The Wizards were in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons off the court last season. But on the court, and early in the season, one thing became crystal clear—the Wizards didn’t have the wing depth necessary in today’s NBA nor did they have the athletic frontline it takes to be a true contender.
Unsurprisingly, the debate of whether the Wizards needed to acquire another wing or a young and athletic big man was a season-long debate which spilled over to draft night. After drafting Troy Brown Jr. to sure up the wing position and trading away Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers, the Wizards still found themselves lacking a young, athletic big man.
The Wizards took a step toward addressing the issue on July 2nd when the Wizards claimed Thomas Bryant after the Lakers waived him to clear space for their summer moves.
Sources: The Washington Wizards have claimed former Lakers forward Thomas Bryant off waivers.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) July 2, 2018
To understand what the Wizards now have in Bryant, it’s important to understand his backstory.
In 2015, there was a huge recruiting battle brewing in upstate New York. Bryant, a top-20 recruit and the fourth-best center prospect in the country had narrowed his collegiate options down to two schools—Syracuse and Indiana. ‘Cuse fans thought they had the inside track to land Bryant since he played in Rochester, New York, but he changed his mind at the eleventh hour to sign with Indiana University, much to the delight of the maniacal, Hoosier faithful.
Bryant was a wrecking-ball from day one. His motor combined with the fact that he was fairly skilled for a 6-10 big man made him a fan favorite. Playing alongside future NBA players Kevin ‘Yogi’ Ferrell and Troy Williams his freshman year gave him the spacing he needed to dominate, and boy did he.
As a traditional back to the basket center, it didn’t take long for Bryant to get acclimated to the collegiate game as he connected on 16 of his first 20 field goal attempts to begin his career as a Hoosier. Playing in somewhat of a European-styled offense, Bryant often found himself as the sole big man on the floor. This gave him plenty of space and often put him in favorable one-on-one match-ups close to the hole.
Bryant steamrolled his way to a freshman-record 68.3 percent shooting that season and skyrocketed his way into the top-20 on some draft boards for the 2016 NBA draft. But after a crushing loss to the eventual champion North Carolina Tar Heels in the Sweet 16, he surprised many by choosing to return to Bloomington. During IU’s first possession in the first game of the 2016-2017 season, it became crystal clear why the big man returned.
Indiana ran a weave at the top of the key resulting in a wide-open three-point attempt for Bryant and he drilled it. It didn’t take long for him to assert himself as one of the best outside shooting big men in the nation after almost exclusively living in the paint his freshman year.
His field goal percentage dipped significantly his sophomore season from 68.3 percent to 51.9 percent but that was because he was spending a lot more time away from the basket trying to prove to NBA scouts that he could knock down his jumper. After putting up somewhat similar statistics and proving he could knock down a jumper with some consistency, he bolted for the NBA.
The Lakers selected him with the 42nd overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Like most second rounders, he needed some seasoning. Bryant spent most of the 2017-2018 season with the Lakers’ G-League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers, where he’d earn All-NBA G-League First Team honors. He averaged 19.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game on 59 percent shooting including 36 percent from three-point range with South Bay.
Recently, I spoke with Harrison Faigen of the Silver Screen & Roll, SB Nation’s Lakers blog, about why Bryant was so successful in his one year in the G-League. He said: “the biggest thing that made him so dominant was the fact that he has a smooth stroke from deep. His shot looks as natural as most guards’ jumpers, and that fluidity and quickness were a huge help from him. He’s also a solid screen setter and screen slipper who rolls hard to the basket and can space teams out with the aforementioned jumper.”
Washington fans got their first glimpse of Bryant in Las Vegas this summer and he didn’t disappoint. After a tough Game 1 that was hard on everyone’s eyes to watch, Bryant shook off the cobwebs to the tune of a 20-point showing (on 9-of-11 shooting) to go along with 7 rebounds in Game 2 of the Summer League. Bryant’s shooting touch, ability to finish in transition, and his relentless motor, showed that the Wizards might indeed have a very nice prospect up their sleeve. Faigen said, “He’s a legit prospect, and I’m still confused as to why the Lakers cut him.”
After strong Game 3 and Game 5 performances, it was clear that Bryant, at the very least would have a fighter’s chance to earn himself some minutes with the varsity squad. Faigen reiterated: “Bryant still has a long way to go defensively—as most rookies do—but on offense he looks like he could be the prototypical modern center. If not an NBA starter, he at least would seem almost a lock to be a long-time backup.”
Yes, Bryant is still raw and could use some more reps, but he has many of the skill-sets that the Wizards currently lack. He’s a young and athletic big man, who can shoot threes but also has no problems doing the dirty work. What’s most impressive is that Bryant was able to reinvent his game completely from a traditional back-to-the-basket center to a modern-day center in just three seasons.
One thing is clear, the Wizards have an opportunity to mold a 21-year-old big man into a potential rotational player for the foreseeable future, and address a gap that’s long needed to be filled. We’ll have to wait and see if the Wizards are patient enough to let him learn through mistakes in a season where they need to correct their course as a franchise.