a more traditional jump shot (mechanics)."

But the biggest difference in Bryant's game stems as much from his emotional maturation by learning the point guard position and assuming a bigger leadership role on the court.

And after extensive work during the offseason that included working out and playing with and against some of the state's best point guards during the AAU and summer high school seasons, as well as with noted basketball trainer Mark Edwards, Bryant's transformation has reached an even higher level, with him leading the Hawks with 3.9 assists per game.

"It all started during the summer, when was playing point guard along with (Buford senior standout) Isaiah Williams while playing for Vanguard Elite (AAU team)," Bryant said. "I learned a lot from him. And when (Mill Creek senior) Brandon Smith went out (during a summer league game), Coach (Rogers) said I'd have to play more point guard. And when I worked out with Mark Edwards, he told me I could play point guard no matter what size I am. It's just taken a lot of work (during the summer). If I (wasn't) at school (with the team), I was working out on weekends with guys like (Norcross') Andre (Chatfield) and (GAC's) Delano (Spencer)."

Combined with his new size and strength, Bryant's new point guard skills have had an added benefit by quickly putting him on the radar of college recruiters.

But while larger programs were only beginning to notice him, Bryant stayed true to his word and signed a scholarship to play at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., next fall after choosing the Bulldogs' program over a similar offer from Tennessee-Chattanooga.

And he credits the work he put in to become more versatile a player, and then maximizing those skills and abilities, as behind the main factors in getting him noticed.

"Playing the two guard at 6-4 or 6-5 is nothing special," Bryant said. "Playing point guard at 6-4 or 6-5 is a Division I player and maybe an NBA player one day. It helps."

But that is for the future.

For now, Bryant is focused on helping the Hawks (11-5 overall, 4-4 in Region 7-AAAAAA) fight their way into the state tournament for the sixth straight season.

And Rogers is impressed with the leadership he's shown to his teammates, both on and off the court.

"I'm just happy for how much he's worked on the court, in the weight room and in the classroom," Rogers said. "He's become a true leader."