Last season, scrap-heap big man Thomas Bryant took advantage of unexpected playing time to post a breakout season and establish himself as the Wizards’ center of the future. A season later, Bryant has improved in some areas, and while additional opportunity and responsibility may be muting his overall production, the team should maintain focus on helping him continue to add dimension to his game.
That Bryant was even available to the Wizards last offseason is borderline inexplicable. As a second round pick, he was making the league minimum, and his enthusiasm and work ethic were and are two of his best attributes. Everyone associated with the Wizards has been happy to talk about Thomas’ insatiable desire to improve — and conversations with individuals within the Lakers organization follow the same pattern. Yet, the Lakers released him anyway.
As an aside, the Wizards are the double beneficiaries of the Lakers giving up on young big men with potential. A year after cutting Bryant, Los Angeles dumped Moritz Wagner on Washington to acquire Anthony Davis. The Wagner decision made a lot more sense than waiving Bryant — Davis is one of the best players on the planet. While the Lakers are surely happy with Davis, Wagner is showing signs of developing into a bona fide rotation big man.
In his breakout 2018-19 campaign, Bryant’s production strengths were extremely efficient scoring (especially around the basket), steady improvement in setting screens, and solid rebounding. His defense was poor, which is normal for young big men.
This season, those strengths remain. His at-rim FG% is down from an other-worldly 82.0% to a merely terrific 75.8%. His rebounding has improved slightly to just over 15 boards per 100 team possessions. His turnovers are up as his offensive responsibility has increased (usage rate went from 17.8% to 20.3% so far this season), but his assists are up as well.
Bryant’s defensive awareness is significantly improved this season. His blocks and steals are up and he’s fouling less. These are good indicators that he’s learning how to be an effective NBA defender and that he’s in the right place more often than he was last year. This is functionally his second season, and there’s still much for him to learn.
The team’s defense has been downright terrible when he’s been on the floor this season, but the on/off numbers are polluted by the presence of Isaiah Thomas (37% of Bryant’s minutes have been with Thomas so far) who is the least effective NBA defender I’ve ever seen. The defense part of my overall rating metric, Player Production Average, indicates Bryant is a net positive on the defensive end, despite the horrific on/off number. When this sort of mismatch has happened in the past, the on/off stat has improved. In other words, Bryant is better on defense this season, even if it’s not showing in the on/off numbers yet.
On offense, the biggest reason for Bryant’s drop in efficiency is the change in his shot profile. Last season, 51% of Bryant’s field goal attempts were at-rim (within three feet of the basket) and 65.5% were from 10 feet or closer. This was — and still is this season — where Bryant is most accurate. But, this season just 37.5% of his attempts are at-rim, and 51.1% are from within 10 feet.
While this shift in shot profile is diminishing Bryant’s production in the short term, it may be useful as a developmental tool. Bryant has good shooting ability (he’s at 77.2% on free throws for his career), and will create space and draw opposing bigs away from the basket as he establishes his ability to hit from the perimeter.
The coaching staff would be smart to have Bryant cut down on longer two-point attempts, which have been 21.7% of his attempts so far this season. But, in general Bryant should be encouraged to add dimension to his game while winning isn’t the team’s primary goal. When the franchise refocuses on competing, Bryant’s role can be tweaked to what he does best.