Akshar Agarwal (Inline by Lukas Flippo and McCormack)

Like most Yale students, Jordan Bruner ’20 is back home — spending time in South Carolina after his senior season and senior year both abruptly ended. But as most of the country hibernates, hunting for shows to watch and socially distant ways to safely pass the time, the Yale men’s basketball forward has been busy.

Over the past week and a half, his phone has barely stopped vibrating, lighting up with texts and calls from coaching staffs around the country. Research he wants to do on potential future destinations is piling up. Decisions about his basketball future, whether professional or collegiate, await.

Less than 24 hours after the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament officially ended Bruner’s career in New Haven, the 6-foot-9 senior announced on March 13 his intent to declare for the 2020 NBA Draft. But as the coronavirus pandemic forced the subsequent cancellation of many pre-draft scouting events, Bruner began mulling life as a graduate transfer.

Although remaining in the draft is still an option, he officially entered his name into the transfer portal on March 18.

“After I declared, later that day they canceled the Portsmouth Invitational, which was going to be my exposure event,” Bruner said. “There were a lot of games I was supposed to go play in that would have helped my stock and allowed people to see me. Canceling all the things where people would’ve seen me, it made it kind of tough. Just having a backup plan, trying to figure out what the best thing was for my future — that’s why I put my name in the portal.”

 

The 2020 All-Ivy First Team selection missed his entire sophomore year at Yale after suffering a torn meniscus in a closed preseason scrimmage, giving him a year of immediate eligibility he can now claim at another school after graduating in May. The Ivy League does not grant medical redshirts or permit graduate students to participate in athletics.

Interest in Bruner has been immense, originating from some of college basketball’s most successful programs. ESPN ranks him the third-best graduate transfer in the country on a list filled with soon-to-be Ivy League graduates. Harvard’s Seth Towns, who committed to Ohio State, and Bryce Aiken claim the top two spots, while Columbia guard Mike Smith ranks fourth. Ninth-ranked Lion forward Patrick Tape will play at Duke next season, while a pair of three-point threats in Penn guard Ryan Betley and Dartmouth guard Brendan Barry round out the top 15.

On the night he entered the transfer portal, Bruner said he officially listed his name around 8:30 p.m. He barely got a minute to put his phone down. By 11:30 p.m., 25 different schools had reached out.

 

“I actually stopped answering calls just so coaches could text me and I could save numbers so I could know who was who,” Bruner said. “I would be on the phone, and my phone would beep three separate times for three other calls and my phone would just be vibrating the whole time. It was a lot.”

As the week progressed, the calls practically came from everywhere. Stockrisers.com reported that assistants from Duke and Kansas reached out and the list soon included the likes of Boston College, Butler, DePaul, Georgetown, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, USC, UConn, Xavier, Wichita State and more. In total, he told the News coaches from a little over 50 schools contacted him before he trimmed his long list of suitors to just six last Friday night. Alabama, Arkansas, Baylor, Gonzaga, Louisville and Maryland remain his final options.

Bruner said Georgetown was probably the most interested school to not make the final cut and Virginia Tech also showed significant interest. Born in Oklahoma City, he moved to South Carolina at the age of 11.

 

When he trimmed the list, he said he first tried to differentiate schools that had a true need for him and others that had expressed interest or a want. He prioritized programs where he felt he could win immediately and said he also valued playing for a coach with a winning culture. Finally, he considered how he would mesh with their roster. If he decides not to remain in the draft this spring, earning significant playing time would benefit Bruner by helping him gain national exposure as a graduate transfer.

“It’s weird,” he said a few hours after naming his final list. “Everyone says we don’t have a guy like you … It’s mostly not a pitch. It’s usually a, ‘You could really help us, and we feel like we could really help you.’”

In many ways, Bruner is a unique big man — a long defender who can grab a defensive rebound before pushing the ball on the fast break, morphing from a power forward to a point guard before placing an assist or pulling up from beyond the arc. He nearly averaged a double-double this past season, scoring 10.7 points a game and leading the Ivy League with 9.1 rebounds per contest. His 3.6 assists a game ranked fourth in the Ancient Eight.

The versatility helped him record Yale’s first triple-double in school history at Cornell in February.

 

“You know, last year was Jordan’s first year being healthy too,” head coach James Jones said on Senior Night later that month. “It’s one of those things. I knew he was gonna have a triple double at some point, and I’m glad he did it at Cornell because we needed every single one of them.”

As a first year at Yale, a sprained ACL sidelined him for the first four games of his career, and he tore his meniscus again in a postseason workout following the season. Yale named the economics major its Comeback Player of the Year as a junior and Bruner only missed two games this past season as a senior.

After hurting his knee in a hard-fought battle with Harvard, he sat against Dartmouth the next night but was a vocal presence on the bench.

“He’s had bad injury luck and it can be easy for him to get down on himself and kind of just take the day off, but he took the next step up as a teammate today,” 2019–20 captain and guard Eric Monroe ’20 said after securing an 18-point win that night. “[It] just speaks to how we work with each other as a group.”

 

Recent Elis with extra years of eligibility, Noah Yates ’18 and Makai Mason ’18, have ended up at Richmond and Baylor, respectively. Mason was the first graduate transfer in Baylor program history and he started all 28 games for the Bears, leading the team with 14.9 points a game over the course of the 2018–19 season.

Many projected Baylor to be a No. 1 seed in this season’s canceled NCAA Tournament. Along with Gonzaga, Louisville and Maryland, the Bears are one of four teams on Bruner’s final list to rank top-15 in the season-ending AP Top 25 poll. Bruner said he has talked to Mason often.

“Whatever he has to say about Baylor or any other programs that he dealt with going through [the graduate transfer process], I take his word for it because Makai’s a very straightforward person,” Bruner said. “He told me a little about the program, the coaches, how it was in his time there, and that’s the main thing we talked about.”

 

As Bruner considers next steps, several unknowns complicate his decision. He cannot currently take visits to any schools, and the status of pre-draft workouts, the NBA Draft combine and the draft itself remain uncertain.

But he continues to do his research, watching old game film, gauging his comfort with coaching staffs and gathering as much information as he can.

“If I’m going to make an investment, especially one as big as this one — this is my life we’re talking about and my career — I’m going to do my due diligence to make sure that I end up in the best possible situation.”

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu