TJ Bray is a 26 year old 196cm guard from New Berlin, Wisconsin that is in his fifth professional season and first with Rasta Vechta (Germany-ProA). He has put up massive stats this season averaging 15,1ppg, 3,4rpg and 8,2apg and a big reason for the club being in the semi-finals. He began his career in 2010 with Ivy league school Princeton (NCAA) and played a total of 115 NCAA games and as senior played 25 games averaging 18.0ppg, 4.7rpg, 5.2apg, 1.4spg, FGP: 64.9%, 3PT: 41.7%, FT: 80.1%. He turned professional in 2014 and played with Lighthouse Trapani (Italy-A2) playing 29 games averaging 9.5ppg, 3.9rpg, 3.0apg, 1.0spg, FGP: In his second professional season he played with Novipiu Casale Monferrato (Italy-Serie A2) playing 35 games averaging 14.7ppg, 3.5rpg, 3.1apg, FGP: 48.3%, 3PT: 39.7%, FT: 80.8%. Two seasons ago he got experience with Fit Brussels (Belgium-Euromillions League) playing 33 games averaging 8.2ppg, 2.3rpg, 2.1apg, 1.2spg, FGP: 41.7%, 3PT: 35.1%, FT: 62.5%. Last season he played with Kolossos H Hotels (Greece-A1) playing 27 games averaging 12.1ppg, 3.4rpg, 3.4apg, 1.1spg, FGP: 47.2%, 3PT: 34.9%, FT: 76.1%. He spoke to germanhoops.com after the amazing 3-1 series win against Brose Bamberg.
TJ congrats on the amazing 3-1 series win over Brose Bamberg. The Rasta Vechta Cinderella season continues. How special has the playoff ride been in comparison to the regular season?
It’s been a very crazy ride so far. We had a ton of fun in the regular season but knew we would ultimately be judged on our playoff performance. We were short-handed in round 1 but the guys that were left went out and fought and battled as much as we could. To beat a team with the history of Bamberg and to clinch the series on their court made it even more special.
You have played many games and have played in various countries. Were these last 10 days of playoff basketball the most exciting time in your professional career?
The last 10 days have been a blur. All of us were just trying to keep our bodies in the best shape possible with all the minutes we were playing. Once the season is finished, I’ll be able to sit back and digest things a bit more.
Rasta Vechta had so many great wins this season beating Bamberg 4 times, FC Bayern Munich once and Alba Berlin once. After beating so many great teams so many times, could one enjoy this win as much as winning that first unbelievable game against Alba Berlin earlier in the season?
Absolutely. The win against Alba was our first big win but we haven’t taken any of them for granted since then. We know beating great teams is very difficult, so when we’re able to do it, we enjoy it. Winning these games doesn’t necessarily surprise us anymore, but we still enjoy them the same.
You guys went into the series with your backs somewhat to the wall without glue guy Seth Hinrichs, versatile big man Clint Chapman and the energetic Tyrone Nash. How vital mentally was this whole process getting by Bamberg? How important was the team mentality for being able to get by Bamberg?
The injuries we’ve sustained have been almost unbelievable. Losing not only those guys but not having Michael Kessens and Robin Christen in games made things even more difficult. All of our big men have been fantastic for us all season. Each one of them brings special things to the table. We knew going into the series against Bamberg we would be outsized. However, we knew if we played team defense the way we have all season, we could make things difficult for any team. Philipp Herkenhoff, Mike, and Rob, all really stepped up for us in Round 1 and gave us everything they had.
There were so many highs and lows in game 4 in Bamberg. Never to take anything away from the incredible team play, at times it seemed like Bamberg didn’t want to win the game just with certain turnovers. Do you feel like mentally Bamberg had problems they couldn’t win in their own home?
Not at all. Bamberg was a Champions League Final 4 team and have players who have accomplished a lot at the highest levels of European basketball. They know what it takes to win and gave 100% all series. We’ve had three games against them come down to the wire. In two of them, Tyrese Rice was able to make a play to send it into overtime. In Game 4 we were able to get a stop and close them out.
How much fun has it become playing in Freak City now? Do you feel having these brutal playoff experiences in a tough environment helped the club in positive ways that could continue to help the overall toughness and survival rate as you now return to the Audi Dome in a series where you won’t have home court advantage?
