Thomas Bryant came to the Wizards before the 2018-19 NBA season as an afterthought. He was a second-year center claimed off waivers by the Wizards after being cut by the Los Angeles Lakers. When he arrived, Bryant expected to slot somewhere behind Dwight Howard, Ian Mahinmi, and Markieff Morris on the depth chart. He didn’t see much playing time for the first month of the season, racking up ten DNPs.
But Bryant had a classic NBA Cinderella story: All he needed was a little bit of opportunity, and he quickly proved himself worthy of minutes. And that is what happened when Howard suffered injuries and Mahinmi fell out of favor.
In a nutshell, Bryant provided an energetic inside scoring presence and the warming hearts of Wizards fans everywhere!
Bryant spent his first season with the Washington Wizards shooting very, very efficiently around the basket. On any given game this can go unnoticed — we expect big men to make shots at the rim. A full quarter of his shot attempts were dunks, and the vast majority of his shots were assisted. He was a frequent beneficiary of Bradley Beal getting double teamed.
But when you zoom out and look at the entire season, Bryant’s consistent efficiency is remarkable: He led the league in two-point percentage at 69 percent. He’s a good finisher and he has a pretty hook shot, he also has the awareness to know where he needs to be at all times and the hustle to get to his spots. He will never miss the opportunity to take a good shot because he didn’t sprint down the floor in transition or roll hard after setting a pick.
Bryant is excellent at calibrating his aggressiveness to the opposing team’s strategy. It’s rare for anyone to say that Bryant is pushing or trying to do too much, but when he sees an advantage he takes it. He scored 15 or more points 17 times, with a season true shooting percentage of 67 percent and an offensive rating of 130.
The young center had a “coming out party” on Dec. 22 against the Phoenix Suns, where he scored 31 points shooting a perfect 14-of-14 from the floor, the most field goals made by a player without a miss since Gary Payton (SENIOR) 24 years prior. Bryant understands what he is good at, and he does those things with exuberance and energy. He rarely strays far outside of his limits.
He has also shown some comfort behind the three-point line, making 33 percent of his 1.4 attempts per game. It’s not a tool Bryant needs to stick around in the NBA, but it gives him a degree of versatility that sets him apart in a league that treats role player centers as expendable.
Bryant is one of those unexpected success stories that Wizards fans have long thought happened to other teams, but not theirs — a young player overlooked by another team who proved to be a valuable role player. He quickly captured the heart of the fan base by playing well and playing within himself, even as the Titanic sunk around him. He even did his part to keep the Washington Wizards-Kelly Olynyk feud going. (it’s still to be determined if Bryant will get an Academy Award for his efforts).
Where he needs to improve: Rebounding and defense
For a 6’11 player with a 7’2 wingspan who spends most of his time near the rim, Bryant is underwhelming as a rebounder, ranking outside of the top 30 in rebounds per 100 possessions and rebound percentage. He had a few stellar rebounding performances, those were exceptions rather than the rule. The problem seems to be more about awareness than ability; some players have a nose for where the ball will bounce, but Bryant seems to lack that instinct.
The area where his future team will probably hope he makes the biggest gains is defense. Bryant has shown some potential as a team defender, but he is not likely to ever be the centerpiece of a defense. But while he makes plenty of errors defensively, Bryant is not excessively mistake-prone for a second-year player and improvement is more likely than not. There is no reason to think that as he gains experience he can’t be a functional cog in a healthy defensive machine.
There are other areas where Bryant could grow. As a screener, he is good but not great. As a passer, he is perfectly adequate but developing that aspect of his game would be helpful as defenses learn to pay more attention to him. He does not have much of an isolation game, though there aren’t many situations where his team will miss it. But these things are gravy.
Bryant is a restricted free agent. And in recent years teams have not been willing to pay top dollar for centers. This should leave the Wizards in the driver’s seat during contract negotiations with Bryant.
The Wizards should feel good about re-signing Bryant for something in the $5-7 million dollar per year range. Keeping Bryant is unlikely to make or break the franchise’s future, but a 21-year old coming off a sophomore season that exceeded all expectations is exactly the sort of player a team in Washington’s position should be willing to spend a little to keep.