by Matthew Snyder / @schnides14
Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson had every reason to be worried when TJ Bray injured his left hand during a pre-season practice. Bray, a 6-5 senior point guard, is one of the most versatile players in America and a chief instigator of the Tigers’ patented offensive system.
Luckily, there wasn’t too much displacement with the bones in his hand, and Bray didn’t require surgery. He missed the first three games of the season before making his debut on November 23 against Rice (he had 8 points and 4 assists off the bench). In his second game back, he finished with 18 points and 10 assists—and no turnovers—in a win over George Mason. It was Bray’s first double-double, and the first for a Princeton player that used points and assists against a DI opponent since 1991. His past seven appearances have all been starts, giving him 66 since his sophomore season.
Bray spoke with SLAM on Saturday morning, hours before Princeton faced Liberty on the road in their final non-conference game of the season. The Tigers were once more steady down the stretch and pulled out an 80-74 victory, pushing their record to 11-2. Bray flexed his all-around game against the Flames, finishing with 24 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals.
He finished 8-11 from the field (3-5 from three), boosting his season average to 55 percent, a career-best mark made all the more impressive by the fact that 53.4 percent of his shots in ’13-14 have come from deep—and he’s hitting 44 percent of those.
With six more assists this season, Bray will move to 305 for his career, passing Henderson (Princeton ’98) for fifth on the program’s all-time list. That could come in Princeton’s next game, the Ivy League opener against Penn on Saturday.
Bray calls the conference season a 14-game tournament, and says that the team feels confident, that they are ready to build on this start to the season. With averages of 17.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists and a gaudy 4.5 assist-to-turnover ratio, Bray will continue to serve as an inimitable—and perhaps irreplaceable—cog in that machine.
SLAM: As a freshman, you played 10 minutes per game on an NCAA tournament team. You were on the court during the final stretch of the Round of 64 game against Kentucky. What did that do for your confidence?
TJ Bray: My freshman year was great. There were older guys in front of me, so I got to learn from them. That did a lot for my confidence; it proved I could hang with the best. In the Kentucky game, I held my own. Going into my sophomore year, I knew I was good enough—that was a great thing for me.
SLAM: Mitch Henderson was named the head coach after your freshman season. What were your first exchanges like with him? What sort of new wrinkles did he add?
TB: He’s a different coach than [Sydney] Johnson. Johnson was more focused on defense, whereas Henderson is more about offense. There was a little adjustment as you learn what different coaches like. Then, you focus on it and maximize it. Henderson’s been great; he’s a real player’s coach.
SLAM: Henderson was an assistant at Northwestern (2000-11) before he came back to Princeton. You’re a Midwest kid. Did you meet him during recruiting?
TB: I had not had any contact with him before [he took the job]. He’s got different wrinkles than coach Johnson—every coach makes the Princeton offense his own. It’s not one set offense; instead, it’s a whole bunch of concepts. [Henderson’s] got a different way—there’s different timing and stuff, but it’s been an easy adjustment going from those two coaches. They played three years together (at Princeton, 1994-97), so they had a lot of the same experiences.
Then, with Henderson working with Bill Carmody (at Northwestern), it’s amazing what he knows, the little things he sees out there on the court. Having a point guard as a coach is great for me; he can always point out things to you.
SLAM: As a player, how have you most benefited from Henderson?
TB: How to get other guys open shots. Henderson says that even if you make a play, did you see ‘that’ as well; the next time you want to be one step ahead of the defense. That’s been great, and it’s paid off for me.
SLAM: You’ve spoken about the Princeton offense being perfectly suited for your style of play. How long does it take before a player feels fully comfortable in it?
TB: It’s different for everyone, but halfway through freshman year you know it a little bit, and you get more comfortable. Then, at the end of your freshman year you start to gel with it. When you really begin to pick it up is in the spring after the season—that’s when freshmen take off. They’re not over-thinking, they’re just out there playing. Then when you come back for sophomore year, you’ve got it down.
SLAM: Spencer Weisz is a freshman who’s been particularly impressive this season. What’s stood out the most about him?
TB: On his official visit, you could tell Weisz knew how to play. He had his hands on everything on defense, and on offense, he made the right reads every time. He’s got a high basketball IQ, and he picked up the offense in the first month. You don’t see that too often.
SLAM: Your dad accompanied you on your unofficial visits to schools. Did he have a hand in your development as a player?
TB: Yeah. My dad was my coach through eighth grade, then he passed the torch to my high school coach. (Bray, who is from New Berlin, WI, attended Catholic Memorial in Waukesha, just six miles away.) But my dad always let me play point guard, even though I was bigger growing up. He helped me round out different aspects—like having a good post game for a guard, and he put me in all kinds of positions to round my game out. My passing has especially benefited from that.
SLAM: This team has won two games in overtime this season, and shot free throws really well down the stretch. What does that come down to?
TB: We’ve got so many shooters on this team. Whoever’s out there, we’re comfortable, and that shows at free-throw line. You’ve got a lot of guys you can trust. It’s just experience—the last two years, we haven’t been able to close those kinds of games out. Now we have a lot of seniors, and guys who took a year off; all those factors combined to create a tough team. We don’t panic, and we really feel like we can pull those games out.
SLAM: You’re the first sole captain on a Princeton basketball team since 2007. Does that title come with added responsibility?
TB: Being the only captain can be difficult at times, but it’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly. We also have a ton of senior leadership. [Jimmy] Sherburne is always talking and helping me out with younger guys. But it’s been a good experience, and I feel like that’s a huge blessing.
SLAM: Have you always been a verbal leader, or is that something you’ve worked on?
TB: Being verbal comes from all the levels I played at. It wasn’t just while playing for my dad—as a point guard I’m expected to be the most vocal guy on the court. That’s something that’s stayed with me.
SLAM: This team is off to a similar start to the ’10-11 team. Do you see any similarities between the two?
TB: My freshman year, we pulled out games that you don’t think you can. I see that this year, too. There were a couple games in ’10-11 where [Dan Mavraides] and [Kareem] Maddox put us on their back, I’ve tried to do that this season. We’ll win no matter how we have to do. In the OT win at Penn State, Will Barrett hit a ton of threes. (Barrett was 6-11 from deep against the Nittany Lions, and finished with 24 points. Bray had a career-high 13 assists.) Someone’s always been able to step up. It’s very similar to ’10-11.
SLAM: Hans Brase has almost doubled his scoring from his freshman season (11.8 ppg in ’13-14). What stands out about him?
TB: Our offense is a little different, so he’s getting looks. With Ian [Hummer] gone, that’s been huge for us. He played for Germany this summer, too, so that was huge for his confidence. (Brase played at the FIBA U20 European Championships.) He developed his game and his jumper, and he’s turned into a big threat. Not a lot of teams were ready for that. He’s diverse in his skill set, and he’s a tough matchup for anyone.
SLAM: You’re a senior with an Economics major at Princeton. Is the work picking up as you head toward graduation?
TB: It sort of slows down a little bit. You get used to the schedule, and you learn to manipulate classes to make it more balanced. You don’t have to take all your classes right away. You’ve just got to get used to time management. In high school you can relax when you come home after practice—in college you eat, then go straight to the library. You miss some stuff, but that’s what being a student-athlete is about.
SLAM: Have you given thought to your plans after college? Is coaching in your future?
TB: I’ll definitely use my economics degree; and obviously I hope to continue playing. I’ll look at what type of levels are available for me, but it’ll be nice to have a Princeton degree. I’ve thought about coaching, and I’ll look into that. We’ll see what happens.