Playing a club with the history of Bamberg is always special. I had heard plenty about Freak City before I got to Germany so seeing it up close was a great experience. Their fans were hostile but treated our team with nothing but respect. It was really a fun series to be a part of as a player. We know going to Munich won’t be easy. However, we have been able to have success on the road this year. We have to start this series with great energy and a defensive mindset. We’ll see how the ball bounces from there.
A big reason for the success of Rasta Vechta this season has been the style and press. It is something you have done all season long and no team has really found a cure for. When you look back at the first days of the season as the team was practicing their weapon did you ever think it would be so consistently valuable?
I can’t say I knew it would be as successful as it has been, but I knew we would be a problem for teams defensively. What Pedro has asked from us on the defensive end has been consistent all year. Everyone knows where they’re supposed to be because it has been the same concepts since day one. On top of that, when you have a great defender like Max DiLeo pressuring ball handlers, everything gets easier for everyone around him. In one of our first scrimmages of the season Max forced turnovers on three straight possessions just from hounding the ball handler. When you play with a guy like him, you don’t want to be the weak link. His passion and consistency brings the level of our entire team up.
Austin Hollins had another MVP game, was hitting crazy shots from left and right all night long. He also made the biggest play of the game stripping Tyrese Rice in the last seconds to secure the ball. How often have you had MVP in your thoughts this season when he made a play?
He is definitely one of the best players I’ve ever played with. His incredible shot-making makes things much easier for all of us. Teams have to pay such close attention to him when he’s coming off screens that he consistently opens up easy layups for his teammates. He’s a very smart cutter as well and is always finding ways to get open at exactly the right time. I’m even more impressed with him defensively though. Coach asked him to guard Tyrese Rice full-court for four games and he didn’t hesitate on taking that assignment. Off the ball, he has an incredible ability to jump into passing lanes and get steals. There aren’t many basketball players that can affect a game on both ends of the court like he can.
How tough was losing game two in Bamberg 102-98 in OT. That game looked like it took most of the teams energy. Did this tough loss spark something special in the club that helped them add extra strength to the game three and four wins?
It was a brutal loss. We fought so hard with our limited rotation only to go to overtime and come up short. However, we knew that it was only one loss in a best-of-five series so we had to regroup quickly. Our fans in the Rasta Dome gave us the boost we needed in Game 3 to help us get the upper hand back in the series.
What was the secret for Rasta Vechta being able to play with a 6-7 man roster against a deep athletic team like Brose Bamberg? I could have expected one game like that or maybe two, but never four. Do you feel sometimes that the will and heart of a player can block out serious body pain and help reach new unexpected heights?
It wasn’t really anything special other than our will to fight. We’ve been working hard since August and we weren’t about to stop because of some injuries. We had a depleted front-court but Philipp Herkenhoff, Robin Christen, and Chris Carter all stepped up huge and played a ton of great minutes for us. Philipp had huge double-doubles for us in Games 1 and 2. He was exhausted but still kept pushing hard and hit that huge 3 late in the fourth quarter of Game 4. Rob did a fantastic job on the boards until he got hurt making a difficult defensive rotation and put his body on the line. Chris Carter played completely out of position but battled and gave us 24 huge minutes in Game 3. He hadn’t played the 4 until the playoffs and learned the position completely on the fly. The 5 points he gave us at the end of the second quarter in Game 3 really set the tone for the rest of the series.
Rasta Vechta was without two vital big men Clint Chapman and Tyrone Nash, but Germans Philipp Herkenhoff and Michael Kessens were the x-factors. Please describe the worth to the team and what big step they made only in this series?
Philipp is young but he didn’t back down at all in the series. Those double-doubles were monster performances. He made big shots and battled defensively against guys who weigh many more kilos than he does. He’s going to be a very special player as he continues to grow into his body and develop. Nobody is in the gym more than Philipp. As far as Mike goes, we wouldn’t be here without him. Defensively, he’s incredible hedging against opposing guards. He’s great at seeing things develop and is the anchor at the back of our defensive system. Offensively, I’ve never played with a big man who has better footwork and patience than him. I know when I come off a pick and roll with Mike, I can give him a pass just about anywhere. He is always able to catch it, balance himself, and make the right play for our team.
After many years away from the BBL, Josh Young returned and had a great season. He was also a vital spark in the Bamberg series. How vital was he for you becoming comfortable to a new league early and what one thing did he help you most that made your life a lot easier?
20 minutes after the club announced I signed, JY reached out to me welcoming me to the team. He’s been a great leader for us the entire season. He has an ability to get guys to buy-in and create a family-like atmosphere. On court, he really helped lead this team by buying into his role coming off the bench and making shots. He’s carried us through some difficult stretches in games by knocking down tough, contested shots. His ability to take a 1,2 gather step before catching the ball to create space is amazing. He can get his shot off against anyone.
One of the biggest stories of the season has been head coach Pedro Calles. How do you feel did he grow in the Bamberg series? He took on a new challenge with a deflated line up and succeeded.
Nobody is more prepared than Pedro. After our last regular season game, we had a team meeting and Pedro laid out what we were going to have to do to beat Bamberg. And he was exactly right with the things he said. He’s great with the X’s and O’s but he’s an even better motivator. He’s very consistent with everything he asks from us and as long as we do those things, he let’s us be ourselves out there. It’s been a ton of fun playing for him with this group of guys.
Let’s talk about your game. The guy that first saw your worth was Ludwigsburg head coach John Patrick who already had you on his list in 2016, but an injury cost you your first experience there. Have you had contact to him this season and did you get a congrats message from him after beating Bamberg?
We said hello and shook hands at our games this season but haven’t had any contact outside of that. We’re both competitors so we’ve been focused on our own seasons.
You had some solid seasons as a professional, but never as you have this season. After your first few practices this season would you have thought that you could put up such massive stats like you have?
I knew right away Pedro’s system would be great for me. I’m a read and react player and that’s what Pedro allows us to do. We’ve been constantly finding new wrinkles in our offense that makes life easier for everyone.
You had a huge game two, but didn’t have to be such a scorer in the other games and concentrated more on playmaking. Has your decision making and separating when to score and pass been one of your biggest strengths this season?
I don’t really think about scoring vs. playmaking when I’m out there. I just try to read what the defense is giving me and make the best play for my team. Some nights that’s scoring, other nights it’s distributing the ball.
You more than doubled your assist average this season to all the other professional seasons. You once averaged 5,2apg at Princeton. It is amazing that your averaging 8,2apg while also scoring very much. It isn’t like your averaging 7 or 8 points per game but your scoring a lot and making a lot of assists. Was there something specific that has made you an elite assist man in the BBL or is this something you feel you could of always achieved with the right teammates and coaches?
Again, it comes back to Pedro’s system. We have some basic sets that we run but other than that we’re just reading and reacting. We’ve got a lot of smart players on this team so we’ve been able to get a lot of easy points. We’ve found different ways to score off back cuts and running hard in transition. I know that if I get guys the ball in the right spots, they’ll make a good play.
You play with so much confidence and calmness. Is this something that you always had or has this been something that grew this season with your leadership duties?
I’ve always tried to be an emotional rock for my teams. I never want to get too high or too low on the court. In every game, there are good runs and bad runs but you have to be focused on the entire 40-minute picture.
You led the team to an amazing playoff series win over Bamberg. How do you feel did you grow in this series as a player? How did your leadership and self-confidence profit most?
I knew this would be an important series for me as a player. Going up against guys like Tyrese Rice, Nikos Zisis, Bryce Taylor, and Ricky Hickman, is always special. They’ve collectively accomplished just about everything possible throughout their careers. Being able to win a series against them helped me recognize that this team can accomplish anything. People could write off our regular season win against them as a fluke but now we did it over an entire series.
You next play powerhouse FC Bayern Munich. How excited are you about the semi-finals series and does it feel like a David & Goliath
Series like this are why you play basketball. It’s going to be an awesome test for us and we’re going to continue to chase history. We’ve been the underdog all season so nothing changes now. We’ve got five games to continue to prove ourselves.
Rasta Vechta split the season series in the BBL 1-1. They are well rested and you had a tough taxing series against Bamberg. What kind of series can we await and will Rasta Vechta be able to keep up the intensity again?
Nothing will change from our side. We’re going to continue to battle, fight, and scrap, on every possession. We’ve got nothing to lose and we’re going to play like it.
What is your prediction of the 2019 NBA finals Golden State-Toronto Raptors? Can a Kawhi Leonard do some magic?
I’ll take the Warriors. 4-1.
What was the last movie that you saw?
Avengers: Endgame but I’m currently catching up on the TV show, Barry. That’s my go-to at the moment.
Thanks TJ for the chat.